Volunteers note if street people are single or part of a family unit, youth or adults. They also look for signs of shopping carts, encampments and vehicular housing, and also if they have pets. Photo by Grace Y. Lim/Flickr

Making the Homeless Count

When the war in Iraq started in March 2003, I had been out of work for eight months and was down to my last $30. I was worried about where my next meal would come from. I knew I could get fed at Glide and St. Anthony’s. But I went to Martin de Porres on Portreo Hill, instead. No one would know me there.

When I went to their soup kitchen, I stood in line behind a half-dozen people. I had a bowl of vegetable soup with a green salad, a roll and a glass of water. It was the first time I had ever sat and had lunch with homeless people. I felt ashamed. It was a humbling experience.

After two years, I felt like a regular. I would spot the usual cast of characters — the homeless, the afflicted, the elderly, the unemployed, the mentally ill.
I heard enough horror stories about homeless shelters to make me want to avoid them. Fortunately, I never had to stay in one.

When I saw the ad in January’s Street Sheet calling for volunteers to count homeless people in the city, I felt qualified. I was almost evicted myself and I had previously worked for the Census Bureau.

I called the homeless coordinating board and volunteered. At 6:50 p.m. on January 31, I arrived at orientation at the Department of Public Health on Polk and Grove streets, across from City Hall.

At the pep rally preceding our training session, Mayor Gavin Newsom noted the “audacity of calling for a 10-year plan to end homelessness.” Project Homeless Connect, he said, is a model for more than 100 U.S. cities with similar programs.

“Don’t be distressed,” he said, referring to the number of homeless we might encounter. “Be optimistic.”
* * *

At 8:10 p.m. that same night, Victor (another volunteer) and I drove to a 16-block area in South of Market. We covered Market, Howard and Folsom between Fifth and Ninth streets.

At Sixth and Shipley, we encountered a man sleeping on the sidewalk outside a car wash. One.

At Sixth and Natoma, another homeless man was retiring for the night outside an apartment building. Two.

At Seventh and Langton, behind the Universal Sign Company, a man was Dumpster diving, shopping cart in tow. Three.

By 9:45 p.m., we counted a total of nine residentially deprived people. The area we canvassed, a hotbed of poverty, seemed like a ghost town. Where did the homeless go that night?

About 500 people conduct this biennial census for the homeless for the city’s Human Services Agency. It’s a prerequisite for a multi-million dollar grant from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD).

As one who collects data and statistics for a research firm, I always question how numbers are compiled and interpreted.

For instance, during his administration (1996–2004), Mayor Willie Brown said 5,000 people were homeless in San Francisco, while reporting 15,000 to HUD.

“The definition of homelessness in the city is pushing a cart outside,” said Miguel Carrera of the Coalition on Homelessness (COH).

Between 2003 and 2005, after Gavin Newsom succeeded Brown, the number of street people dropped dramatically — one could say magically — from 8,640 to 6,248, a drop of 28 percent.

In his annual address on homelessness on Dec. 14, 2006, Newsom said, “Since we started, 4,795 human beings are no longer on the sidewalks and streets.”

At the end of March this year, the mayor’s office announced its latest findings. The number of homeless people — 6,377 — increased slightly from 2005. Yet Newsom declared victory by comparing the stats to 2002 figures, which allowed him to claim that the number of homeless had declined by 38 percent. Go figure.

Our trainer refers to route maps that specify the area we’re assigned to cover. Colored dots signify “hot spots” of homeless congregation. The zones marked in green are deemed safe for volunteers, while the cross-hatched zones are restricted to police and Park and Rec employees.

The checklist requires us to indicate the locations of intersections where we spot homeless people. In addition to gender, race and/or ethnicity, we also note if the people are single or part of a family unit, youth or adults. We’re also instructed to note signs of shopping carts, homeless encampments and vehicular housing. If they have pets, we mark that down, too.

