700+ County Employees Participate in Homeless Count

Video by James Kecskes

It’s before 4 a.m., but Dinna Morris and Cecilia Wind and 38 other volunteers have gathered at the LGBT Community Center in Hillcrest, ready to begin their early morning task: count homeless people.

Morris and Wind and about 1,200 other people—more than 700 of them County employees—walked the streets, beaches and valleys across the region for the annual count of homeless people in San Diego County.

The Point-in-Time Count is spearheaded by the Regional Task Force on the Homeless and provides a one-day snapshot of people living on the streets or in short-term shelters. The results are used to apply for federal and state funding to help homeless people and find solutions on how to best serve this vulnerable population.

At the Center, the group of volunteers was divided into teams and headed out to walk the streets and alleys of Hillcrest, Old Town, Mission Hills and University Heights.

For four hours, they walked and drove, waking homeless people up to ask them a few questions to better understand what led them to live on the streets.

That’s how they came to find people like Willow, 43, who eagerly agreed to answer the short list of questions.

“You’re the people they warned us about,” said Willow laughing and referring to the fact that homeless people were notified in advance that volunteers would be roaming the streets to conduct the homeless count.

Willow, who was sleeping on the sidewalk on Harvey Milk Street, said she became homeless five years ago after leaving an abusive relationship. She said she has some physical disabilities and some mental health disorders that prevent her from working or keeping a stable home. For her participation in the survey, Willow got a pair of socks and a $10 gift card to Starbucks.

Before Willow, the counters came across Tucker, 56, who was sleeping outside the Center. He’s been sleeping in the streets for the past 10 days and is the second time he’s been homeless in the past two years. Tucker also got a pair of socks and $10 for McDonald’s.

Norma Diaz, a human services specialist with the County HIV/STD Outpatient Clinic, interviews a homeless man.
Norma Diaz, a human services specialist with the County HIV/STD Outpatient Clinic, interviews a homeless man.

Not every homeless person agreed to be interviewed. Some did not even wake up. In those instances, the counters filled out an even shorter questionnaire, which noted where they were sleeping.

County employees have participated in the homeless count for the past six years after Supervisor Greg Cox brought the issue to the County Board of Supervisors, which agreed to allow employees to participate in the count and get their regular pay.

“I always wanted to do the count but did not have the time until this year,” said Morris, a deputy agricultural commissioner with the County’s Land Use and Environment Group.

“I like volunteering and believe this is important work,” said Morris, adding that she will do the count again next year.

This was also the first homeless count for Wind, a mental health clinician with the County’s Public Conservator.

“I work with people who are mentally ill and homeless, so I have a passion for helping people out,” Wind said.

A transgender woman talks to Megan O'Dowd, a County housing program analyst, and Norma Diaz, with the County HIS/STD Outpatient Clinic.
A transgender woman talks to Megan O’Dowd, a County housing program analyst, and Norma Diaz, with the County HIS/STD Outpatient Clinic.

Last year, the region’s combined total came to 8,576 homeless people, the fourth highest number in the nation. They included veterans, families, victims of domestic violence, substance users, HIV/AIDS patients and the chronically homeless.

While results of this year’s homeless count won’t be available until this spring, the County has multiple programs already in place that could connect homeless people to the services they need and help them find a stable place to live.

Addressing Homelessness, Behavioral Health

Over the past few years, the County has made significant investments in outreach, treatment, and housing services. The County has greatly expanded critical services since the beginning of the Affordable Care Act. The County’s Behavioral Health Services budget has increased by more than $200 million (55 percent) to a total of $658 million during the 2018-19 fiscal year.

County efforts include:

Project One for All—Aims to get the severely mentally ill homeless population off the streets and into treatment. Since the program began, 759 people have been housed with treatment.

Whole Person Wellness—People who are homeless and frequently use emergency rooms receive care coordination to help them find housing and engage in services to address their physical and behavioral health needs.

No Place like Home Program—Dedicates state bond proceeds for the development of permanent supportive housing for persons with serious mental illness or serious emotional disturbances and who are experiencing homelessness, chronic homelessness, or are at-risk of chronic homelessness. The County of San Diego is eligible to receive an estimated total of approximately $130 million.

Supportive Housing—The County has invested Mental Health Services Act housing funds to provide 282 units of high-quality dedicated supportive housing that are currently leased, with an additional 123 units under development/leasing up, for a total of 407 units. Overall, County Behavioral Health Services has 1,322 partnership units that provide dedicated supportive housing for BHS clients with serious mental illness and/or co-occurring disorders.

Affordable Housing

The County is also working to address the affordable housing crisis in the region. Some projects include:

Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing—Offers rental assistance to homeless veterans and ongoing VA case management and supportive services. More than 972 homeless veterans have been housed in San Diego County since the program began in 2009.

Innovative Housing Trust Fund—The County will award up to $10 million to developers for six properties that will create 453 new units of affordable housing that will help decrease homelessness in the region. The properties will be located throughout the county in the cities of San Diego, Poway, San Marcos and Vista.

Identifying Excess Properties for Affordable Housing—Proposals are being reviewed to develop affordable housing at two County-owned properties: The Family Court in downtown and the Sheriff’s Regional Crime Lab in Clairemont.

These programs and services align with Live Well San Diego, the County’s vision for healthy, safe and thriving residents and communities.

José A. Álvarez is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact