Counting Homeless Youth: City of San Jose Homeless Youth Census Survey


Solutions Brief | February 28, 2012

Files: PDF | 102 KB | 4 pages

Counting Homeless Youth
City of San Jose Homeless Youth Census Survey

The following is a summary of a survey conducted to gauge the number of homeless youth in San Jose, Calif. For the full report, please visit the full report.


The City of San Jose in Santa Clara County CA, in partnership with nonprofit homeless research specialist Applied Survey Research (ASR), has adopted specialized strategies to include youth in its biennial Point-In-Time (PIT) count of homeless people. This effort began after local homeless youth and youth advocates argued that traditional PIT count strategies were failing to identify young people, leading to a consistent undercount of the homeless youth in the community. Using new approaches, San Jose completed its most recent count in 2011, identifying 601 unaccompanied homeless youth age 24 and under, which is well over the over the 373 youth counted in 2009. Unaccompanied youth represented 15 percent of the city’s total homeless population.

This citywide census helps achieve countywide goals by creating a baseline to measure progress in ending homelessness and helping to assess the next steps toward completing the 10 year plan to end homelessness in Santa Clara County. In addition, it is part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD’s) required national effort to conduct a homeless census every 2 years at a single point in time in the last 10 days of January.


San Jose is the tenth largest city in the United States, with a population of just under one million people. According to the 2011 PIT count, the total homeless population is 4,034. San Jose has a countywide plan to address and end homelessness. It calls for collecting data on key strategies implemented (including strategies to end youth homelessness and to identify at-risk youth), measuring success, and educating the public and providers on the state of homelessness.

Why a Specialized Effort to Find Homeless Youth?

There were several reasons why advocates in the City of San Jose adopted specialized strategies to more accurately capture the extent of homelessness among youth in their community, including the following:

  • Homeless youth do not typically comingle with other homeless people and are more challenging to enumerate and represent, therefore requiring a different outreach and census strategy;
  • HUD requires that the PIT counts identify and profile unaccompanied homeless youth under 18, but the profiles do not capture the full range of transition-age youth under the age of 25;
  • It is important to enhance public awareness on the issue of homelessness among youth and to help identify solutions that minimize their number; The City wants to aid national and local policymakers and service providers in planning, funding and shaping services that accurately reflect the needs of homeless youth within the community; and
  • Policymakers need to monitor the effectiveness of homeless youth services and determine if the population has grown or changed since the City’s last counts of homeless youth in 2007 and 2009.

Key Partners

San Jose commissioned ASR to conduct the City’s PIT study. ASR has been recognized by HUD as applying best practices in PIT counts, and has a long history of assisting with counts, including in Clark County NV (Las Vegas), Atlanta GA, Los Angeles CA, Orange County CA, San Francisco CA, and Monterey CA. In addition, they are recognized for using strategies designed to successfully identify youth experiencing homelessness.

Another key partner in the effort was the Bill Wilson Center, a leading provider of services to homeless youth in the community. The Center advocated for the adoption of strategies to more accurately capture homeless youth in PIT counts. To support the PIT effort, the Bill Wilson Center worked with ASR and other partnering youth organizations to encourage participation in the shelter and street counts. The Center also hosted an ASR training of homeless and formerly homeless youth volunteers who helped administer the count, and it helped facilitate transportation during the street count to the locations where homeless youth congregate.

Other partners that helped support the count were City Team Ministries, EHC Life Builders, InnVision Opportunity Services Center, New Direction, Santa Clara Adult Education, South County Housing, St. Joseph Cathedral, St. Joseph’s Family Center, Streets Team, The Salvation Army, Unity Care, and West Valley Community Services.

Study Design and Data Collection

The PIT strategy used by San Jose had three components: a street count, a shelter count, and a survey. To prepare for the street count, the researchers consulted with local youth receiving services at homeless service agencies, and with homeless youth advocates. Partnerships with homeless youth advocates are critical to a successful homeless census effort due to the more challenging nature of youth outreach. With their input, count organizers were able to identify key areas and times to find youth who do not reside in homeless shelter programs. The areas they identified included malls, parks, downtown locations, encampments, and abandoned buildings. The street PIT count was held on two consecutive days in January 2011. Homeless youth were counted from 3:00 pm to 7:00 pm, a period when youth were most visible, as opposed to homeless adults who were counted early in the morning. Duplication concerns related to conducting two separate counts were addressed by documenting the number of homeless youth encountered during the adult census phase and subtracting these results from the youth census.

