Methods for counting San Francisco's homeless questioned 

The homeless count: Important measurement or asinine, arbitrary exercise?

The debate rages on, even as hundreds of volunteers prepare to fan out across The City tonight to count people who appear to be homeless. Some 500 volunteers are anticipated to participate in the count, which the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development requires San Francisco and other municipalities to do every two years.

The count is intended to establish a snapshot of the homeless population on city streets, and it is one factor that federal grant providers consider when determining how much money to dole out to municipalities.

However, homeless advocates have long complained that the count’s methods are so flawed that the result is inaccurate. During the count, volunteers are asked to canvass a particular neighborhood and count the number of homeless people they spot. However, they are not supposed to approach or speak to the people, so in some cases they might not be homeless.

“If you see a person and you decide through clairvoyance that they’re homeless, then you count them,” said Bob Offer-Westort, a civil-rights organizer for the Coalition on Homelessness.

Despite his skepticism, Offer-Westort volunteers for the count every time it comes up. Since it is a requirement for federal money, it must be done no matter how arbitrary it is, he said.

But Trent Rhorer, the executive director of The City’s Human Services Agency, defended the process.

“It’s one method we have in measuring the level of homelessness in San Francisco,” Rhorer said. “And when you deploy 350 people to cover every square block of The City, it’s a pretty accurate way to count the people on the street.”

He said it would not be safe to have volunteers approach the people they are counting and in most cases it is obvious if someone is homeless.

“And at 9 or 10 o’clock, when someone is sitting on the sidewalk, it might be pretty easy to determine whether they’re homeless,” Rhorer said.

He said San Francisco receives between $18 million and $20 million each year in Housing and Urban Development Department grants for homeless programs.

But Paul Boden, the organizing director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, said there are many more-scientific methods of counting people experiencing homelessness at a given time.

“If the government wanted a serious analysis of how many people in this country are experiencing homelessness, nobody would say the best way to do that is to have a bunch of volunteers go out for two hours on a January night and do a head count,” Boden said. “It’s ludicrous.”

Living on the street

2002 8,640
2005 6,248



Source: San Francisco Human Services Agency

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Katie Worth

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