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Thursday, May 19, 2011

S.F. Homeless People: How Many Are There Really?

Posted By on Thu, May 19, 2011 at 3:21 PM

click to enlarge Does this count?
  • Does this count?

Earlier this year, we told you about a survey that said tourists feel the worst thing about visiting San Francisco is the incessant panhandling -- they hate it even more than fog at the beach.

But here's some news that's sure not to help reform our gritty image: There are now only 6,455 homeless residents of San Francisco, down from 6,514 in 2009. You see the word "decline" and it seems positive, but some back-of-the-cardboard-box math will tell you the drop in our street population is only 59 people -- and even the city will tell you that's not much.

And because being homeless is technically illegal, it's not really possible to get a full count of how many people are roaming the streets without a place to call home.

Every two years, the city makes its best effort to tally up the number of homeless people living in San Francisco. Volunteers walk specific routes, collecting information and tracking homeless residents on the streets or in shelters. This year, hoping to get a more accurate picture, the city counted the homeless population in jails and hospitals -- something that has not been done before.

But even then, the picture isn't perfect.

"The fact is the count misses a lot," says Bob Offer-Westort, the civil rights organizer for the Coalition on Homelessness. "But I don't think the city is masking anything. It's the same problem everywhere -- nobody is getting a through count."

But what is worth noting is Offer-Westort says there were fewer volunteers counting on the night of Jan. 27. This year, there were only 338, which some homeless activists say is far fewer than what the city has drafted in previous years. The number of volunteers makes a difference, Offer-Westort says.

"The more volunteers, the more that are counted," he tells SF Weekly.

But Dariush Kayhan, deputy director for the Mayor's Office of Housing, says that 338 people was more than enough to get the job done. "We've gotten much better at pre-survey work, so we are more efficient and more effective at knowing where homeless people are prior to deploying the volunteers," he says.

As for the latest tally? Kayhan is the first to admit it's not a perfect science -- and there's no way to make it one. Still, he is pleased with the 1 percent decline in the street population, despite the fact that the number of homeless families skyrocketed from 549 in 2009 to to 635 in 2011.

"It's not a lot, but given that we had a decrease at all in this sustained economic downturn, I think it's fairly impressive," Kayhan says.

What will be even more impressive is if San Francisco reaches its stated goal and ends chronic homelessness by 2014.   

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About The Author

Erin Sherbert

Erin Sherbert

Erin Sherbert was the Online News Editor for SF Weekly from 2010 to 2015. She's a Texas native and has a closet full of cowboy boots to prove it.


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