Volunteers Help Count San Mateo County's Homeless

1 min
There's an app for this, too. Automating data collection for the annual homeless census allows counties to send the information to the U.S. Department of Housing sooner rather than later. (Zoe Schiffer/KQED)

On Thursday, 300 volunteers across San Mateo County came out in the rain—arriving at 5 a.m. at places like Safe Harbor House in South San Francisco—to help put together this year's point-in-time homeless count.

Volunteers were divided into groups, and spent the day walking and driving along U.S. Census tracts, taking care not to disturb people who appeared to be sleeping. The goal was simply to count the individuals supine on the streets, underestimating if the number of people seemed unclear from a distance.

If volunteers found someone awake and willing to talk, they were allowed ask a series of survey questions, aimed at understanding how the homeless people became homeless, and what they might need to get housed.

While the individuals counted in these surveys stay anonymous, the information gathered is used to determine the resources that San Mateo County receives to help with homeless services, and to aid the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in developing a clear, data-driven snapshot of the national population. The report from the 2019 count will come out later this year—likely in June.

I set out to learn about the process with Melissa Liotti, a case worker at the non-profit Abode Services, and Ed Kiryczun of San Mateo County's Human Services Agency.

Ed Kirycuzuno of San Mateo County’s Veterans Services Office on the 2019 point-in-time homeless count.
Ed Kiryczun of San Mateo County’s Human Services Agency on the 2019 point-in-time homeless count.

“Understanding the population is the first step to helping the population,” said Kirycuzuno, a veteran himself.

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For awhile, we don't see anyone as we walk along the rain-soaked residential streets in South San Francisco. Then we arrive at Airport Boulevard, where we meet two men who had sought shelter on the doorstep of an office building. One tells us he became homeless two years ago, but previously owned his own business.

Another man we met during this year’s count said he stayed in his RV for three years before the city took it away.

“As the housing crisis increases, I see middle class folks who got sick, and now they’re homeless,” said Liotti, who helps people transition from homelessness to housing. “It can be intimidating."

There are many reasons why people become homeless initially, and many more why they stay homeless. But if there's one hardship tying all their experiences together, it's the high cost of housing in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Once a person drops out of the rental market, getting back in can be close to impossible, according to Nicole Pollack, Director of the County’s Human Services.

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“The cost of housing in San Mateo County, the availability of affordable housing opportunities, and then finding landlords who are willing to accept housing vouchers... are our three biggest challenges locally,” she said.

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