San Francisco Will Continue With Late Night Homeless Count After Proposal to Change Hours Garners Criticism


Presented with a request by the San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (SF HSH) to perform the City’s mandated biennial homeless count at earlier hours than normal, the Local Homeless Coordinating Board (LHCB) voted Friday afternoon to keep its late evening hours.

By their very nature, homeless counts are inherently flawed — but needed to understand the level of homeless in any one area. (At best, these surveys provide data-backed inferences that can then be extrapolated onto trends to gauge the size of a homeless population; the “mobile homeless” — those who live in their vehicles and occasionally travel outside the city they mostly dwell in — are often underrepresented in these surveys.) However, “point-in-time” counts carried out in the evening appear to be the most accurate.

According to the Examiner, the SF HSH presented a few changes for this year’s count to accommodate for COVID-19. One suggestion was to hold the count from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m., a stark change from the 8 p.m. to 12 a.m. slot it’s always occupied.

It also shaved off an hour to gather needed counts.

As members of the LHCB also pointed out: moving the biennial count to such an early hour would not only dissuade volunteers from offering help but also make it more difficult to locate homeless individuals who might be asleep in tents — and would result in an undercount.

The newspaper noted, too, that these every-other-year point-in-time counts are required of communities across the nation by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, with those findings being used later to allocate funding and influence future policy decisions.

During Friday’s meeting, the SF HSH, as baffling as it sounds, said the coordinating board had no preference about what time the count would be held — and that there might have been “some confusion” during a prior meeting.

“We had some confusion the last time,” said Abigail Stewart-Kahn, the SF HSH’s interim director, regarding that earlier review. “We felt we were trying to be responsive to the board’s request to take a look at an early morning count.”

A memo sent by SF HSH officials said that less “non-homeless people” would be outside during those early morning hours, allowing volunteers to better differentiate between those who aren’t experiencing homelessness — but it also cited the problems moving the time would have securing the amount of volunteers needed to conduct a thorough count.

The process — no matter what time the count begins — will nonetheless include some level of error.

“Nothing is going to be perfect,” LHCB member Erick Brown adds, “I don’t see one over the other is going to be that much better to get a perfect count. There is funding attached to this. And we need to do the best that we can.”

This year’s homeless point-in-time count will take place on January 29  and include volunteers traveling along at least 160 pre-selected routes across San Francisco to observe and tally unsheltered homeless individuals; those in sheltered homeless shelters — like Navigation Centers — are included in the count, but represented in a different counting method.

The 2019 point-in-time survey counted 8,035 homeless individuals in the city, representing more than 14% over the 2017 count. However, another report from the SF HSH that same year found 9,700-plus homeless who were not physically on the street on the night of the count, but might be at a future time; this would include individuals released from jails, hospitals, SROs, or people living in short-term arrangements.

To find more information on past point-in-time surveys, visit hsh.sfgov.org/about/research-and-reports/san-francisco-homeless-point-in-time-count-reports/.

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Image: Courtesy of Getty Images via MattGush



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