Homelessness in Contra Costa Jumps More Than 40% Since 2017

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A homeless encampment near an overpass in Contra Costa County, on Jan. 26, 2017. (Eric Kayne/KQED)

Contra Costa County's homeless population increased by a whopping 43% over the last two years.

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That's according to the preliminary results of a January Point-in-Time homeless count, a federally mandated biennial tally conducted during a single night. Survey volunteers dispatched across the county identified nearly 2,300 homeless people, an increase of almost 700 since the last official count in January 2017. In that count, the total homeless population had decreased by more 400 since the previous count in 2015.

This year's findings are consistent with those in several nearby counties, including Alameda and Santa Clara, which also reported significant increases in homelessness, a bleak indication of the Bay Area's housing affordability and displacement crisis.

"What our communities really need is housing," said Jaime Jenett, a planning manager with Contra Costa Health Services, noting that across California, rents have skyrocketed while wages for many lower-income residents have largely stagnated.

"They need affordable housing that is really targeted to low- and very low-income folks," she said. "A lot of the quote-unquote affordable housing is just completely out of reach for the people that we're working with."

Despite the striking rate of increase, the size of Contra Costa's homeless population is still a fraction of that in neighboring Alameda County, where roughly 8,000 homeless people were counted in January.

Jenett also noted that unlike most other counties, Contra Costa independently conducts off-year homeless counts. The county found that the homeless population spiked between 2017 and 2018, but decreased considerably last year — an indication, she said, of more concerted prevention efforts.

"In our community, we've really done a lot of work in the last year to increase capacity," Jenett said, pointing to an increase in housing navigation services, a new county housing security fund and additional specialized homeless outreach teams.

Nonetheless, the findings are still sobering. The data show a relatively equal distribution of homeless people throughout the county, 70% of whom are in "unsheltered" conditions, which include cars and RVs without hookups. While most homeless are between 18 and 54 years old, there is a disturbing uptick in the number of older adults without homes, Jenett said.

Meanwhile, the county's shelter system only has the capacity to accommodate less than a third of all unsheltered single adults, the report found. Jenett said her department is scrambling to open new shelters and facilities to meet the immediate need, but the effort has proved surprisingly costly and been subject to community approval hurdles.

Ultimately, Jenett said, it is permanent housing options, not just shelters, that are needed to address the problem.

While Contra Costa County is starting to put more resources into addressing housing needs, she said, it still hasn't committed nearly as much funding as some other Bay Area counties to efforts like supportive housing programs, which combine housing and rehabilitation services for some of the most vulnerable homeless populations.

"I think there could be more that's happening," Jenett said.

The county plans to release the final results of the survey, including more detailed geographic and demographic information, in June.