S.F. homeless count starts tonight 

Tonight, hundreds of volunteers and city workers will spread out across San Francisco to find out how many people are living on The City’s streets.

Required every two years by federal law, San Francisco last counted its homeless population in January of 2005 — arriving at a total of 6,248, including homeless people in emergency shelters, hospitals, treatment centers and jail, as well as those on the street.

Tonight’s count will be conducted from 8 p.m. to midnight and involve more than 400 volunteers and about 60 city workers, according to Trent Rhorer, executive director of San Francisco’s Human Services Agency.

Homeless advocates have challenged the accuracy and the methodology of the counts, saying the number of people living on the streets or in parks, squatting in abandoned buildings, or squashed into overcrowded single-room-occupancy units is much higher than what The City reports.

"How can you say that someone is homeless by looking at them?" said 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."

According to Rhorer, the count participants "use their best judgment."

"If someone has a shopping cart, or they’re sleeping in a doorway, it’s the best we can do," Rhorer said. "The homeless count is not designed to get an actual precise number, it’s more a way to measure trends and get a general number. If we miss a couple of hundred people here and there it’s not that big of a difference."

The highly visible problem of homelessness in San Francisco is rife with controversy and political consequences, with several recent mayors struggling to find compassionate and effective solutions.

Mayor Gavin Newsom, who was elected to office in 2003 partly on a pledge to end chronic homelessness, touted 2005’s total — a 27 percent drop from the 8,640 homeless persons counted in 2002 — as a sign of success for his Care Not Cash program, which significantly reduces a homeless person’s general assistance check in exchange for housing.

Since January 2004, San Francisco has placed 2,590 formerly homeless individuals into permanent housing, according to city data.

Prada and other homeless advocates have also charged that the 2005 survey significantly undercounted the numbers of homeless people in San Francisco because it didn’t cover all neighborhoods.

San Francisco focused the 2005 count on predetermined areas where the homeless are known to congregate, confirmed Rhorer, who added that The City followed federally approved methodology used by many other cities.

"I don’t think the number would have been appreciatively higher if we had covered all areas of the Sunset or the OMI [Ocean View-Merced Heights-Ingleside], residential areas like that," Rhorer said.

This year’s count will attempt to cover the entire geographic area of San Francisco, according to Rhorer. To achieve the count, planners have divided The City into 150 areas, which counters will travel by foot or by car, noting all homeless persons observed on tally sheets, according to city officials.

beslinger@examiner.com

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