After canceling the homeless count in 2021, Santa Clara County is looking for volunteers to help gather census data later this month.
The biennial count is critical for understanding the homelessness crisis and identifying the needs of people on the streets. The county opted to defer the 2021 count due to COVID-19. Advocates said the lack of information has left the region without a clear picture of how bad the pandemic has exacerbated the crisis.
"There's a pressure for us to do this right this year," said Shaunn Cartwright, an unhoused advocate and founder of Unhoused Response Group. "We need to count every person, every tent and every car."
Cartwright has spent the pandemic aiding camps that have grown in size and visibility across the county. She met new people, and families, on each visit.
The tally, which involves volunteers scouring streets, tents and underpasses to physically count unhoused residents, is part of a federal requirement for Santa Clara County to receive funding. The numbers also help inform local lawmakers on how to best offer services.
The county has scheduled this year's count on Jan. 19 and 20. Volunteers need to be vaccinated and are encouraged to sign up in groups to prevent spreading the new COVID variant.
Applied Survey Research, a consultant company, will manage the census and produce a report that will be published later this year.
The last "point-in-time" census happened in 2019, where the number of homeless residents jumped 31% compared to the 2017 count -- from 7,394 people to 9,706. San Jose saw an increase of 42% over the same period.
Those who're experiencing homelessness are skeptical about the count.
"I don't know how they'll get an accurate count," Scott Largent, a homeless advocate who lives in an RV near the Spring and Hedding streets encampment, told San Jose Spotlight. "People have been pushed in different directions because of the sweeps, and they are going deeper and deeper into areas where they can't be found."
Local lawmakers have raced to find solutions to what San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo called the "city's greatest failure."
Cities are looking to provide more interim housing through motel and hotel rooms and prefabricated modular homes, while advocates are pushing the county to open its fairgrounds for unhoused residents. In September, San Jose unveiled an ambitious goal of reducing homelessness by 20% by next year. Santa Clara County also has a plan to end homelessness by 2025, but those plans have drawn skepticism from those who have waited years and seen little results.
While it's unclear how many people have fallen into homelessness since 2019, both Cartwright and Largent said the number will be exponentially higher.
"I think we're going to see more seniors, families and first-time homeless in this count," Cartwright said.
Homeless deaths reached a new high in Santa Clara County last year, where 250 people on the streets lost their lives. More than 140 of those deaths were seniors, signaling a "silver tsunami," Cartwright said.
John Connery, who's leading the census effort for Applied Survey Research, said at a community meeting in December that the group is working with local schools to connect with families and college students on the streets -- groups that have been undercounted in the past. Connery didn't respond to an inquiry about the census.
This story was originally published by San Jose Spotlight.