San Bernardino County delays homeless count citing coronavirus concerns

·3 min read
Casey prepares to carry his bag of cans to a recycling center after speaking to volunteers during the Point-in-Time count in Old Town Victorville in January 2019.
Casey prepares to carry his bag of cans to a recycling center after speaking to volunteers during the Point-in-Time count in Old Town Victorville in January 2019.

San Bernardino County is delaying the annual homelessness survey it canceled a year ago, citing COVID-19 concerns for the push to its volunteer-based count that last found a remarkable rise in unsheltered people as of January 2020.

The nation's largest county by square mile joined nearby counties of Riverside, Los Angeles, and Orange in announcing Friday it had gotten federal approval for an almost one-month delay to its 2022 Point-in-Time Count (PITC).

The on-the-ground count was scheduled for Jan. 27 but is now set to occur Feb. 24 in San Bernardino County, which will continue accepting online registrations for new volunteers at one of nearly 20 desert, mountain, and urban areas countywide.

High Desert areas taking volunteers include Adelanto, Apple Valley, Barstow, Twentynine Palms, Victorville and Yucca Valley.

The county will provide a KN95 mask to all volunteers. Surveyors will hand out "hygiene kits" containing masks and hand sanitizer during the survey late next month. This will also mark the third year volunteers conduct the survey via an app requiring a smartphone with internet access.

The U.S Department of Housing normally mandates that all counties hold a PITC before the end of January as a lynchpin to securing federal grant money.

But many counties didn't hold the homeless count at all last year. HUD issued guidance in November 2020, allowing requests for exceptions to the next year's count relating to the novel coronavirus, which emerged in California just a couple of months after the prior survey.

San Bernardino County got federal approval the next month to skip its 2021 survey entirely.

The county's Interagency Council on Homelessness directed its Office of Homeless Services to make the request, according to a letter the two entities' leaders signed on Dec. 21, 2020. It cited fears for the health of employees, volunteers, homeless people and hospital capacities and potential for inaccuracies in the count.

In turn, the survey now set for late February marks the first to account for the homelessness in nearly two years.

The last count found a significant one-year surge had occurred in San Bernardino County's homeless population before COVID-19 was a concept to most, with the High Desert among the centers of that rise.

A total of 3,125 people were counted as homeless countywide on Jan. 23, 2020, according to the PITC report. That marked a 20% increase from the tally logged one year earlier in San Bernardino County.

The PITC breaks down the status of homelessness into two categories: Sheltered for people living in transitional housing or a shelter program; and unsheltered for people with no roof over their head at all.

The uptick in San Bernardino County's last count came primarily in those with no roof at all. The January 2020 survey found 470 more unsheltered people than in the prior year, a 24.5% increase, and 48 more sheltered people, a 7% rise.

Barstow and Victorville were among eight cities noted by the county as focus points. It counted 108 homeless people in Barstow, nearly three-quarters of whom were unsheltered, and 451 in Victorville, the second-highest total behind San Bernardino.

The High Desert has been hit hard by both the health and economic struggles of the last two years and the issue of homelessness on a larger scale.

Cities and unincorporated communities have taken their initiatives to face the latter problem, which locals and law-enforcement officials attribute to myriad causes such as local work conditions declining, the 2007-09 Great Recession and housing crisis, and transients receiving one-way bus tickets from outside hotspots like Los Angeles.

The rate of confirmed COVID-19-positives in San Bernardino County has hit all-time highs alongside record levels of testing and broader fears about the virus' spread since the turn of the new year.

The county's most recent data shows a seven-day moving average of 3,982 new confirmed cases per day as of Dec. 4, slightly more than the prior record of 3,831 per-day cases reported on Dec. 17, 2020.

Charlie McGee covers the city of Barstow and its surrounding communities for the Daily Press. He is also a Report for America corps member with the GroundTruth Project, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to supporting the next generation of journalists in the U.S. and around the world. McGee may be reached at 760-955-5341 or cmcgee@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @bycharliemcgee.

This article originally appeared on Victorville Daily Press: San Bernardino County delays 2022 Point-in-Time Count due to COVID-19