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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Is S.F.'s Homeless Problem Actually Improving?

Posted By on Wed, Dec 23, 2015 at 4:21 PM

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Here’s a mind-blowing proposition: What if San Francisco is actually doing a good job alleviating its homeless problem?

You’d be forgiven if you were briefly paralyzed with laughter at the idea. But this potentially stunning claim comes by way of the US Conference of Mayors’ annual report on hunger and homelessness, released Tuesday.

The Conference, a policy group composed of big cheeses from US cities with populations of more than 30,000, says that homelessness was on the rise all over the country in the last year — but that San Francisco has bucked the trend by reducing the number of homeless and providing exemplary service for those who remain.

No, really, this is the actual report. It’s not some kind of gag report they threw out on a holiday week assuming no one would read it.

In general, the number of homeless people in 21 participating cities increased by an average of 1.6 percent. San Francisco’s report card looks pretty spiffy by that standard: a 7 percent decrease in individual homeless and a heartening 34 percent decrease in homeless families, for a total of 6,042 homeless San Franciscans, not counting those in transitional housing.

This contradicts results from the city's biennial homeless count, released back in July, which showed an increase of 3.88 percent over last year (about 200 people) to a total of 6,686, continuing a trend of steady annual increases for the decade.

The Mayor’s Conference estimates homeless populations by crunching numbers about demand for relief services, which might distort the findings — what if there are more homeless but they’re for some reason putting less strain on the system?

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On the other hand, the city’s methods for tallying the homeless — sending teams of volunteers to walk the streets and count the number of transients on a single night — is not above reproach either.

So let’s entertain this crazy notion for a second. If the Conference is right and San Francisco really did get people off the streets, then why does the problem seem worse now than ever?

Well, the report did offer that 48 percent of the city’s homeless are mentally ill, way above the general average of 29 percent. This would make for a homeless population that’s more, well, visible, and more likely to engage in behaviors like the public crapping that contributes the present sense of emergency.

Also, 48 percent of San Francisco homeless are physically disabled, 46 percent are victims of domestic violence, and 11 percent are HIV positive, all (shamefully) much higher than the general mean. But by contrast, only 11 percent of homeless San Franciscans are employed, the fourth lowest figure on the list.

(Washington DC was the dubious number one in that category at 34 percent.)

This would suggest that we’re relieving homelessness generally, but that the homeless who remain are from the most vulnerable populations. That’s really not a good thing, but it would that we’re still helping a lot of people. Theoretically.

This could also be a matter of clearing a low bar. Most of the other 20 cities are perilously short on shelter space. McKinney, Texas, turns away 86 percent of people seeking emergency housing; Charleston, North Carolina, turns away 60 percent; Los Angeles, 39 percent. And San Francisco? Zero.

Yes, zero. Everybody who came looking for a bed found one, a feat matched only by Salt Lake City.

The reports also seems pretty impressed by the recently opened Navigation Center, praising its flexible and holistic approach and the degree and variety of services offered, calling it “comfortable and attractive” and praising it for “meeting clients where they’re at.”

So there’s a contradiction for you: We can simultaneously be doing a lousy job and doing better than any 20 other given cities in America. Depending on your point of view.

The findings are probably still a tough sell for locals. Elena Temple-Webb, spokesperson for the Conference of Mayors, notes that the report worked off of numbers provided by city agencies and that if there’s a discrepancy “your question should be directed at them.” 
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The report cites Joyce Crum, director of housing and homelessness for the San Francisco Human Services agency, as the source of local data, but Crum was not available for comment. 
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