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Drones, Other Tech Will Help Count San Diego’s Homeless

The Regional Task Force on the Homeless plans to use unmanned aerial vehicles, helicopters and overhead infrared technology to get a better count of the city’s transient population.

by Gary Warth, The San Diego Union-Tribune / January 14, 2019

(TNS) — This year, when volunteers comb the region to count and interview San Diego’s homeless population, they’ll have a bit of high-tech help.

Organizers of the annual Point-in-Time Count will use infrared technology on drones and helicopters to help them locate people living in canyons and other areas were they might be harder to find.

The idea is that those images, and other changes planned for the Jan. 25 event, could provide more useful and accurate results.

The count, conducted by the San Diego Regional Task Force on the Homeless as a funding requirement by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is challenging on many levels. It’s done in pre-dawn hours, when people are most likely to be asleep, in an attempt to make them easier to count, but inevitably some people are missed.

Task force CEO Tamera Kohler said several steps are being taken this year in an effort to count more people and gather more demographic information.

There was some confusion and a little controversy with last year’s count. While the official report of 8,576 homeless people represented a 6 percent drop from last year, the count did not include at least 300 people who were staying at the San Diego Rescue Mission, which did not file its paperwork in time.

Volunteers also did not count people who live in recreational vehicles last year, although some were counted in past years.

The January count will include RVs as well as many people who have been missed in the past because they live in canyons and other places out of sight of volunteers.

Taking a cue from Las Vegas, San Diego will use overhead thermal imaging devices that can locate people in the dark by detecting their heat.

The San Diego Police Department will fly a helicopter equipped with thermal imaging equipment over central areas of the city and the Sheriff’s Department will fly a helicopter with the devices over Lakeside.

The Chula Vista Police Department also will use thermography to find people, but will fly a drone instead of a helicopter.

Sheriff’s Lt. Fran Passalacqua said the flights over Lakeside could find homeless people who have gone uncounted in past years.

“We thought this was a great opportunity,” she said.

Passalacqua said the largest number of homeless people in Lakeside are along the San Diego River near state Route 67 near Mapleview Street and at the end of Vine Street. A helicopter is scheduled to fly overhead before sunrise Jan. 25 to locate people in the area.

The helicopter crew then will phone the volunteers doing the count to direct them to where people were detected, she said. For safety reasons, crews will wait until sunrise before walking into the brush to interview people in encampments.

Passalacqua said a more accurate count could mean more money for homeless services in East County.

“The east region is severely lacking in resources for those who are homeless,” she said. “If we don’t get an accurate count, how can we get resources? We do not have any shelters. We don’t have a Father Joe’s or Alpha Project.”

San Diego County has the fourth largest homeless population in the nation but often is ranked 20th in funding from HUD.

Last year’s countywide count found about 5,000 homeless people outdoors or in vehicles and about 3,600 in shelters.

So far more than 700 people have volunteered to participate in this year’s count by registering at Volunteers also must participate in a one-hour online training session.

HUD has pushed the task force to collect more information from homeless people, and 11 contracted workers from the federal agency have been in San Diego since Tuesday to help prepare for the count.

The most significant change in this year’s count will be an increased effort to gather demographic information from more homeless people through a 21-question survey. People will be asked about their race, health, the reasons why they became homeless and for how long, whether they are a veteran, have a substance abuse problem and other questions.

Only 19 percent of people counted last year were surveyed, and the goal this year is 50 percent, Kohler said.

Conducting those surveys can be tricky, however, because the count begins at 4 a.m., when most people are asleep. The early hour is intended to make the count easier and avoid accidental duplicate counts that could happen when people are up and about.

It also means the volunteers will have to wake people up to ask them questions.

To prepare for that scenario, Kohler and point-in-time count coordinator Kathryn Duran participated in a trial run in December by going out with a Downtown San Diego Partnership crew that conducts monthly counts.

Most volunteers in the January count won’t have to wake people up, however. About 120 outreach workers, including people who work for nonprofit service provides and police officers in homeless outreach team, will conduct the surveys after participating in special training sessions.

Volunteers will assist the outreach workers in teams of two or three, Durant said.

Surveys won’t be conducted in most of the 627 census tracts covered in the count, but only in areas with the most dense homeless populations to make the best use of resources.

In a new approach, census tracts throughout the county are given priority numbers from one to five, with priority one having the highest homeless populations. Surveys will be conducted in priority one and two areas, which are found in parts of downtown, El Cajon, Spring Valley, East County and Ramona.

Chula Vista also may open a parking lot for one night to allow homeless people in recreational vehicles a safe and legal place to park, she said.

Also new this year, volunteers will interview all RV dwellers they find on public streets and will only count those who consider themselves homeless.

Last year’s results were challenged by homeless advocate Michael McConnell, who asked HUD not to accept the task force’s report because it didn’t include RVs.

HUD did accept the report, but said the task force should have followed the more preferred method of interviewing people in RVs to determine if they were homeless.

Kohler said she does not know how many people in RVs will be included in the upcoming count because they had never been surveyed before. This year’s report will more accurately reflect who is homeless and who is simply choosing to live in recreational vehicles, she said.

©2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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