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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

S.F. Homeless Count Is a Farce -- And I Know This Because I Volunteered

Posted By on Wed, Jan 28, 2009 at 5:26 PM

click to enlarge Who has one? I have one. One homeless man - DECLAN MCCULLAGH
  • Declan McCullagh
  • Who has one? I have one. One homeless man
When I arrived last night at the Centra Latino de San Francisco -- my home base for the biannual homeless count -- the packed room was already abuzz with nonprofiteers trading acronyms and sweaty handshakes. Whether people worked for the SFHSC or the DSCS, the COHSF or the PHC, it seemed crucial that they include the word "grassroots" in describing their organization. Most had shown up at the request of their superiors, the leaders of nonprofit San Francisco, who know a good opportunity to justify funding when they see one.

The biannual homeless count secures $18 million in federal McKinney-Vento funds for about 50 homeless programs in San Francisco. Although there is no direct connection between the number of homeless counted and the dollars doled out, the homeless count has long been used as an indicator of how well the city is dealing with homelessness. If the number drops, the mayor looks like he's got things under control. When the number increases (it jumped from 6,248 in 2005 to 6,377 in 2007), nonprofits can criticize Newsom and humbly suggest they've got better ideas. Now, if only somebody could throw a little more cash their way ... 

That would all be fine and good, if it weren't for one small and inconvenient fact for everyone involved: The homeless count is a meaningless charade. Anybody who participated (who is not in denial or incredibly stupid) knows that.

Take the volunteer instructions, for example. We were to automatically count people sleeping outside; vehicles with covered windows; and makeshift structures such as tents and boxes. We were not to automatically count people leaving bars or waiting for buses. And finally, we were to take factors like loitering, panhandling, shopping-cart pushing, recycling, inebriation, and dishevelry (yeah, I know, not a word, but it should be) into consideration when deciding who was and wasn't homeless. Talk about subjective. Oh, and under no circumstances were we to actually ask a person whether or not they lived in a home. Perhaps that would make the survey a little too accurate?

When asked why volunteers should rely on their own arbitrary judgments rather than simply asking people if they lived in a home, Daryl Higashi, the city's supportive housing finance director, explained that there would be a follow-up survey of 500 homeless people that would apparently provide all the necessary additional information. He also emphasized that the volunteers not to disturb anyone's privacy -- but that seems strange to me. Getting people off the streets involves communicating with them at some point. So why not now? 

After the training session, volunteers were split into groups of two or three, given maps of areas marked off in yellow, and sent into the night, either by car or on foot, to count the number of people who looked homeless. I got paired up with a nice guy in his 20s who works for an acronym. He didn't want his name or his acronym mentioned in the story cause he didn't know if the boss would like it. I'm not sure if it was because he knew I was a reporter, but the guy took our count very seriously.

Our area looked like a beginner's Tetris game with cut-outs and jagged edges and no easy way to win. The area included small sections of Noe Valley, the Castro, and the Mission, with Valencia Street as the eastern border and Castro Street as the western one. Blue dots on our map were marked "hot spots," although after driving thorugh our area for a while it became clear that we weren't going to get much action.

The first potentially homeless person we encountered on Valencia near 20th Street screamed dishevelry, but he happened to be walking on the side of the street that wasn't our territory, so technically, we weren't supposed to count him. Also, my team member happened to know that guy, and guess what? He wasn't homeless at all. The situation brought up an interesting issue, though: Homeless-looking people sometimes move from one place to another. Would some be counted twice, and others not at all? Would it even out, then? Did any of this even matter? 

Continuing on our route, we drove by a couple of people who had shopping carts full of stuff, but they were in a shadow, and it was too dark to figure out just how homeless they looked. My team member seemed to think it was rude to slow down and stare, so we kept driving, unsure of what to do. If we wrote them down and they weren't homeless, we'd be inflating the numbers and making Gavin Newsom look ever-so-slightly worse than he should. If we didn't write them down, and they were homeless, we might be contributing to an inaccurately low count, which would be a disservice to them. My teammate recorded the people with shopping carts.

In the two hours we drove our area, making sure to cruise through all the alleys and backstreets and parking lots, we only encountered six people who looked more-or-less homeless. Actually, make that seven. (We also ran into Omer Travers, the Valencia Street performer who wears an animal-print rock cape and high-heeled boots, but we happened to know that he wasn't homeless.) There may have been plenty more staying with friends, or hidden from view, or simply not looking homeless enough to make our count.  

All I know is that we gave it our best, and at the end I didn't feel at all confident that we reported a correct number. I could have stuck around to ask people if they had the same experience, but I didn't want to waste any more of my time. No matter how many people's time this wastes, the bottom line is that the city has to do it for funding. But do people have to go on assigning it importance for political gain? We'll find out in a few months, when the whole pointless thing finally comes to an end. Until 2011.   

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Ashley Harrell


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