Homeless humans by the numbers 

So the counters do their dark-of-night work, so important, so necessary — so mandated. They are good people, making snap judgments about whether those human silhouettes out on the streets, huddled in doorways and sleeping in cardboard boxes, are in fact homeless.

In deference to thegovernment-approved methodology, the counters are not to talk to the counted. What they produce are hard numbers, yes, but they are also subjective evaluations blinked from The City to official Washington, where the bureaucracy, amassing similarly collected numbers, settles on a nationwide figure.

Much public policy rides on that official figure, as does much journalism and much political posturing. Headlines will note the figure, which will be broken down again state by state, county by county, city by city. Factions at all levels will debate the number, some defending the methodology, others vehemently denying its accuracy.

The deniers can be broken down further between homeless advocates, who insist the numbers are low-balled, and the fiscal watchdogs, who complain they’re exaggerated to swell the welfare state.

Here’s Juan Prada, executive director of San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness: "It’s highly subjective. There are many individuals that show no exterior signs of homelessness." To which a guardian of tax dollars can tug at a metaphorical green eyeshade and respond: "Whoa, by introducing the ‘exterior sign’ standard you’ve invited a hopelessly elastic set of statistics."

Not only that, but it also begs a question or two of the activists: Will they ever find a day in which it is possible to announce a decrease in the number of homeless? Is it possible to find a public policy that reduces the number to zero?

Mayor Gavin Newsom makes no such pretense, but shortly upon assuming office three years ago he launched an ameliorative program called Care Not Cash, which reduces monetary handouts to the homeless in exchange for permanent housing. The program does seem to have brought the total of homeless to substantially fewer than when it started.

His spokesman denied any political capital to be extracted from those salutary numbers, but a few months stand between now and the re-election the mayor seeks. In the meantime, yes, we may take some satisfaction if some of those hapless men, women, children — maybe even their pets — found their way back to shelter.

Washington requires the counting that was orchestrated in The City on Wednesday night. The effort draws attention to a political issue, but it also reminds us of a sobering prophecy made in the 19th century by Danish thinker Soren Kierkegaard. The modern world, he predicted, would rob us of our souls as we turned individuals into numbers to be studied.

Those are individuals on the streets, requiring of us individual responsibilities — which is why this editorial cites not a single number.

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Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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