Facts & Reports

2022 Homeless Point-in-Time Count

Santa Cruz County’s Housing for Health Partnership releases its full report, and shares plans to conduct the count on a more frequent basis.


The official report detailing findings from the 2022 Homeless Point-in-Time (PIT) Count was released last month. While an executive summary provided a preview of the data last August, the full report which includes voluntary survey data compiled as part of the federally-mandated census paints a more complete picture of the people experiencing homelessness in Santa Cruz County. 


In addition, the official report confirms the County’s plans to conduct the PIT Count annually instead of biennially as required. According to Dr. Robert Ratner, Director of the County’s Housing for Health Division, the County is choosing to increase the PIT Count’s frequency to obtain more current data and improve the process of conducting the census in general. 


“More frequent counts allow for more timely tracking of trends and areas where change or improvements or investments are needed,” he said. Also, Ratner noted that “the count process itself may improve with more regular implementation.” That, in turn, could result in a more accurate PIT Count overall.


A snapshot in time


Every other year, most communities all over the U.S. prepare to count the number of people living unhoused and unsheltered. The department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provides guidelines for when and how the PIT Counts should be conducted. Public funding for affordable housing programs and homelessness support services is often dependent on PIT Count results. 


The PIT Counts are usually conducted during the early morning hours of a single night in January (the pandemic pushed this year’s PIT Count in Santa Cruz County to February). Teams of volunteers fan out to approximate the number of people living in cars, on streets, in parks, and in properties not meant for human habitation (i.e., people who are unsheltered). The PIT Count also includes people living in emergency shelters and transitional housing (people who are unhoused). 


Because of the obvious limitations associated with conducting PIT Counts on a single night, in the span of a few hours, they’re widely thought to under-report the actual number of people experiencing homelessness in a given area, according to Tom Stagg, Chief Initiatives Officer at Housing Matters.


“There are challenges to identifying someone visually,” Stagg explained. “You’re making assumptions because you’re not always able to see how many people are sleeping in a tent or an RV,” for example. There’s also a lot of ground to cover in a short amount of time, and some people especially families wanting to keep young children safe may be well hidden. “Families, because of the stigma [of experiencing homelessness] and wanting to protect their children, are more likely to avoid being detected,” said Stagg. 


A story in numbers


This year’s PIT Count, conducted on the morning of February 28, 2022, revealed a 6% increase in the number of people living unhoused in Santa Cruz County since 2019, the last year a PIT Count was conducted. In all, an estimated 2,299 (1,774 of whom were unsheltered) people were experiencing homelessness on that day (See 2022 Santa Cruz PIT Count Summary).


Some of the most telling data, however, comes not from the visual count itself but from the surveys completed in the days and weeks following the actual PIT Count (counties have up to one month following the date of the PIT Count to collect survey data). 


With the help of volunteers who themselves had experienced homelessness at one time, a survey is offered to those willing to complete it. The survey aims to collect self-reported demographic data such as age, gender, number of family members who are also homeless, employment status, known health conditions, length of time living unsheltered or unhoused, and veteran status. 


The survey sample is generally much smaller than the overall population counted (this year’s PIT count collected surveys from 333 individuals, according to the report). But it has proven over the years to be an informative representation of the whole. 


In 2022, the survey data indicated dramatic changes in health outcomes compared to those reported in 2019. For example, numbers of people self-reporting alcohol and drug use increased from 30% to 67%; reports of physical disability increased from 26% to 57%; and reports of chronic health conditions increased from 21% to 49%. 


Housing Matters’ Stagg believes the survey data underscores the growing recognition that housing is itself a form of healthcare. “We’re seeing the long-term consequences of homelessness play out right before our eyes, the increase in chronic health conditions showing up in PIT count data is a verification of what we see happening among our program participants,” he said.


More to come on this in our next article as we unpack the health implications of unsheltered homelessness.


Click here to download the full report.


Graphic: 2022 County of Santa Cruz Homeless PIT Count & Survey