Criticized homeless count still considered critical metric for city 

Once every two years on a night in late January, hundreds of volunteers spread out across The City, armed with clipboards and flashlights. Peering into parked cars, into bushes in parks and elsewhere, they count -- tallying the number of people sleeping on the streets and in shelters.

The number they come up with is the result of the biannual homeless count, and is used to answer the question, "How many homeless people are in San Francisco?" for the next two years.

The results are not foolproof, but it's the only data The City has to size up its homeless problem.

The last time, the answer was 6,403 -- plus another 914 unaccompanied youths tallied earlier during the effort, for a total of 7,035 homeless people in San Francisco, according to the 2013 results.

This year's count is Jan. 29, when organizers say more than 300 volunteers are needed to help analyze how The City's street population is faring as the tech-fueled economic and real estate booms continue.

The count also determines how much money The City receives from the federal government for housing and services for homeless people.

In 2013, that number was $23 million, part of the Human Services Agency's $103 million housing and homeless budget.

Some homeless advocates note that a problem with the survey is that there are many more homeless people in The City sleeping in single-room-occupancy hotels, on friends' couches or with family who are never counted.

Those people don't meet the federal government's definition of homeless, one of the reasons why some local advocates criticize the biannual ritual of the count.

"It deceives people," said Paul Boden, executive director of homeless advocacy nonprofit Western Regional Advocacy Project.

City officials could not be reached on the Monday holiday, but according to Boden, who served as the Coalition on Homelessness' director for 16 years, "You're better off giving money to panhandlers."

Under federal law, someone is homeless if they are living in a shelter or in a place "not designed or ordinarily used for regular sleeping accommodation for human beings," including in vehicles, camping in parks, or squatting in abandoned buildings.

That means someone without a permanent address who's crashing with friends, in an SRO hotel, in jail, a hospital or in rehab is not technically homeless under federal Department of Housing and Urban Development rules.

However, they are considered homeless under The City's definition of homelessness. This helps explain the discrepancy between how many students San Francisco Unified School District says are homeless (2,100) and how many homeless school-age children were found during the 2013 count (no more than the 679 people in families counted during the count, plus 134 unattended youths under 18 years old discovered on their own).

For now, this vague definition is what The City has to work with: An effort last year by Sen. Dianne Feinstein that would have redefined homeless on the federal level died in committee.

So how many homeless people are in The City? More than can be counted -- literally. But a count is needed and will be done just the same.

Counting the homeless

Local governments receiving federal funding for homeless programs must participate in a biannual point-in-time homeless count. San Francisco's count is coming up next week, and more than 300 volunteers are needed to make The City's tally.

When: Jan. 29

7 p.m. to 11 p.m. or midnight (volunteers used for 4-6 hours)

To volunteer:

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has worked as a reporter in San Francisco since 2008, with an emphasis on city governance and politics, The City’s neighborhoods, race, poverty and the drug war.
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