Volunteers fan out to conduct first in-person count of homeless population since 2020

Steve Wibben has watched the population of unhoused residents living on Palm Springs streets steadily increase since first landing here in 2005. Along with the increase he’s witnessed a rise in drug deals and other unwelcome behavior in his Baristo Park neighborhood. But when comments from a friend hit home, he knew the city was in crisis.

“I had a friend from San Francisco visit, and he said, ‘Wow, Palm Springs looks just like San Francisco.'”

On Wednesday, Wibben decided to help efforts to combat the crisis. He joined 75 volunteers and a dozen city and county staff as they fanned out throughout the city to conduct a count of those living on the streets. The effort was part of the Riverside County point-in-time homeless count, conducted in person again for the first time since 2020. An estimated 800 people took part throughout the county.

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Armed with a clipboard, a map, and an app on their phones for conducting surveys, Wibben and a team of three others were the last of more than a half dozen teams to depart the Palm Springs Convention Center just after sunrise. His team’s destination was in South Palm Springs, where one of 30 areas known to contain clusters of homeless individuals had been identified in an earlier “soft count.”

Step by step on a rare cold and rainy morning the team explored an area identified as section 17 — roughly between Plaza del Sol and Baristo Road. The team peered behind bushes and dumpsters and inside drainage culverts, scoured vacant land and the front of businesses, ready to offer “incentive bags” filled with vital supplies to anyone who would agree to an interview.

After walking section 17 they headed off to other parts of town, having counted two homeless individuals sleeping at a bus stop, but evidence of many more. In total, the team spent 2.5 hours in four quadrants, observed 11 homeless individuals — including a pair living in a car — and conducted three interviews.

Volunteers for the annual point-in-time count are assigned areas of the city to navigate Wednesday morning at the Palm Springs Convention Center.

Exactly how many people experiencing homelessness were counted in Palm Springs Wednesday will not be know for a few months. During the 2020 count,  189 unsheltered people were counted in Palm Springs — about one-third of the number believed to be living on city streets.

Countywide, 2,884 homeless individuals — 729 who had shelter and 2,155 who did not — were identified in Riverside County during the 2020 count.

The 2021 homeless census was severely curtailed, with no real canvassing of known transient dwelling spaces, because of the coronavirus public health lockdowns last winter. Reports were mostly based on shelter interactions and did not provide an accurate representation of the county’s homeless population.

This year’s data, which will not be released for a few months, will be used by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which requires the
point-in-time count for Riverside County to continue receiving federal funding for homeless programs. It is used to determine how to distribute federal homeless relief funding, and by policymakers in determining the scope of homelessness nationwide — including what’s working, and what’s not.

While the larger countywide census was Wednesday, there will be ongoing surveys on today and Friday to better gauge youth homelessness, officials said.  The count was originally scheduled Jan. 26 through 28, but that was rescinded and replaced with the new dates because of an upswing in coronavirus infections last month.


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