Volunteers and nonprofit workers fanned out across San Francisco on Tuesday night to count the number of homeless people on the streets, as the city does every other year. But hardly anyone, even Mayor London Breed, thinks they got an accurate number.
“How are we supposed to tell whether or not they’re really unhoused?” Breed told The Standard after she spent several hours trawling the Tenderloin with the nonprofit Code Tenderloin as part of the Point-in-Time Count. “You’ve got a lot of folks out here who are unfortunately suffering from mental illness and addiction, and that’s a big difference from being homeless.”
The one-night count, conducted by every major city across the country, is required by the federal government to determine how much homelessness funding to allocate. Two years ago, 4,397 people were counted as living on the streets of San Francisco.
Funding—and political futures—are on the line. A significant jump in the number of people counted could mean not only more money for San Francisco’s shelter and housing efforts but also political baggage for Breed and other incumbents facing reelection in November.
As the night began, Code Tenderloin founder Del Seymour went so far as to tell canvassers not to worry if they couldn’t tally every single homeless person.
“If you see you’re irritating someone, walk back and leave them alone. We ain’t got to count every single person,” said Seymour, who is locally known as the unofficial mayor of the Tenderloin.
Seymour later told The Standard he suspects the count underestimates the number of homeless people because many “double up” in the city’s supportive housing units.
Confusion was rife among various groups of counters as some deployed different tactics than others.
Breed said her group canvassing the Tenderloin was told not to engage with homeless people. Another group of five counters, which The Standard accompanied around the South of Market neighborhood, started a conversation with most of the homeless people they spotted.
The SoMa group was successful in engaging with people on the streets. But they weren’t as good at counting them.
Around 9:40 p.m. on the corner of Eighth and Howard streets, the five fumbled around with their maps, trying to figure out which way to go, as a homeless person walked right past them, unnoticed.
Just down the block, the group might have missed another homeless man who was tucked away in a corner if it hadn't been for The Standard’s photographer pointing him out.
One of the volunteers told The Standard he lives in his car, but he didn’t appear to count himself as homeless.
“There’s no process for how we’re supposed to do this,” Code Tenderloin volunteer Tyree Leslie said in frustration.
As the group navigated SoMa’s alleyways, one of the men asked where all the homeless people had gone. The surrounding streets were clean, and aside from a few scattered people using drugs, they were mostly empty.
“So they really cleaned it up?” asked Code Tenderloin volunteer Chuck Stubblefield.
“They moved it somewhere else. They didn’t clean it up,” said his co-worker, Brian Hudson.
That much was evident as the group turned a corner onto Eighth and Market streets, where the sidewalks were littered with trash and filled with dozens of people using drugs.
The block was outside Hudson and Stubblefield’s assigned zone, but some of the group’s members still stopped to offer people water, snacks and information about their nonprofit.
As the group of counters approached Seventh and Market streets, they saw hundreds of people buying and selling drugs and what appeared to be stolen goods in an illicit night market.
“There ain’t no counting that,” said Hudson, pointing at the crowd.
Hudson estimated there were more than 120 homeless people in the crowd. However, the gathering was just outside the zone he was assigned to count.
“They’re not standing over there holding fellowship,” he said.
Breed told The Standard that during the daytime, the Tenderloin is “really, really clean.” However, she said increased drug activity at night is undermining the city’s efforts.
"It gives the impression that we're not out here working hard trying to clean up the streets and help people," Breed said.
An Imperfect Count
Despite its shortcomings, the count provides a relatively consistent data point for the city, according to Emily Cohen, a spokesperson for the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing.
“While the count itself may be imperfect, it is relatively consistent and a good indicator of trends,” Cohen said.
However, many experts argue there are better methods of quantifying the crisis.
“The data wouldn’t get past an eighth-grade biology teacher,” said Paul Boden, executive director of the homelessness nonprofit Western Regional Advocacy Project. “The numbers are never used for anything except for public relations.”
Boden said the government would be better off measuring the demand for services in every city. In San Francisco, there were 77 people on a waitlist for shelter this week—though the list reached nearly 500 people long in August. There were 3,633 people in the city’s homeless shelters this week.
In December, there were 238 homeless families—including 363 children—on a waitlist for shelter as Christmas approached.
An audit of the city’s street homelessness teams in November found that outreach workers encountered 3,641 unique clients on the street during fiscal year 2022.
Cohen said the homelessness department uses many data sets, not just the one-night count, to tabulate the number of homeless people in the city.
The department estimated in 2022 that as many as 20,000 people engage with the city’s homelessness services over a year. Many are only temporarily homeless.
“It’s an exercise in futility,” Boden said. “We do all these plans, and we never, ever have seen a plan from the government that actually addresses what created this shit in the first place—wiping out affordable housing.”
Cohen said the department will release the Point-in-Time Count data in the summer, and outreach workers are heading out again in the coming weeks to obtain demographic data on the city’s homeless population.