The massive tent encampments and dilapidated RVs lining neighborhood streets make it clear there’s a problem, but according to a new report, the Bay Area’s homelessness crisis is even worse than previously thought.
An estimated 25,951 people were living without homes in the Bay Area last year, researchers with housing and real estate website Zillow calculated in a report released Tuesday. That’s over 6,000 more than were officially counted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Zillow analysts built algorithms that took into account cities’ populations, poverty rates, rent affordability and other metrics, and calculated by how much the official counts were likely to be off. The company hopes the new numbers can give struggling cities a more realistic picture of homelessness in their communities, and help them come up with better solutions.
“To really get the scope of this problem, having more accurate numbers is important — to really justify that this is an issue that deserves attention,” said Skylar Olsen, director of economic research and outreach for Zillow.
Homelessness experts have long agreed that the HUD-mandated “Point-in-Time” homeless counts — which rely on volunteers and city and county staff performing a visual count of homeless residents every two years — under counted communities’ homeless residents.
“Just think about the sheer logistical challenge of counting a population which is transitory, possibly moving around, and could have every incentive to hide themselves,” Olsen said.
Zillow estimates there were 10,121 homeless residents living in Santa Clara County last year — up from the 7,394 counted by the HUD census. In Alameda County, Zillow estimated there were 6,975 homeless — compared to 5,629 counted by HUD. And in San Francisco, Zillow estimated a homeless population of 8,855 — up from the 6,858 counted by HUD.
“It’s no secret that people doing work in these communities know that the point-in-time count has been a continuous undercount — the methodology is reflective of one night in a year, not the ongoing need,” said Jennifer Loving, CEO of Santa Clara County nonprofit Destination: Home. “I think the real question is: when will the Bay Area realize that we have an extraordinary crisis for folks who need … extremely low-income housing, and when will we collectively respond?”
In September alone, 333 new households came to Destination: Home seeking help finding shelter or paying rent, but housing was available for just 132 of them. That means 201 families fell through the cracks in just one month — possibly adding to the region’s homeless population, Loving said. She urged the Bay Area to invest more money in homelessness prevention, and to prioritize building low-income housing.