Counting San Francisco's unhoused -- and why you never ask if they are homeless

Lyanne Melendez Image
Thursday, February 1, 2024
SF's unhoused count, and why they never ask if they are homeless
ABC7 News followed volunteers as they combed through the streets of San Francisco to find and count the number of people who are unhoused.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- On a clear, mild night, groups of volunteers got ready to comb through the streets of San Francisco to find and count the number of people who are unhoused.

A reminder was given before they started to look for people on streets.

Each group was assigned a specific area.

The question "are you homeless?" was never asked. That's not how the point-in-time count is conducted.

Instead, they do a sight inspection, at times offering resources. Then they write down whether they think the person is confirmed, suspected or if no one on the block is unhoused.

"I'm assuming that because she's out there, she's sleeping," explained Edgar Diaz, from Code Tenderloin, as to why he counted a woman on the street as homeless.

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But it helps that many of the volunteers and people working for the nonprofit Code Tenderloin know many of the unhoused in the Tenderloin neighborhood or were once homeless themselves and know who's who.

"Two weeks ago, I was homeless, sleeping on the concrete just like she was so a lot of them I do know," Michael Hollins also from Code Tenderloin.

Del Seymour is out counting -- himself once homeless for 18 years. He told the group how they should approach people on the street.

"No different than if you would approach someone if you were walking up the front stairs of their home. There is no such thing as encampments. Those are for Yosemite. These are dwellings," insisted Seymour.

In San Francisco, the count runs from 8 p.m. to midnight because that's when people are believed to be settled in for the night and less likely to be moving around.

People in cars and in city shelters were also counted.

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The purpose of this nationwide count is to determine if the number of homeless people is going up or down. The results will impact services and federal dollars.

But no one is expecting the numbers to be entirely accurate.

For example, as the group of volunteers went by a closed tent, they could not determine how many people were inside, so they were counted as one individual.

Jordan Hartman of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive said the point-in-time count is the closest they can get to a perfect count. Yes, in no way this is the closest we can get to a perfect count.

As a result, some groups are undercounted.

Dr. Margot Kushel is with the UCSF Benioff Homelessness and Housing initiative.

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"Homeless families do everything they can to stay out of the public eye because they are really worried, for good reason, that their children will be taken from them," said Dr. Kushel.

Young people are also undercounted because many are couch surfing, or staying with friends.

"We know the numbers from last point-in-time count was a little over 1,000 youth experiencing homelessness and we know that number is much higher," explained Karin Adams of the Homeless Youth Alliance.

That's why volunteers in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood conducted their count in the mid-morning hours when young people are more likely to be hanging out on the streets.

Back in the Tenderloin, that evening, we counted between 6-21 unhoused people on each block, including Forrest Bine who had just claimed a spot on the sidewalk to set up his new tent.

"A lot of it has to do with addiction, the choices I made, how I live. I've learned a lot through being homeless and my journey is just as important as anybody else's, I believe," expressed Bine who has been homeless for 10 years.

In the spring, they will have the first set of number out but the full report is expected this summer. That's when San Francisco will find out how many people are homeless.

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