Mayor’s Homeless Count report: Just as invisible as many homeless San Franciscans

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By Rebecca Bowe

On an evening in late January, hundreds of volunteers hit the streets of San Francisco to complete the 2009 Homeless Count, a biennial point-in-time head count of homeless persons in the city. The count is required by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development for all jurisdictions receiving federal funding to provide housing and services for the homeless. To do it, city staffers from various departments team up with volunteers to go out into city streets, emergency shelters, drop-in centers, jails and hospitals to take a tally of how many homeless people they encounter.

In the weeks leading up to it, the Mayor Gavin Newsom issued a press release announcing that he was working with the city’s Human Services Agency to conduct the point-in-time count. “Having an accurate count of our homeless community is essential in determining the effectiveness of our homeless outreach efforts," Newsom said in a statement. “We’ve got a long way to go toward ending chronic homelessness in San Francisco, but this count will help us to continue in the right direction."

We called the Mayor’s Office of Communications in January and asked them to keep us in the loop when the results of the homeless count were released. Given the tanking economy, home foreclosures, and anecdotal accounts of rising homelessness, we were interested to see what this survey might reveal. Yet after submitting a series of requests to the MOC earlier this week for the homeless count results, we were finally told: “There has not been a report that has been released.”

Really? How strange. Because Jennifer Friedenbach from the Coalition on Homelessness later forwarded us a document from the city titled “2009 Homeless Count: Executive Summary,” featuring an introduction, survey methods, homeless count results, and analysis. Looks like a report. Sounds like a report. It must be a report!

Anyhow, here are the findings: a total of 6,514 homeless people were counted, which brings the official number of homeless people in San Francisco up 2 percent from the 2007 total of 6,377. Based on these numbers, “In 2009, homelessness was 25 percent lower overall than in 2002, and the street homeless population was reduced by 40 percent.”

The number of homeless staying in shelters increased six percent since 2007, the report notes, but it offers that this increase “may be explained in part by the addition of approximately 150 rooms to the stock of stabilization rooms since 2007 and the inclusion of the Oshun Women’s Drop In Center in the 2009 count.”

Friedenbach told the Guardian that the reality she encounters every day through her work looks much different than this official portrait of homelessness. “Clearly the report isn’t capturing the huge increase in homeless people that we’ve been seeing in San Francisco,” she told us. “We know we’ve had a doubling of the wait list for shelter for homeless families, and we know that the homeless drop-in centers have seen at least a 50 percent increase in their day-to-day operations, in terms of increases in the number of people who are passing through their doors every day.”

Homeless advocates have long criticized point-in-time homeless counts as being notoriously inaccurate. “In order to really estimate our true need for affordable housing, [it] would need to be captured over time,” Friedenbach says. “It relies on a visual sighting of homeless people. But we have people coming into our office every day, and I would have no idea what their housing status is by looking at them.”

In the analysis section, the report concludes, “San Francisco remains a destination for homeless persons from other areas, inhibiting the City’s progress toward reducing the overall homeless population.” This statement is based on survey results showing that 22 percent of respondents became homeless outside of San Francisco -- but just 12 percent of that group indicated that they had come here “to access homeless services.”

Another way of looking at this, Friedenbach points out, is that less than 3 percent of the total came here seeking services, while 78 percent became homeless while living in San Francisco. “The proportion of homeless respondents who became homeless while living in San Francisco has increased dramatically since the last count, rising from 69 percent in 2007 to 78 percent in 2009,” she points out. “While we have made significant headway in addressing the systemic causes of homelessness on the local level, the combination of a continued lack of investment in affordable housing on the federal level and the southward fall of the economy has led to the re-emergence of homelessness across the United States and here in San Francisco.”

Below are the historic results included in the 2009 homeless count:

2009 total: 6,514
2007 total: 6,377
2005 total: 6,248
2002 total: 8,640