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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Sonoma County Homeless Census 2009

Sonoma County Homeless Census

By Jenny Abramson
The Sonoma County 2009 Homeless Census and was conducted in two parts, which differed significantly from previous counts in 2005 and 2007. The first part, a census of homeless individuals and families, was undertaken on January 23rd, 2009. The second part was a survey of 600 homeless people. The new methodology is superior in terms of numerical accuracy of the census and the value of the qualitative information obtained from survey respondents.

A total of 3,290 homeless individuals were found through canvassing of 86 census tracts throughout Sonoma County and via surveys of emergency shelters, transitional housing facilities, jails, hospitals and residential treatment facilities. The 2007 census located 1700 homeless individuals. Most of the increase is due to the use of a different methodology rather than the economic downturn, says Peter Connery, Vice President of Applied Survey Research (ASR), a Watsonville-based social science research firm, and lead researcher on the project.

The 2005 and 2007 Unsheltered Homeless Counts focused on engaging homeless individuals with a series of special events supplemented by street outreach teams. This year, homeless guides were hired and matched with community volunteers to conduct a walking canvass of the county’s 86 census tracts in the early morning hours. The count was conducted by observation only, and no attempt was made to interact with the homeless people they saw. The concurrent census of emergency shelters and transitional housing was comparable to those in years past. About $2 million in federal grants comes to Sonoma County each year through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is requiring the count. ASR has conducted more than two dozen homeless counts in the past decade and was contracted by the Sonoma County Community Development Commission to lead the 2009 Count. The 2009 Census and Survey data will set a new baseline to support Sonoma County’s efforts to address homelessness.

The vast majority of the people located were single adults. Very few unsheltered homeless families were found. The number of people counted at emergency shelters and transitional housing facilities increased by more than 30% over the 2007 count, during a period when the bed capacity shrank by 11%. Shelter providers reported being full to capacity for much of the winter.

Although service providers have noted increased demand, and homeless people report that there are many new homeless faces on the street, the new survey method has more to do with the increased total. “In other communities that we’ve surveyed repeatedly with the same methodology, the number of literally homeless individuals does not appear to have increased dramatically,” said Connery. The report notes that only a very few of those surveyed (1.3%) mentioned foreclosure of their own property as a cause of their homelessness, while 4.5% responded that their landlord took their home off the rental market for whatever reason, including foreclosure. Job loss is noted as the primary event (34% of respondents) that led to homelessness.

Connery cautioned against comparing data generated by the 2009 Census and Survey to that of past years. “The methodology is so different, I would advise extreme caution against comparing anything but the shelter data,” he said.

Key findings of the new study include:
• More than 75% of local homeless people became homeless while living in Sonoma County.
• Nearly 70% of those surveyed responded they could not afford housing.
• 13% of adult survey respondents were veterans of the US military.
• 3% of homeless individuals are living with HIV/AIDS, compared to .23% in the population at large.
• About 30% of survey respondents reported experiencing mental illness; 42% reported substance abuse; and 10% of respondents reported developmental disabilities.

Connery suggests the most striking findings in the data involve “the recalcitrance of the chronically homeless—and the huge number of challenges and disabilities that the vast majority of the homeless population is struggling with.” More than ¾ of survey respondents reported at least one disabling condition.

The comprehensive report on the census is posted on the Sonoma County website at

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