A Wrinkle In the Point-In-Time

The biennial homeless count in S.F. provides interesting data in a flawed package.

(Photo by Gabrielle Lurie)

On a dark January night, hundreds of volunteers spread across San Francisco’s streets, clipboards in hand. Small groups marched down alleys in SoMa, peered into tent encampments in the Dogpatch, and scribbled down notes as they stepped over people sleeping in the Tenderloin. The biennial Point-In-Time count drew 750 volunteers, who, over the span of several hours, made a valiant attempt to count every single person experiencing homelessness in San Francisco.

Last week, the results were released: 7,499 individuals in all. City officials rejoiced. The number is slightly lower than 2015’s count, by 40 people.

“This year’s Point-in-Time count results are sobering but demonstrate that our investments, particularly around youth, families, and chronically homeless veterans, are having a positive impact,” said Jeff Kositsky, director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing.

This sounds like good news, but the margin of error is huge — much wider than the small victory of 40 fewer people living on the city’s streets. The Point-In-Time count is flawed in its methodology, but the real damage is done in its presentation.

The count is conducted on one night only, but its data is often interpreted as if it’s reflective of an entire year. In reality, people come in and out of homelessness, and those who are on the streets one night might be crashing on a friend’s sofa the next. The citywide crackdown on tents and encampments has forced many people to be stealthy about their lifestyles, hiding out of the authorities’ sight — and therefore away from Point-In-Time volunteers. And without talking to every person counted, it’s easy to misidentify someone as homeless, or housed, based solely on their appearance.

Flawed as it may be, the Point-In-Time does serve a clear purpose, by estimating the thousands of people who live on S.F.’s streets. And within the data are some compelling trends. For example, District 10, which includes the Bayview, contains more than a quarter of the homeless people counted on that night in January — but the district has only seven percent of the city’s total homeless services. A survey that coincided with the count reported that 30 percent of people living on the streets identify as LGBTQ. Thirty-four percent identified as Black or African-American. And contrary to the belief that our city’s homeless population comes from elsewhere, 69 percent of survey respondents reported they were living in San Francisco at the time they became homeless.

But one of the most valuable pieces of data in the whole report may be the duration of time that people on the streets of San Francisco spend without a home. Fifty-nine percent of those surveyed stated that they’d been homeless for a year or more, a significant increase over 2015’s 51 percent. Chronic homelessness is a sign that our system is failing. All the Navigation Centers and city shelters in the world will not help to solve the problem of homelessness if there isn’t any available housing to transition people to.

Aside from enlightening local nonprofits and the government about the complexities of S.F.’s homeless population, the Point-In-Time count is also a mandatory requirement from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which gives more than $32 million to the city each year. In addition, Mayor Ed Lee has proposed a $245.4 million budget to fund homeless and housing services for the 2017-2018 fiscal year. The money will be distributed through the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, which was formed last year.

But for Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, the money is not nearly enough to address the problem.

“The combination of a continued lack of investment in affordable homeless centered housing on the federal level and skyrocketing rents has led to huge increases in homelessness in cities across the West Coast,” she says. “While San Francisco has managed to stave off those increases with investments to address particular populations, it is truly disheartening to call keeping the status quo a victory, when so many are seeing their futures dim as they languish on our streets or in shelters.  We still only spend 2.7 percent of our city budget on homelessness, and clearly have a long a ways to go to end homelessness in San Francisco.”

The next Point-In-Time count takes place in January 2019. It will be a test as to whether Lee’s bump in funding for homeless services will create statistical results.

View Comments