Another component of the study was the shelter count. Homeless providers serving youth ages 24 and under reported the number of youth residing in their shelters, transitional housing, and safe havens on a single night in January 2011. A representative sample of sheltered homeless youth was also asked to complete the survey (see below), which was typically administered by a program staff person.

Lastly, a detailed survey was administered to a geographically representative sample of homeless youth. The sample was randomized by asking every third homeless youth encountered to complete a survey. Those who agreed were provided a gift (a small duffel bag). In most cases, the survey was administered by a youth volunteer (typically a homeless or formerly homeless youth) selected and trained by the Bill Wilson Center. As part of an Institutional Review Board (IRB) protocol, youth under the age of 18 were given the option of completing the survey independently and mailing in their responses. Homeless youth respondents were asked to complete the general survey administered to all homeless persons in the overall census effort, and an additional survey addendum which focused on youth-specific questions related to background and experiences.

Volunteer Recruitment and Training

ASR has found that the participation of homeless and formerly homeless youth in the design and implementation of PIT studies is essential. Young enumerators are uniquely able to identify where homeless youth congregate and can often engage youths’ participation in a study more easily than an adult. ASR has also found that youth experiencing homelessness may be more responsive to someone from their peer group as their distrust is more acute than many others in the general homeless population.

In San Jose, ASR worked with city agencies, faith-based organizations, and homeless service agencies to recruit homeless and formerly homeless youth to help with the PIT count. For their efforts, the homeless youth who assisted were paid $10 an hour for their census work and $5 for every completed survey they submitted. Payment was found to be essential to encourage participation and provided a real boost to homeless youth’s self-esteem and empowerment.

Training and Data Collection
ASR and the Bill Wilson Center worked together to train homeless youth who were recruited to help implement the PIT study. Homeless youth workers were provided a 90 minute paid orientation, shown how to fill out enumeration forms, and trained in survey administration. During the PIT count, homeless youth workers went to the identified areas in teams of two. They enumerated the homeless youth and categorized them according to age (under 18, or 18 to 24). Every third youth they encountered was asked to participate in the survey. Adult volunteers and Bill Wilson Center staff were available to accompany homeless youth workers to data collection sites and provide transportation as needed. This provided an extra level of security for the youth volunteers participating in the PIT count and survey.

Report Findings

ASR completed data analysis and has released the findings of the PIT count in a report entitled, 2011 City of San Jose Homeless Census and Survey. The report includes a section on unaccompanied youth which provides an overview of their characteristics, where they typically reside at night, their use of government services, their social support networks, and what caused their homeless episode. An appendix is also provided that separately analyzes how youth responded to the survey questions.

This concerted effort to locate and count youth experiencing homelessness resulted in the identification of 601 unaccompanied homeless youth. The vast majority, 94 percent, were unsheltered, including 126 youth under the age of 18 and 436 youth age 18 to 24. 25 percent reported that their usual sleeping place was outdoors (on streets, parks, or encampments) and an additional 32 percent reported staying in a structure or area not normally used for sleeping. 50 percent of youth reported trading sex or drugs for a place to stay. The above information and additional findings from the PIT report can be put to immediate use to inform practitioners and policymakers about the needs of these vulnerable young people.

Lessons Learned

Key lessons learned by San Jose and ASR about including youth in homeless counts include:

  • Recruiting youth to participate in planning and implementing the PIT is essential in building trust with homeless youth being enumerated and assessed;
  • To increase participation of homeless youth being counted and surveyed a financial incentive for homeless youth workers is helpful;
  • It is important to consult local youth and their advocates and service providers about the best time of day for conducting the counts. After school (3 pm to 7 pm) works in some urban areas, while late at night is better in other locales.
  • Surveys should be administered at the same time the census is conducted.

For More Information, Contact:
Peter Connery
Vice President
Applied Survey Research