The City of San Francisco relies on self-reported data to determine where its homeless residents come from, and that information often underpins policy discussions about what types of services should be offered.
The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing publishes biannual reports that survey unhoused people on their circumstances prior to becoming homeless, along with demographic and other information. The most recent survey, conducted by a UC Santa Cruz-based consulting firm called Applied Survey Research, included 768 interviews with people either living on the city’s streets or inside shelters.
The researchers wrote that “while survey respondents reported many different living accommodations prior to becoming homeless, most reported living in or around the San Francisco Bay Area with friends, family or on their own in a home or apartment.”
Seventy-one percent of those surveyed reported living in San Francisco, 24% in other California counties and 4% outside California.
Of those with a prior residence in the city, 17% said they had lived in San Francisco for less than one year, while 35% said they had been in the city for 10 or more years. The remaining 52% of those respondents said they lived in the city between one and 10 years before becoming homeless.
The question of where unhoused people are originally from plays into debates about how to tailor services, namely access to permanent housing, and whether local policies are attracting homeless people to the city. Some policymakers argue that local resources are finite, and the city cannot provide housing for everyone who arrives here. Others contend that those arguments aren’t backed by data and are merely used to deny low-income people housing.
“The process of othering unhoused people by policymakers is rampant across the country,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of a nonprofit that organizes for the rights of homeless people called the Coalition on Homelessness. “It's this urban myth that’s been promoted by policymaker after policymaker and has really infiltrated the minds of San Francisco.”
GET THE INSIDE SCOOP: Power Play is The Standard's new insider email newsletter covering City Hall and politics. Sign up here.
Others argue that the data is flawed because it’s self-reported and that it still finds that more than 2,200 people of the city’s total 7,754 unhoused population were homeless before they moved to San Francisco.
In the footnotes, the city’s survey acknowledges the limitations of self-reported data but states that the researchers’ approach allowed respondents to be candid with their answers.
Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who oversees the Castro neighborhood and has advocated for funding more shelter beds, said he was skeptical of the city’s data.
“I think that data probably needs some more investigation,” Mandelman said. “Whether you think we need to find them a permanent home in San Francisco has at least something to do with whether they’re from here.”
|The Standard is answering reader questions about homelessness in San Francisco through our Ask The Standard project. Have something you want to know? Submit a question here.|
San Francisco provides transportation for people to move back to their hometowns through a program called Homeward Bound.
Prior to the pandemic, the program transported between 500 and 1,000 people per year to their cities of origin. However, the pandemic brought the program to a near-standstill, and the city has since folded the service into a larger program called Problem Solving, which provides financial assistance to help people maintain their homes in San Francisco.
The program has since ramped up again as travel restrictions have loosened, providing at least 292 households with an airline, bus or train ticket home since June 2022.
Correction: The infographic misstated the share of residents from San Francisco.
Liz Lindqwister contributed additional research for this story.
David Sjostedt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org