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SF houses more homeless people than almost any other city

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And yet it could—and should—do more

A homeless man sleeps under a bench. Photo via Shutterstock

San Francisco’s chronic homeless crisis revolves around the biennial, federally mandated point-in-time homeless count, which delivers terrible news for SF every two years. The 2019 count turned out particularly bad for SF after submitting an official figure of more than 8,000 persons.

But the National Homeless Information Project (NHIP), which bills itself as “a grassroots effort to increase sharing and understanding of homeless services data,” says that the process obscures most of the work cities like SF do to relieve homelessness.

Unlike the flawed point-in-time count, the grassroots group ranks metro region’s homeless response by counting not just people who are homeless right now but also people who use supportive housing services to escape becoming unsheltered.

In cities like SF, the number of at-risk people in city-provided housing is much higher than the number of homeless persons—over 9,500 in all. So rather than 8,000 or so originally estimated, SF should really be counting well over 17,000—but in this context the higher number is actually a good thing.

NHIP also grants cities a score based on the the number of people in different types of supportive housing. A perfect score of 100 would mean that every formerly homeless person is now permanently housed, while zero would mean that 100 percent of the homeless population is unsheltered. The national average is 55.6.

Compared to that national figure, SF’s score is much better than one would expect, scoring 60.3 and landing in 174th place out of nearly 400 communities.

Of those people without permanent housing, over 2,400 lived in emergency shelters, which leaves 5,180 unsheltered.

While this method does provide a more comprehensive view of both the homeless crisis and the response to it than the bare count alone, the problem with it becomes apparent almost immediately.

SF has one of the highest populations of unsheltered homeless residents in the country, behind only Seattle, Los Angeles, and larger Bay Area regions like Alameda County and the South Bay. But the city gets good marks despite this—which feels at best counterintuitive.

The fact that SF is also sheltering more at-risk people than almost any metro region in the U.S. (only LA and New York City do more) is certainly significant. But this only underscores exactly how bad the problem is.

NHIP coordinator Michael Ullman’s argues that observers are using the wrong standards. “Just like domestic violence shelters don’t reduce domestic violence,” homeless shelters aren’t designed to end homelessness, Ullman tells Curbed SF. Rather, they just “house people who request housing—based on the amount of money they are given”—so that’s what the numbers measure.

The NHIP approach does at least answer the age-old question of why, if SF spends so much money on homeless services, the problem is still so bad?

The answer is that most of that money goes toward housing. In the San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) budget for 2017 and 2018, housing and housing subsidies took up nearly two-thirds of spending.

In that sense, the number to watch is not just how many people are are homeless, but also how many more would be if SF stopped doing anything about it.