Volunteers conducted the PIT homeless count in Berkeley on Feb. 23, 2021. People’s Park was one of the locations that they visited. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

In the last three years, the number of homeless people living in Berkeley dropped about 5% to 1,057, even as the homeless population rose 22% in Alameda County over the same period, according to initial data from a new report.

It’s the first time in recent history that overall numbers went down in Berkeley.

While the homeless population across Alameda County increased to 9,747 people from 2019, the rate of growth of the problem is slowing countywide. Each year from 2017 to 2019, the county’s homeless population grew by as much as it did in the three years between 2019 and 2022.

Things are better than what some in the homeless community feared. Thanks to COVID-19 emergency funding, “we’ve been able to stave off a catastrophic increase,” said Tomiquia Moss, CEO of All Home, a Bay Area homelessness nonprofit, at a press conference Monday morning.

The new numbers are the result of the long-awaited 2022 “point-in-time” homeless count, or PIT count, conducted by the nonprofit EveryOne Home.

Every two years, counties across the U.S. send out volunteers to tally how many unhoused people are living on the streets on one winter night. Shelter staff count their residents as well. The PIT count is required to access federal funds and is considered the most accurate source of local homelessness data, but it’s an estimate. Volunteers who conduct the census may not find a homeless resident who is living out of sight, or at a temporary indoor location like a friend’s home the morning of the count.

The pandemic prompted a year-long delay of the 2021 count, forcing officials and service providers to continue relying on outdated numbers, and leaving many people with questions about the impact of the crisis on the region’s most marginalized residents. 

In 2019, the one-day homeless count found 1,108 people living in the streets, tents, vehicles and shelters of Berkeley. This year's count was conducted on Feb. 23, 2022, and recorded 51 fewer people — compared to the 13% increase that volunteers, service providers and shelters found after the last count.

The count distinguishes between homeless people living in a shelter and those who are unsheltered. Both categories of the population dropped, with 803 people considered "unsheltered" and 254 people in shelters. The number of people living in shelters dropped 14%. Among unsheltered people, the number living in tents rose 70%, the number living in vehicles rose 26%, the number living in RVs dropped 57% and the number living on the street dropped 53%.

Figures in the initial data from the homelessness count show that people who live in tents and vehicles in Berkeley have increased since 2019, though other categories have dropped. Credit: Everyone Home

Complete, detailed demographic data will be available later this summer, but initial numbers show that Black residents are still disproportionately impacted by homelessness in Berkeley and throughout the county, and over half of homeless people in the city are considered "chronically homeless," meaning they've been without permanent housing for at least a year.

The number of chronically homeless veterans has also increased across the county, according to the initial report.

Local officials and homelessness workers said the regional numbers — though they present a dismal picture of nearly 10,000 homeless people in Alameda County, with over 5,000 people homeless in Oakland alone — are actually a sign that local and federal investment in housing retention and services during the pandemic were successful.

This included strong eviction protections, federal housing vouchers for homeless residents and state-supported programs that offered temporary housing, like Project Roomkey, and converted hotels into permanent housing, like Homekey.

Many people had expected to see a drastic increase in homelessness statistics due to COVID-19, but the increase was significantly lower than years prior, even with widely reported job loss, financial and housing insecurity. And during this time, over 70% of the 2,000 people who passed through Project Roomkey countywide ended up in permanent housing, according to Kerry Abbott, director of the county office of homeless care and coordination.

Sustained, regional funding needed to prevent 'exponential' increases in homelessness, leaders say

Mayor Jesse Arreguín attributed Berkeley's drop in numbers to Measure P, approved by voters in 2018, which put about $15 million toward homelessness services. That included the West Berkeley Grayson homeless shelter that opened last summer and is set to close this fall and funding for Project Homekey, which will open a program with additional state funding at the Golden Bear Inn in West Berkeley.

"Despite these successes, there is much more work to be done," Arreguín added in a statement. "Countywide, homelessness has gone up 22%, showing that we need a regional approach to truly make a difference."

As cities begin to shift out of emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic, homeless service providers are pushing to maintain federal, state and local funding for programs that they say have kept people off the street and moved them into more permanent housing.

Moss, who coordinates the regional response to homelessness throughout the Bay Area, says the Bay Area needs to focus on root causes of homelessness — such as structural racism and the lack of affordable housing — in order to solve the crisis.

"Regions where investments have been made in [homelessness] prevention and emergency housing have really worked, we actually know how to address this challenge," Moss said. "This is not guesswork."

The complete report due this summer will provide more information from surveys of homeless residents, including data on circumstances that led to losing housing, mental health, further demographic data and information on families and children who are homeless in Alameda County.

The Oaklandside reporter Natalie Orenstein contributed reporting to this story.

Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...