In this file photo, a person experiencing homelessness lines up for a free dinner.

Kern County appears as if it will be one of the only counties in Southern California to complete a count of its homeless population this year.

Many counties, such as Los Angeles and Orange counties, have asked the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for an exemption from the federally mandated survey.

Used to determine how much state and federal grant dollars will be distributed to a county, the annual point-in-time count is also a key benchmark for tracking a county’s progress toward reducing homelessness.

Over the last several years, Kern’s point-in-time count has shown increases in homelessness. With the coronavirus pandemic straining the finances of many local families, experts expected to see another increase this year.

But a new method of counting could alter the results. In previous years, the county relied on hundreds of volunteers to spread out across Kern and find encampments and individuals sleeping on the streets, as well as a tabulation of those in the shelters on a particular morning. However, COVID-19 has nixed the ability for the county to use large numbers of people to conduct face-to-face interviews with homeless individuals.

Instead, organizers plan to use the Homeless Management Information System, a regularly updated database the county hopes will have a complete count of homeless individuals on Jan. 26 and 27, when the count will take place.

The county had to receive permission from HUD to move forward, which has already occurred.

“We believe we have a really strong position when it comes to our data, and we wouldn’t have made the request if we didn’t think it was accurate,” said Bakersfield-Kern Regional Homeless Collaborative Executive Director Anna Laven.

She added that the new method could even be more accurate than that used in the past, which relied on volunteers finding homeless individuals in various parts of the county, not necessarily an easy task.

“For us really, the key priority right now is the health and safety of the entire community, both volunteers and those experiencing homelessness,” Laven said. “Once we get through this worldwide pandemic, our PIT count committee will be able to pull together and see what we’ve learned by using HMIS versus having volunteers come out.”

Flood Ministries Executive Director Jim Wheeler believes an actual headcount is “always better” because it allows volunteers to gather a large swath of information in a person-to-person interview. He said the current plan is the next best thing.

“We have done a really good job over the last few years of cleaning up our data,” he said. “We’ll be able to have a good count.”

This year, several factors will influence homeless numbers.

“All bets are off during the pandemic,” said Bakersfield Homeless Center Executive Director Louis Gill. “This is not normal. People have lost work. Individuals that have never had to ask for help before are hitting the safety net, and they often have no idea how to access assistance because they’ve just never had to ask for it. It’s a different period we’re in right now.”

Organizers can use the results of the count to study trends in the area’s homeless population, like how many people have substance abuse problems or come from other counties. This year, the pandemic has added another reason why someone might end up locked out of their home.

“We’re trying to do our best to mitigate the impact of COVID and the impact of the economy on people’s lives,” Wheeler said. “People fall through the cracks and people end up out of their place and homeless.”

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