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Homeless Survey Totals Provoke Hope, Surprise

Friday November 07, 2003

There are fewer homeless people in Berkeley than previously believed, according to initial findings released Thursday from an Alameda County homeless survey. 

The survey—billed as the largest ever conducted in the United States—counted 835 homeless in Berkeley and 6,215 countywide. Previous estimates based on the 1990 census had between 1,000 and 1,2000 homeless in Berkeley and between 9,000 and 12,000 countywide. 

Researchers cautioned that the figures are only a snapshot and that during the course of a year, homeless ranks can double or triple. 

“This is good news,” said Megan Shatz, survey coordinator for the Alameda County-Wide Homeless Continuum of Care Council. She attributed the countywide decrease to the construction over the past decade of more than 4,000 beds designed either as permanent or transitional housing for the homeless. 

The eight-month survey cost $241,000—funded by public and private donations—and sent 155 trained community volunteers into 54 of the county’s 473 homeless service centers between January and August to interview 1,461 patrons. 

Interviewers read from a 43-page questionnaire, asking about a range of topics, including employment, substance abuse, income, criminal history and education level—all geared to provide a better understanding of the needs and backgrounds of the county’s homeless. 

One question not included in the survey was where the homeless person had lived before turning to the streets—always a controversial issue in Berkeley, where some attribute the large homeless population to migrants who utilize the city’s expansive array of homeless services. 

Researchers released only broad demographic data Thursday, saying that the analysis of findings from the personal questions won’t be completed until March. 

The survey found that 80.5 percent of Berkeley’s homeless are men, with 46 percent between the ages of 35 and 44 and 96 percent between the ages of 25 and 64. Fifty-five percent are white and 31 percent African American. 

By comparison, males comprised only 53 percent of the county’s homeless population, comprising 56 percent of Oakland’s homeless but only 30 percent in southern and eastern cities. 

Since most of Berkeley’s homeless are single men, the city has far fewer homeless children: six percent of the overall homeless population, compared to 28 percent countywide. 

The survey also revealed that one in five of the county’s homeless—twice the national rate—are classified as chronically homeless, meaning they are single, physically or mentally disabled, and have been homeless for more than a year. 

Berkeley homeless advocates split over the accuracy of the figures, with many insisting that homeless youth—listed as just 0.5 percent of the overall population in the report—had been undercounted. 

“That number is ridiculous,” said Berkeley attorney Osha Neumann, a volunteer who assists homeless youth. “A lot of the kids don’t use the services,” he added. 

Shantz conceded the point, acknowledging that more research is needed to accurately gauge their numbers. 

“Our methodology was based on going to service sites,” she said. “If youth don’t use them, they’re not going to be counted. 

Berkeley homeless advocate Michael Diehl, who conducted some of the interviews, thought the overall Berkeley tally seemed accurate, but suspected that African Americans may have been undercounted.  

He said his experience suggested that African Americans were less likely to agree to be interviewed—and when they did, were likely to give more guarded answers. “There’s a lot of distrust among black homeless when it comes to the white establishment and it’s hard to get around that.” 

City Housing Director Stephen Barton said the preliminary findings suggested that Berkeley was “on the right track” by reorienting services to the most troubled homeless and combining social services with housing assistance. 

The city spends about $1.2 million—three quarters of its homeless budget—on maintaining 250 emergency shelter beds as well as emergency support services such as meals, showers and drop-in centers. The city and its partnered homeless organizations also receive federal grants to reduce homelessness, money which has funded 93 units of transitional housing and 318 units of permanent supportive housing—160 for homeless with disabilities and 158 for homeless with mental illness or substance abuse problems.  

New transitional housing for homeless families is slated to open in 2005 when local nonprofit Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency (BOSS) is scheduled to complete the first phase its expanded Harrison Street shelter. 

Since the early 90s, Alameda County has added 1,692 transitional beds and 2,311 permanent supportive housing beds. Roughly 400 new permanent housing beds are scheduled to open during 2004, Shantz said. 

Surveyors asked respondents which services they had used the past week, their last name and the last four digits of their Social Security number. Researchers then worked backwards through all 473 homeless service agencies, collecting attendance data to eliminate double counts. Anyone who reported sleeping outside their home—whether in a shelter, their car, or a friend’s house—was classified as homeless. 

Countywide, they found that approximately 4,025 marginally homeless people utilized services like soup kitchens. 

Homeless advocates feared that the “good news” could turn sour if local and federal agencies determined that homelessness was on the decline. “As someone who advocates for the great need of [the homeless], I have to be a little concerned about that,” Diehl said. 

But Jane Micallef, community services specialist in the Berkeley Housing Department, said more precise data should help the city and county “to get new resources. 

“I think this is cause for optimism,” she said. “This shows we are getting somewhere. We now know that providing services work and the call is now to augment services to not just manage homelessness, but to end it.”