Women and children under-represented in 2017 homeless count, say emergency service providers

Sacramento’s 2017 homeless count reported a drop in homeless families from 2015, but emergency service providers for women and children don’t buy it.

Early in July, Sacramento Steps Forward—the organization tasked with ending homelessness in Sacramento County—reported an alarming 38 percent increase in homelessness in the region from 2015. Yet they also reported a 22 percent drop in homeless families with children, from 238 families in 2015 to 186 this year.

The day the report was released, Women’s Empowerment Executive Director Lisa Culp emailed dozens of community members, concerned that women and children were not fully represented.

Culp explained that in the 2015 count, Women’s Empowerment and emergency service programs Maryhouse and Mustard Seed School offered to provide morning-after surveys of the families who weren’t tallied the night before.

“Sacramento Steps Forward included these surveys in 2015 but did not accept the offer in 2017,” wrote Culp. “This may explain part of the reason the number of homeless families appears to have decreased in Sacramento since 2015.”

Just six of the 186 families in the 2017 count were unsheltered—that is, sleeping on the street or in a car, as opposed to in a shelter or transitional housing. But this doesn’t reflect the numbers at Sacramento’s emergency service providers.

Maryhouse, a daytime drop-in center for homeless women, served 4,048 women and children (as well as a handful of single fathers) in 2016, a 21 percent increase from the year before. Most of them were sleeping outside.

Casey Knittel, Program Director at the Mustard Seed school for children experiencing homelessness, says the school has only had 14 days with over 40 students enrolled since it started recording attendance in 1996. Eight of those days were in the 2016-17 school year, and all 14 were in the last three years.

Last November the school reported that 24 of the 52 families with children enrolled were sleeping in cars or outside. (Sacramento County supervisors later gave those families hotel vouchers.)

“I understand the magnitude of the count, including the difficulty in accurately counting families experiencing homelessness,” says Maryhouse Program Director Shannon Stevens, but “it is incredibly frustrating that our families were missing in the final report.”

Families experiencing homelessness are notoriously difficult to tally in these surveys, as their safety is predicated on staying out of the public view. SSF’s 2017 report even acknowledges the limitations in finding them.

“These limitations are not new and as they have done during previous [homeless] counts, likely affected the count for families,” said SSF’s Ben Avey in an email. “We are looking at strategies to mitigate these limitations in the future while maintaining the statistical accuracy of the report.”

No matter the year, they’ll always be difficult to find.

“Our women and our families, if they’re homeless they’re usually in their car and they move from place to place so they can’t be located,” says Culp. “Many are escaping domestic violence.”

Culp sits on the board of SSF. She says she believes they tried to include the morning-after surveys this year, but “it just fell through the cracks.” As for numbers, she tends to reference the Sacramento County Office of Education over the SSF homeless count. According to SCOE, some 13,000 students experienced homelessness at some point during the 2013-14 school year.

“They are definitely the hidden homeless,” says Culp.

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Dave Kempa
Dave Kempa is the founder and editor of VOICES: River City.