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SF homeless population may be more than double what we think

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Official federal count dwarfed by city database

A single brown shoe lying in the gutter on a San Francisco street. Via Shutterstock

Every two years, San Francisco performs its point-in-time homeless count to estimate the city’s homeless population, most recently yielding a figure of over 8,000 in January.

However, this is neither the only way for the city to count homeless residents nor the most reliable. On Tuesday, the New York Times noted a secondary method that reveals a drastically higher number—in this case, 17,595 persons as of the end of the fiscal year in June.

The source of this figure is “a city database of homeless people who receive health care and other services from the city,” to which SF’s Department of Public Health (DPH) refers.

The Times is hardly the first outlet to use this method. Mission Local reported the 17,000-plus figure in June, reporting that the count was up 30 percent compared to the previous year.

In 2016, the San Francisco Chronicle also cited the much higher health department figure too, pointing out that the city system “tracks people who have experienced homelessness at any point during an entire fiscal year” instead of counting the population on just one night.

Although seemingly more comprehensive than the point-in-time count, the database method of tallying is squishy too. After all, DPH is not counting how many people in SF are homeless; it’s counting how many people use health services for homeless residents—which could well be two different figures.

Spokesperson Rachael Kagan cautions the New York Times that the 30 percent 2019 increase might represent not an increase in the homeless population but instead the department’s more aggressive outreach.

The point-in-time homeless count is itself inconsistent, this year yielding two different SF totals—one over 8,000 and one over 9,700, depending on which definition of homelessness the analysis applies.

As required buy the federal government, the city will continue performing the point-in-time count every two years and will continue deferring to the results despite more reliable methods at its fingertips.

The federal government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development demands that cities conduct a count every two years and mandates the method.

It’s not a ritual that cities conduct every odd-numbered year because anyone wants to, so these criticisms are unlikely to results in any systemic change.