Wide variances on homeless counts in San Francisco

March data shows 41 percent rise in tents, structures; population estimates range from 8K to 19K; official count due in July

Homeless population numbers
(Getty; Illustration by The Real Deal)

To many observers, the number of homeless people in San Francisco has risen sharply during the coronavirus pandemic. The question is: how many individuals are without a home in the city?

Government data on homeless residents of the city is imprecise – current estimates vary from 8,000 to 19,000 people, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. The most recent data show a 41 percent increase in the number of homeless tents and structures last March from a year before.

“We all desperately need to have a much better way of systematically assessing whether people are experiencing homelessness,” said Dr. Margot Kushel, director of the UCSF Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative. “Right now everything we do has its own inaccuracies.”

Many signs point to a growing problem made worse by the pandemic, which experts say makes getting an accurate count especially urgent.

Three different methods offer different estimates: a point in time count; public health case management data; and observations by the mayor’s Healthy Streets Operations Center, which provides the latest data. Each method has drawbacks, according to the newspaper.

The Healthy Streets data includes the number of tents, vehicles, structures and encampments observed around the city. While surveys point to where help is needed most, they don’t indicate the number of people in each tent, car, or camp.

In March, the Healthy Streets Operation counted 537 tents and structures — 41 percent more than the count in April 2019.

The federally mandated Point-in-Time, or PIT count, is the most “official” data related to homelessness – an every-other-year, one-night tally of homeless people on the streets, or in shelters. A new PIT count was due in 2021, but the pandemic postponed it until February, with results expected in July.

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The PIT count, which the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires for federal funding, is considered the “primary source of nationwide data on homelessness.

The downside is the count is likely to underestimate the number of homeless residents, according to advocates and experts, because it’s only a one-night snapshot and misses people couch-surfing with friends or staying in hotels.

A pre-pandemic PIT count in 2019 pegged San Francisco’s homeless population at 8,035 people — a 17 percent increase from nearly 6,800 people in 2017.

Public health case management data shows how many people access services throughout the year. The city’s public health department cross-checks data from its case management system with people reported to be homeless by the Homelessness and Supportive Housing Department. The city is working to include data from more departments.

The result is a much larger estimate on the city’s homeless population: at least 19,000 people were homeless in San Francisco at some point in 2020, the most recent year for which data was available from the health department, according to the newspaper.

But because of year-to-year variations in services provided, this data may be less useful for comparing trends over time, especially as the department changes to a new case management system.

[San Francisco Chronicle] – Dana Bartholomew

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