Washoe County officials this week confirmed that the Reno area has seen an 875% increase in homelessness since 2017. That figure is based on self-reported point-in-time (PIT) statistics collected each year.
The increase was reported Monday by a consultant hired by Washoe County to review the Nevada Cares Campus operations.
“This population is more visible, more vulnerable and less able to access effective services than any other population,” said consultant Jon DeCarmine. “According to the Northern Nevada Continuum of Care, unsheltered homelessness has increased by more than 800% since 2017, despite relative stability in the total number of people experiencing homelessness…”
These figures, however, are based on snapshots of self-reported information. Washoe County has only recently started collecting and reporting more accurate data about those experiencing homelessness.
The PIT count, for example, is a glimpse in time, not an overall trend. There were 80 people reported during the PIT count in 2017. That number is up to 780.
“The PIT is conducted annually and is a once-a-year snapshot. It includes both data from [Homeless Management Information System (HMIS)] and a visual count of people living unsheltered,” said county spokesperson Bethany Drysdale.
The HMIS data show considerably more people experiencing homelessness from the PIT counts, but those data presented by the county only go back a year.
The county’s new website that reports data on homelessness “utilizes a slightly different methodology than the PIT,” Drysdale explained. “They are similar, but are not apples to apples comparisons.”
In December of last year, there were between 1,600 people — including families, youth, adults and veterans — listed as homeless. That number increased to almost 2,000 in July and is now down to about 1,700 people.
Those figures fluctuate daily, monthly and annually as people move in and out of homelessness.
Agencies also report varying numbers
Local service organizations that serve people who are unsheltered also show conflicting data based largely on reports by their clientele. Other factors include changing where service is provided, self-reporting by clients and in the case of the Community Health Alliance, changes to data collection practices.
“It’s important to keep in mind that Community Health Alliance is capturing self-reported information from its patients,” CHA spokesperson Megan Duggan said. “There are patients who may consider themselves ‘homeless’ because they lost their home and are staying with family or friends.”
CHA reported seeing 881 people experiencing homelessness in 2020, 2,257 in 2019 and 2,250 in 2018.
A former CHA employee, James Fleming, said CHA’s changes to its patient questionnaire contributed to the reduced numbers in 2020. He called the CHA figures above, “utter fiction,” claiming the CHA only changed its patient registration form in 2020, on his recommendation, to collect more accurate data.
He said the prior registration form artificially inflated actual homeless counts.
“People were confused and accidentally self-reported as homeless on our registration paperwork,” Fleming said.
An older registration form provided to This Is Reno shows less specific options related to housing situations, which Fleming said encouraged more people to select being homeless on the CHA form.
“After some research I traced our faulty homeless data to mistakes and confusion related to our intake/registration paperwork. The Spanish language version is even more confusing than the English version, and half our population speaks Spanish,” he said. “I assumed that when I saw the new registration form being printed, that at least we could start inputting correct data from Spring 2020 onward.”
CHA’s 2021 patient registration form has more specific options to select related to living situations. The registration form shows people can check if they are homeless or not and, if so, their living situation. Options include living on the street, doubling up, living at the shelter and an “other” category.
Duggan denied CHA was padding its numbers.
“Community Health Alliance reports the data it has captured. Is it possible that some Community Health Alliance patients have a broader definition of the term ‘homeless’ than what is used by those who participate in the PIT? Yes,” she added. “Is it also possible that the PIT may underestimate the number of homeless individuals living in a community? Yes.”
Duggan also said the disparity of reported numbers was because less people were using CHA services.
This was for two reasons, she said: “Community Health Alliance provided medical and dental services on-site at the homeless shelter on Record Street. Our Record Street site essentially closed down in March 2020 due to COVID-19, and the City/County decided to move the homeless shelter to the new Nevada Cares Campus.”
CHA’s varying counts of those experiencing homelessness are similar to Northern Nevada HOPES, which also bases its figures on information reported by clients.
According to HOPES’ Mary Ingvoldstad, “In 2020, 17% of our patient population reported that they were experiencing homelessness. This is a self-reported response that is collected at every medical visit after the patient has been asked about their housing status.”
HOPES’ 17% in 2020 was 1,874 people who reported experiencing homelessness.
Ingvoldstad also said information is collected “in accordance with the Health Resources and Services Administration definition. Since this is a self-reported response there is no validation associated with responses until the patient is ready to receive housing assistance.”
Data collection methods will continue to vary
The county continues to use the PIT count and the HMIS data.
“HMIS does not include those who are not taking advantage of services,” Drysdale said. “So while the PIT is only once a year and is therefore outdated, it is a more inclusive number at least for that point in time.”
It’s also a different number than the HMIS data by about half, and the Nevada Cares Campus, with a capacity of about 600 beds, has been close to full since opening.
Homeless advocates speaking during public comment yesterday called Community Homeless Advisory Board (CHAB) members, who are local elected officials from Washoe County, Sparks and Reno, tone-deaf and out of touch.
“You are using our tax dollars to pay to keep these people in traumatic situations, and we need to do better,” Meagan O’Farrell said.
“Our community has torn down hundreds of affordable housing units in the last five years — hundreds — and our homeless population tripled if not more,” said Katie Colling.
Some spoke in favor of reopening the prior Record Street shelter as winter approaches. Increasing the capacity for women and children experiencing homelessness was also stressed.
County officials recommended against reopening Record Street. Doing so would spread out services available to those seeking assistance, the county’s Dana Searcy said.
Bob Conrad is publisher, editor and co-founder of This Is Reno. He has served in communications positions for various state agencies and earned a doctorate from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011, where he completed a dissertation on social media, journalism and crisis communications. In addition to managing This Is Reno, he holds a part-time appointment for the Mineral County University of Nevada Extension office.