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The City Learns to Count

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The particular brand of spin employed by the Newsom régime has made excellent use of statistics (see here ), damned statistics ( ibid. ), and some other stuff. Of note is the claim in this year’s State of the City Address that 4,263 homeless people have left San Francisco’s streets since Mayor Newsom took office. Fourteen months prior to Newsom’s swearing in as the Mayor, da Mayor Willie Brown’s City government conducted a census in which 8,640 San Franciscans without houses were counted. This should mean, then, that there are a mere 4,377 homeless people left in the city of San Francisco, and that Care Not Cash and the Project Homeless Connect merry-go-round have effectively halved the city’s homeless population, right?


Well. No. Wrong. We’re not completely sure where the Mayor draws that 4,263 number from: Clearly he’s counting the 2,222 people placed in “permanent” ten-year-lease single-room-occupancy hotel rooms and the 1,656 people Greyhound-therapied to Somewhere Else (with Somewhere Else frequently lying within the state of California) through the Homeward Bound program. There’s an additional 385, there, which is—whether Newsom means for it to be or not—just about right for the number of homeless people who have passed away in that time.

What that number does not include is the extent to which more people: have been made homeless through Ellis Act evictions or rising rents; have moved to the city; or have entered the city through birth into one of San Francisco’s 2,600 homeless families.

If you want to know what’s really going on, what’s needed is a proper count of the homeless population of the city.

This has, unfortunately, historically been a difficult number to find. The city’s first two homeless counts, in April and October of 2000, were conducted with a certain self-conscious humility: It was acknowledged that April’s 100 volunteers could not find every homeless person in the city in a span of two hours, and that this problem, while ameliorated by the ten-person increase of October, was far from solved.

In 2001, the City was far more confident of its numbers, and with some reason: The Mayor’s Office on Homelessness had only managed to recruit another ten enumerators, but had gained a good deal of experience. Unfortunately, the count remained incomplete as enumerators were unable finish counting Districts 7 and 8. District 8 in particular has been acknowledged to contain a significant homeless population.

2002 saw a substantial increase in the count, but in that same year all districts were completely counted, and the number of enumerators had more than doubled to 300 individuals.

In that same year, George Smith, Director of the Mayor’s Office on Homelessness, felt comfortable declaring that homeless counts had come to an end in San Francisco: The introduction of the CHANGES Homeless Management Information System (HMIS, we in the biz call it) would, “allow for a monthly census of need in the City thus eliminating the need for our annual Homeless Count…”

The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development was not on the same page. According to a 2004 HUD report: “…[N]ot all unsheltered homeless people will interact with outreach providers. As a result, periodic efforts to count and collect data on unsheltered homeless people will continue to be very important even as HMIS develops.”

And the rain officially fell on CHANGES’ parade in January of 2005, when HUD required San Francisco (like all Continuum of Care recipients of HUD funding) to conduct a, “statistically reliable, unduplicated [count] or [estimate] of homeless persons in sheltered and unsheltered locations at a one-day point in time.”

The 2005 count saw two major changes from 2002: First, the number of enumerators dropped by a sixth. This alone had a tremendous impact on the number of unhoused people counted. But equally important was a little bit of statistical monkey-work: Instead of conducting a comprehensive count of San Francisco, the 2005 count only looked for homeless people in “known locations” in Districts 1, 2, 4, 7, and 11. That number was then augmented by an average of previous years’ counts for those districts. However, because 2002 was seen as unusually high, only the numbers from the 2000 and 2001 counts were used to determine the appropriate estimated population in 2005. As we know that 2000 and 2001 were low counts, this represents an artificial minimizing of the homeless population in San Francisco.

On the very next page of the count’s final report, the 2005 count is compared to the just-discredited (though unjustly discredited) 2002. This allowed the Mayor to claim a 28% reduction in San Francisco’s homeless population, effectively through rigged numbers. Had 2005’s homeless count been compared to 2001’s numbers (from which, remember, almost half of the City’s 2005 district counts had been determined), the City would have seen only half the apparent reduction. Alternately, if the better-counted 2002 numbers had been employed, a similarly more modest reduction would have been calculated.

But who cares? These are just numbers, right? No matter how the City chooses to count them, there will be homeless people in Golden Gate Park, in the Mission, South of Market, in the Tenderloin, on Fisherman’s Wharf—everywhere, until we have adequate social services and sufficient affordable housing. Fancy statistics can’t mask a reality this big.

But these numbers can and do have an impact on funding, and that (beyond the issue of civic honesty and accountability) is why these numbers matter. The number of homeless people counted by the biannual census helps determine the extent to which Continuum of Care homeless assistance programs are funded by HUD. As and if these counts become more reliable, they have the potential to play a role in state funding for the Mental Health Services Act, which has thus far been unable to take into account homeless populations.

We’re not going to end this on a cynical note. This year, the Human Services Agency and the Local Homeless Coordinating Board, aided by AbbottLittle Consultants, has made some sincere moves toward a better count: To begin with, HSA sought input from the community in an open forum, and maintained communications with local organizations. This year’s count will not be the “known locations” count which artificially decreased the homeless population of half of San Francisco’s districts in 2005, but will aim for complete coverage of the city. Another interesting change is the placement of “testers” in the field, who will report back on whether or not they were counted, thus giving the HSA some notion of what portion of the homeless population was left uncounted.

But the most important change is in the number of volunteers: This year, planners hope for a total of 500 volunteers, representing 200% of the total number of enumerators in 2005, or 167% the number of enumerators in 2002—the count’s most effective year. But for this to actually happen, a lot of volunteers need to come forward.

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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