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DEAD PEOPLE DON’T COUNT

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Results are out from the Mayor’s Office annual homeless count — a one night excursion where some volunteers along with many others whose paychecks come from city coffers go out and count homeless people.

Apparently, this is the last time it will be done, as they will be switching to a look at the newly installed quarter million dollar computer system now being put in place at drop-in centers to determine the number next year. New York has a similar set up, complete with fingerprinting and phone calls to your family and friends by Human Services, to see if they would put you up. They are now going to do a street count in addition to the computer count, because it is considered such an under count.

Each year, the Mayor’s office gets more volunteers, and includes more programs, and the number creeps upward. This year they included a bunch of treatment programs that were not included last year, and while this may be confusing, there was no increase in treatment beds as indicated in the Mayor’s Office press release.

There were, however, more shelter beds as three churches/community centers stepped in to stay open year round. Here is a sketch of the results:

  • 8,640 homeless Individuals, an 18% increase from last year (consistent with national average of 19% according to US Conference of Mayor’s). This included 4,535 counted on the streets – a 43% increase.
  • All but two districts saw an increase in homeless people
  • Districts 6 and 10 (Tenderloin, South Market, Bayview, Potrero Hill) had the largest proportion of homeless people.

This has never been meant to be an accurate count, it is a mix between a public relations event and a tool to look at neighborhood impacts. The count is primarily conducted in a “drive-by” fashion, and guesses are made at the number of people in cars and under blankets. It happens late at night, and homeless people are counted on site. In other words, there is no dialogue that happens with the volunteers, they are instructed simply to make assumptions about housing status, based on bags and shopping carts accompanying the people. People who do not appear homeless, are not counted as homeless, which of course leaves out a whole lot of folks. Therefore, reasons for homelessness and demographics are generally not recorded, except for information received from programs.

While a great deal of fanfare surrounds the annual count of homeless people, there is another count, an even more solemn count, which remains buried in a paupers grave along with thousands who have died without a place to call home. The annual homeless deaths review ceased to exist in 1999 in the Department of Public Health. Community members have been mourning the loss ever since.

Since the late ‘80s, the Tenderloin Times did an annual homeless death review, where deaths from the Medical Examiners Office where researched to identify whether the individuals died homeless or not. When the Tenderloin Times folded several years later, the Coalition on Homelessness urged the Department of Public Health to take on the count. This was 1996, and Mayor Willie Brown just got elected on an “anti- Matrix” platform. With Matrix dead, DPH had a few extra outreach workers, and at our urging, formed the Homeless Death Prevention Team. A Homeless Deaths Community Advisory Board was formed to oversee the Team, to produce an annual report, with the approval of Health Department Epidemiologists. Recommendations were made to the Department to prevent future deaths, and the Board acted as an internal advocacy force to forge systemic changes.

The annual review continued, until the last year it was completed, 1999. Public Health had staffing assigned to this, who were then reassigned to bio-terrorism before the report was complete for 2000.

The Coalition on Homelessness has repeatedly tried to get the Department to re-start the study without success. From outside funding, to state bill requiring localities to do the study, these efforts have led nowhere. We are now ready to step it up.

Dead homeless people do not lie. Their deaths draw a picture of shameless neglect, for few can imagine anything worse then dying without a home, without dignity, without warmth. To be left deceased laying on a piece of cardboard, soaking wet, without passing pedestrians noticing a thing tells us something about ourselves as a society.

We are demanding the following:

  • End Preventable Homeless Deaths
  • Serious Commitment to permanently institutionalize homeless death study within the Dept. of Public Health.
  • Re-institute homeless people’s oversight committee to make recommendations for change within the Health Dept.
  • Adhere to existing San Francisco Definition of Homelessness in the study

PLEASE JOIN US:
Funeral Procession & Protest
Tuesday, January 21, 2003 @ 12:00 noon
Meet at Powell and Market
Wear Black • Music • Food

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Author: Street Sheet Editor

The STREET SHEET is the oldest continuously published street news paper in the United States. Organizationally, it is the public education and outreach tool of the Coalition on Homelessness. Every month, the STREET SHEET reaches 32,000 readers through over 200 homeless or low-income vendors. Our vendors are charged nothing for the papers they receive, and keep all money they earn through STREET SHEET distribution.

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