“There is no need to make contact,” says Lt. David Lazar of SFPD’s Field Operation Bureau, which sounds more like an order.

Well, no one contacted Tony, a 38-year-old Italian who formerly sold timeshares and lived in Japantown and now resides under a walkway bridge in the same neighborhood.

The dark-haired immigrant, who spends his days playing soccer in a nearby park, said the homeless count was news to him. People are treated like numbers, he said. “(It would be) better to have a conversation and exchange words (with us).”

The head count was only one phase of the operation, says Allison Schlageter, a policy analyst for the Local Homeless Coordinating Board that was in charge of the count.

“Simultaneously, we were counting (homeless people) in emergency shelters, transitional housing programs, mental health facilities, drug and alcohol treatment, hospitals and the San Francisco County Jail,” Schlageter points out.

Among the service centers, which were not included in the last count, were St. Anthony’s, Mission Neighborhood Health Center, the Bayview Drop-in Clinic and Larkin Street Youth Services.

Regardless, a lot of people were missed. Schlageter concedes that a one-time-only count has its limitations. Areas where the homeless hide themselves, such as abandoned buildings, aren’t included.

Despite its shortcomings, Schlageter stands by the numbers. “San Francisco did the most complete coverage they ever did for a homeless count.”


Daniel Doherty, 45, of the Bronx, tried to get a merchant marine job through a relative in the city. After stints in a mailroom and recycling center, he now pushes a cart through the Tenderloin. Wearing a plaid shirt, his hair and beard matted, Doherty makes extra money off recycling cans and bottles that he collects, while awaiting an unemployment appeal. He’s been homeless off and on for about four years. The count was also news to him. “They’re looking at us as though we’re all worthless,” he says.
Bob Offer-Westort, development coordinator for the Coalition on Homelessness and editor of its homeless-distributed newspaper Street Sheet, says, “I expected [the count] to be fairly low.”

As a part-time City College student, he volunteered as part of an eight-person team to cover North Beach, the Marina and Fisherman’s Wharf. His team split into two groups and counted 10 people in three hours.
“Given the number of people they had, it was pretty efficient,” he says. “The number of volunteers affected the number counted.”
But, he says, HUD’s methodology and timing — in winter — results in undercounting.

“If it gets to one-third of the homeless people, I’d be surprised,” says Stephen Chester, a City College alum and COH volunteer who was once homeless. Chester says one night is not enough time for an accurate count. “What needs to be done is a survey done over a few weeks,” he said.

Carrera, COH’s coordinator for Families of Immigrants Project, notes that immigrant families staying in shelters and doubling in single-resident occupancy hotels — barely one step above shelters in the housing food chain — are likely to be overlooked in such a tally.

Outreach worker Karl Start, who lives in a van, also points out, “If you’re holding any kind of paper (warrant or citation), by second nature you’ll be out of sight.” He’s referring to quality of life violations, such as loitering, panhandling or sleeping on the sidewalk. As a result, he says the actual homeless count would be two or three times higher than the city’s.

On Powell Street, one block away from Union Square, a demure 62-year-old woman stands on the sidewalk in front of the Disney Store and holds out a cup. Barbara, who made her career in the hospitality and retail trades, first experienced homelessness in 1986. She has stayed on benches and in shelters. Currently, she is staying in an SRO in the Tenderloin. Unhardened by street life, she keeps a dignified demeanor. The spare change she seeks supplements her $925 monthly disability check.

Upon hearing about the count, Barbara says, “I don’t think (the homeless) mind.” However, she says the method is impersonal — “Like counting cattle.”

UPDATE: The estimate from San Francisco’s 2013 point-in-time homeless count is 6,436, a slight decrease from the previous count two years prior (6,455). For the first time, the city enumerated homeless youth with a figure of 914. Also, sexual orientation data was collected for the first time. About one-third identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer.

The next point-in-time count is scheduled for January 29, 2015.

This story originally appeared in Etc. Magazine’s Spring 2007 issue.


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