Volunteer Dylan Jenkins conducts a Point in Time count survey for the Fresno Madera Continuum of Care with homeless Fresno native Barbara Anderson, in the Tower District, Feb. 25, 2022. Credit: John Walker / The Fresno Bee

Roughly 200 volunteers – a part of a coalition of service providers and community organizations that focus on homelessness – gathered Friday morning for the final day of the 2022 Point in Time Count, a tally of the homeless population in Fresno and Madera.

The actual count, organized by the Fresno Madera Continuum of Care, takes place on a designated day across the state. This year, the statewide count took place on the evening of Feb. 23.

“It’s the best way we could figure out how to do it to date,” said Jody Ketcheside, vice chair of the Fresno Madera Continuum of Care, of the visual count. “(The count) has evolved a lot over the years to become more and more accurate, but it’s definitely an undercount.”

The official estimates from the 2022 tally will be released in June, according to Ketcheside.

The PIT count, which is typically an annual event, had not taken place locally or statewide since January 2020 due to the pandemic. Since the previous count, the city of Fresno has used a straight line projection to estimate the homeless population in Fresno, which had already been increasing prior to COVID-19, according to previous PIT Counts.

Volunteers capture a snapshot of the homeless population on a certain day by going out and conducting a visual count of how many people are on the streets; the number of sheltered individuals is also documented. The volunteers follow up the next two days, going back onto the streets and surveying the unhoused community for demographics and information on their circumstances. It is not, however, a time where services are offered, Ketcheside said. Only small hygiene kits and some donations were distributed.

“Without getting out to the streets and seeing what the conditions are and what people need, we can’t adequately serve them,” Ketcheside said. “The most important part is that the people doing the work need to get out and see what it is like on the streets, not just what people are facing when they walk into a shelter.”

Early Friday morning, Shawn Jenkins, the COO of Westcare Services and former chair of FMCOC, and two of his employees, one of whom is his son, set out in their truck from the volunteer meeting point to search for unhoused people to survey near the Tower District in Fresno.

Each time Jenkins came across a tent or a person who appeared unhoused, he stopped his truck, got out and offered hygiene kits and asked if the person was willing to answer demographic questions. The same process was happening across much of the cities of Fresno and Madera, with the help of dozens of volunteers.

In a nearly empty parking lot, Jenkins and his group surveyed about 10 or so unhoused people, collecting information from those willing to share their experience.

Volunteers surveyed Barbara Anderson, who said she began living in her car after her husband died a few years ago. Afterward, she told The Bee she participated in the survey because “I figure it helps them to help us get housing.”

And, in some ways, she’s right.

Ketcheside said the PIT Count gives the city a better sense of the number of people experiencing homelessness, and, in turn, the amount of resources needed. She added that many state and federal funds for homelessness are also based off of the PIT Count.

For Ketcheside, the most important part of the count is to have service workers out in the streets, seeing homelessness firsthand.

Cold and Covid present challenges for count

Due to COVID-19 the annual count in 2021 was canceled, and this year, the way the count was conducted was altered slightly.

According to Ketcheside, typically the Fresno Madera Continuum of Care asks for community volunteers to help conduct the count in January. However, with the ongoing pandemic, the FMCOC did not open the volunteer opportunity to the public. Instead, only service providers who work for organizations that are part of the continuum of care were asked to help survey.

Ketcheside said this brought down the number of overall volunteers from around 400 on average to 200 this year, and rather than volunteer one or two days, most who took part in this year’s count worked all three days.

Jenkins said it also led to each group covering a bit wider range than usual.

Besides COVID-19 challenges, Ketcheside also noted that the date in which the count was set for was particularly cold and most likely contributed to an undercount.

“It’s just so so cold that people are kind of hunkered down,” Ketcheside said. “And if they have someone to stay with on a hit-and-miss basis, these would be the nights that they might do that.”

Ketcheside added, however, that the FMCOC was able to gather data from and conduct surveys at the city’s warming centers which was helpful to capture the scope of the unhoused

How many people are unhoused in Fresno and Madera?

Homelessness increased 43% in the Fresno and Madera area from January 2019 to January 2020, according to the 2020 PIT Count. At that time, an estimated 3,641 people were unhoused in the Fresno and Madera area.

Since then, city of Fresno officials have used a straight line projection to estimate by how much homelessness increased during the pandemic. The city estimated in January that there were 5,200 unhoused individuals in the Fresno and Madera area, with approximately 4,200 of those people living in the city of Fresno.

During that same time, the number of homeless shelter beds increased significantly in Fresno because state and federal funding led to the purchase of motels and hotels which were converted to shelters.

Ketcheside said she hopes the increase in shelter beds would translate to a downturn in the number of unsheltered homeless individuals; however, she could not be certain at this time. She said she suspects that there will be “an uptick” in the overall homeless population due in part to COVID-19.

The estimated increase in homelessness in Fresno also comes at a time when the city is grappling with a lack of affordable housing and sharp rent increases year over year.

“There’s no housing out here, it’s hard to get into a place,” Anderson, the woman who is living in her car, said. “There’s not that much low-income housing out here so it’s hard to get into a place.”

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Cassandra is a housing and engagement reporter with Fresnoland.