Apples and Oranges and the Homeless Keeping track of a variance of census numbers

By Joe Livernois

Hundreds of volunteers fanned across the Central Coast this morning to count homeless people. The census count happens every two years across the United States, always near the end of January, with volunteers showing up at homeless encampments, shelters and wherever people without a roof over their heads congregate.

The census takers may or may not count Kevin Michael, who considers himself homeless. Newly homeless. It’s been four days now, and he’s living in a hotel on Munras Street in Monterey for $59 a night. “It’s kicking my ass,” he said, referring to the rent, “but I don’t have a lot of choices right now.” Voices of Monterey Bay met Michael on Monday; he was on his motorized scooter in front of the entrance to Fisherman’s Wharf. He had affixed a sign on the small improvised trailer his scooter was dragging; the sign advertised his need for an accessible room or studio, for which he could pay rent of $165 a week.

Whether Michael is technically considered “homeless” is up to the bureaucrats. For purposes of establishing the number of homeless as Monterey or Monterey County seeks federal housing grants, he probably doesn’t meet the criteria; he does have a roof over his head, at least for now, even if the rent is too expensive for his $972 monthly Social Security disability check.

Under the circumstances, though, he would technically be considered homeless by government education officials — if he was a high school student.

But he’s not. He’s 60 years old and he was recently diagnosed with lymphoma. After his diagnosis, he left Brookings, Ore., and showed up in Monterey — where he had lived for a decade until he left about a decade ago — for treatment at Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. There’s a long-term outpatient treatment he’s on there; he expects to be living in Monterey for a while, if he can find an affordable room.

Counting the homeless is not an easy task. By the very nature of their transiency, simple census forms can’t be mailed to them. They don’t have land lines, so they can’t respond to telephone polling. And the varying circumstances of human existence can result in weird and anomalous counts at times. (Back in 2015, for instance, census takers in New Orleans counted fewer than 200 homeless veterans in the entire city. Could that have been right?)

Not only that, but the definition of what constitutes “homelessness” can be very different, depending on who is doing the counting for which government institutions.


  • Two years ago, the biennial census found about 2,800 homeless men, women and children in all of Monterey County.
  • In early January of 2019, an educational advocacy organization reported that more than 7,600 students in Monterey County were “homeless.”
  • In Santa Cruz County, the 2017 census showed 2,249 homeless people and the latest count of homeless students in the county totalled 3,028.

In other words, according to different homeless counts for different government agencies, there are almost 5,000 more homeless students in Monterey County than there are total homeless people. (Results of today’s biennial census won’t be released for several months, but it’s not likely that the report will show more than 7,600 homeless in Monterey County.)

It’s apples and oranges, the difference between homelessness and “housing insecure.”

Why the difference?

The biennial report — the one based on the census count happening this week — is prepared by local agencies to get a ballpark estimate of homeless numbers for purposes of applying for federal Housing and Urban Development funding. The counts are “point-in-time” snapshots from which long-term patterns can be determined.

The definition of homelessness for those counts, according to HUD, include people living in a supervised shelters and people who spend their evenings in places “not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings,” including cars, parks, abandoned building or bus depots.

That criteria may not include people like Michael, who is living temporarily in a hotel room.

The definition of homeless students, developed by the Department of Education, is significantly broader. The federal government considers as homeless any student who “lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”

“What this means practically is that students who are living a motel or RV, or couch surfing or event doubled- or tripled-up in apartments are considered homeless,” said Morgan Pulleyblank, director of development for Pivot Learning, the agency that released the report on homeless students in Monterey County. “Especially in Monterey County, where the housing crisis has meant that many low-wage families are living with several families in too-small apartments.”

Studies have shown that students who live in uncertain domestic situations — sharing housing with other families or constantly moving — are less likely to excel in school.

Pulleyblank said that school districts are eligible for additional funding to support low-income students and homeless youth are certainly included in the low-income number.

Meanwhile, a couple of days after Voices first encountered him in front of the wharf, Kevin Michael he’s still staying in the hotel room, but he can only afford one more day. “After that, it starts cutting into my first-and-last months’ deposit,” he said.

He said he has appointments to see a couple of rooms over the weekend. He said he is optimistic things will work out for him.

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Joe Livernois

About Joe Livernois

Joe Livernois has been a reporter, editor and columnist in Monterey County for 35 years.

One thought on “Apples and Oranges and the Homeless Keeping track of a variance of census numbers

  1. Spot on- We did the PIT Count last week in San Luis Obispo County and the same question was asked. “Can I count the 25 travel trailers and RV’s hooked up to utilities in my Census Area? The answer was no! What we have here is a failure to communicate! All of those travel trailers and RV’s can be turned out anytime the County Code Enforcement Agents happen alone acting on a complaint. So at this point in time those people are Housing Insecure and at another point in time could be homeless. The results of the count showed 5 homeless VS 30 Plus. Now X’s that by number of census areas = Bad Data

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