How San Francisco Counts Its Homeless

The Homeless Point-in-Time Count, conducted every two years, took place again last week as hundreds of volunteers hit the streets with clipboards.

Franco Folini/Flickr

How does San Francisco know how many homeless people are living on the city’s streets? Every two years, the city conducts a process known as the San Francisco Homeless Point-In-Time Count wherein nearly 800 volunteers walk every single block of the city to conduct a census of the homeless population.

The 2017 Homeless Point-in-Time Count took place Thursday night, and for the first year was handled by the city’s new Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. But this is not just a San Francisco thing. Every city in the U.S. that receives federal homeless assistance funds is required to perform a Homeless Point-In-Time Count every other year.

The count is performed almost entirely by volunteers, and a record number of San Franciscans turned out to walk the streets and count homeless people on a chilly January night. So many people volunteered that the Department of Homelessness had to shut down registration and turn volunteers away.  

A few unexpected faces were among this army of volunteers, including District 2 Supervisor Mark Farrell — yes, the same Mark Farrell who authored the Prop. Q tent ban that passed this November — and newly elected Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who represents Bernal Heights and the Mission District.

“The Mission District is ground zero of the tent encampment crisis in our city,” Ronen tells SF Weekly. “I want to understand the problem from the ground level up. I want to be in the streets. I want to be talking to homeless people and residents and everyone affected by this crisis.”

Volunteers were assigned to team up into groups of three or four, and each team was given a route consisting of roughly 10 to 12 blocks. A total of 168 routes were assigned, each with an individual map, ensuring that every city block and sidewalk was covered by the homeless counters.

Teams were also given clipboards and a tally sheet to record the number of homeless people they saw on their routes. Counters were instructed to record the homeless individuals’ gender, with designations for male, female, trans, and “Unknown,” and whether the homeless person appeared to be aged under 18, 19-24, or over 25 years old.

Needless to say, there’s quite a bit of guesswork to this process. The counts were particularly imprecise when counters saw homeless people camped in tents. Volunteers were simply instructed count the number of tents on their route, and to record whether they could tell how many people were in the tent. If they couldn’t tell how many people were in a tent, counters were told to mark “Unknown”.

That is not a perfect process for determining how many San Franciscans are camping in tents on the streets. But for safety reasons, volunteers were told to not engage verbally with homeless people and to just count them.

The teams also counted homeless people who were on buses, in Muni subways, or in BART stations. “My husband is a wonderful person, and he is currently counting every BART station in San Francisco,” said Megan Owens of the Local Homeless Coordinating Board, before sending the volunteers out to count.

The final results of the San Francisco Homeless Point-In-Time Count are expected to be tallied by the spring of 2017. The previous count conducted in 2015 found 6,686 homeless people living in San Francisco.

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