Santa Clara County counts unhoused population for 1st time since pandemic

Volunteers on Thursday came out for a second and final time in Santa Clara County to document how many people are experiencing homelessness. 

Hundreds of volunteers check every single street, park and shelter to try to get an accurate count of the amount of people who are unhoused in the county. 

Before the sun was up, Leila Qureishi and Jasmine Wong were out with flashlights searching a trail along the Lawrence Expressway in Cupertino to see if anyone was sleeping there. 

Without asking questions or knocking on tents, their assignment is to count.  

"If we see someone who is homeless, we count how many people and then if they’re in a tent or in a car or like in an encampment," said Qureishi.

Both Qureishi and Wong work for the county's office of supportive housing, but they were volunteering Thursday morning.

"We’re behind the numbers, both of us are data analysts at the county, so I do all the analysis and reporting on the homeless individuals and different programs and how we’re housing them and how many people are homeless," said Qureishi.

They wanted to see first hand the conditions people are living in.

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"Instead of being behind a computer screen, we are seeing the people too, and seeing where they’re at and what their needs are," said Wong.

On Wednesday morning, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo also participated in the count.

"This is a very grim poll. But this is a necessary step we need to take every two years to ensure we understand what progress, if any, we’re making in our collective battle against homelessness," said Liccardo.

This will be the first count in three years, since last year's count was skipped because of the pandemic. In 2019, Qureishi said the count was at about 9,700 people experiencing homelessness.

This year's count will show how COVID-19 affected homelessness, could affect federal funding and will be used to help find solutions. 

"We need options for people who are on the brink and at-risk of homelessness to be able to stabilize in their homes so that they never have to experience the trauma of homelessness, we need safe places for people to stay. And then we need affordable housing solutions as well," said Laura Sandoval, regional director of People Assisting the Homeless (PATH).

Volunteers said people experiencing homelessness are not just a number. And with this week's cold snap, learning how to help them is even more important. 

"Just the thought of homeless people out in the cold really breaks your heart, to think that so many people are homeless out in the county. And we are providing shelters, and inclement weather shelters, but a lot of people don’t want to go into shelters because of fear or, you know, they have pets, they’re just not sure if they’re going to be safe there so they choose to be outside," said Qureishi.

Once the count is complete, Qureishi said a survey will also be done to get more demographics on the people experiencing homelessness. 

She said current or formerly homeless people will be paid to go out and conduct the surveys to give the county a sense of what put people in this position and what resources they could benefit from.