On the rainy evening of January 25th, 250 municipal workers and volunteers were deployed to our city’s streets and alleys to achieve a tally of San Francisco’s homeless residents.
February 14th (after an interval longer than required to tabulate more than 8 million war-weary Iraqi’s votes), Mayor Gavin Newsom revealed to a singularly uncritical press that homelessness citywide decreased “precipitously” since the last such count in the fall of 2002. According to the new survey, overall homelessness in San Francisco declined from 2002’s 8,640 to 5,642, a 28% (actually, its 34%, but we’re citing the Mayor’s press release) reduction, while the numbers of people counted on the streets plummeted 41% from 2002’s 4,535, to 2,655.
This seemingly unprecedented decline was proudly attributed to Mayor Newsom’s Care Not Cash program’s success in drastically diminishing numbers of homeless single adults seeking welfare assistance, as well as this mayoral administration’s sweeping shift to a “Housing First” homelessness policy model.
Assuming the numbers are valid, this represents a unique achievement. Every locality in America seeking federal homelessness assistance dollars must now regularly conduct homeless surveys and censuses, and recent reports reveal the majority of cities and counties that had conducted prior counts experienced marked increases of homelessness. This rise was actually foreshadowed by December ‘04’s U.S. Conference of Mayors Hunger and Homelessness survey, where 70% of participating cities documented an average 6% increase in requests for homelessness assistance.
Unfortunately, numbers derived from snapshot-type surveys like San Francisco’s are useful only if: a) the methodology employed is consistent from sample to sample; and, b) the results are contextualized in more expository timeframes.
The Coalition on Homelessness found fundamental methodological flaws, frequently of the obvious variety, in every past mayoral administration’s attempts to attach a number to San Francisco’s homeless population. The current administration’s recent count raises similar criticisms.
Volunteers were instructed to not interact with those counted, so determinations about who was homeless are, at best, subjective. Rain also played a major factor, forcing homeless bodies deep into whatever cover they could find.
A Coalition intern, keen to perform homeless census activities in her Richmond District neighborhood, was told there would be no canvassing of that area at all, owing to the low number recorded there in 2002. Fortunately, she took it upon herself to cover the district on her own, adding what would have otherwise been absent from this year’s census total.
Then there’s the issue of the City’s parks—forbidden zones for surveyors. We imagine these represent potentially fertile ground for finding homeless people, since the numbers of citations for camping in them (Park Code 3.12) have nearly tripled from 2003’s total of 436 to last year’s total of 1,114. But when queried by Coalition staff, DHS representatives asserted Rec and Park employees were to count the evening’s campers as they exited the parks the next morning, leaving us questioning how they might marshal enough personnel to monitor each park’s perimeters early the next morning.
As for the function of more useful timeframes, last December Boston, MA conducted a homelessness survey revealing a modest 7% decline in homeless people from the previous year’s survey, but this decrease hardly represented an opportunity for even guarded optimism. That’s because Boston’s total of 5,819 homeless people represented a 10% increase over 5,299 tallied a decade earlier.
It’s also troubling that these numbers haven’t yet been analyzed in context with other homelessness indicators, i.e. wouldn’t a 28% reduction in the overall numbers of homeless people in the city be supported by a corresponding decrease in current requests for homeless services? And this is where the danger lies, because declines in homeless numbers, once eagerly reified by unquestioning reporters, leaves San Franciscans with lasting impressions that the City’s rapidly-diminishing funds can now be directed to needs other than life-saving homeless services.
In fact, despite the obvious pressure felt by this administration to produce remarkable results, the numbers released on Valentine’s Day are just that—numbers. When pressed by Coalition staff members to produce more substantial documentation and analysis of the survey results than a Mayoral press release, DHS Director of Homeless Programs Dariush Kayhan admitted that such a report wouldn’t be available for at least two weeks.
If Mayor Newsom wants to point to numbers as a measure of short-term success, the 690 homeless people his policies have placed in stable housing, with a 95% housing retention rate, are numbers of which he can be rightly proud. We are happy to congratulate this administration on that achievement. But throwing around sensational and uncorroborated statistics disservices both homeless people and a public hungry for tangible improvement.