S.F. wants to cancel homeless count amid COVID-19 concerns

San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 4, 2021

By Trisha Thadani


San Francisco’s Public Health Department wants to cancel this year’s crucial, one-night count of people living on the streets, amid concerns that it cannot be done safely amid the pandemic.


The “Point in Time Count” is mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and takes place every two years in nearly every major community in the country. San Francisco’s count is a massive operation, which requires hundreds of volunteers to fan out across the city one night to count every homeless person they see on the streets, in parks and in cars.


That tally — which also includes homeless people in shelters and in jails — is a vital benchmark for federal and city policymakers who decide how much money and what kind of resources are needed to address the crisis. The count also provides detailed demographic data, including age, race, sexuality and health, as well as whether the person struggles with substance use, the cause of their homelessness and where they came from.


The last time the count was conducted in 2019, more than 700 volunteers tallied 8,000 homeless people in its shelters, streets and jails. It was a staggering, 17% rise from the count two years prior. Advocates expect that the population of unhoused people has only grown during the pandemic.


The Point in Time Count does not capture all of a community’s homeless. It only reflects people living on the streets, in shelters and jails on one night a year. Still, data from the count frequently appears in legislation and budget decisions related to homelessness and housing.


Based on the public health department’s concerns, the Local Homeless Coordinating Board — which helps coordinate the count — voted unanimously Monday to request an exemption from HUD. The federal agency gave cities the option to request an exemption this year as the entire country grapples with a dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases.


“The (point-in-time) count has a lot of moving pieces and requires a large number of frontline workers as well as volunteers,” said Kelley Cutler, a member of the board. “It’s simply too big of a risk to be taking during a surge.”


San Francisco is not alone in asking HUD to opt out of the count. At least 19 other California communities — including Los Angeles, San Diego, Alameda County and Sacramento — have either requested an exception or plan to ask for one. Seattle has also been granted an exception.


Canceling the count this year comes at an extremely precarious time, as the pandemic has pushed more people toward poverty and likely increased the number of people living on the streets. It also comes as San Francisco grapples with a multimillion-dollar budget deficit, which likely will lead to layoffs and service cuts.


If HUD allows San Francisco to cancel its count this year, the city would just tally people living inside shelters or hotels that the city leased for the pandemic. While capacity for people living in traditional shelters has been greatly reduced during the pandemic, more than 2,000 people have been moved off the streets and into hotels.


Abigail Stewart-Kahn, interim director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said the count is critical for “effective policy-making and for people experiencing homelessness to be seen and understood.” But, given the limitations and risks of the pandemic, she said it is unclear whether they would have been able to recruit enough volunteers and get an accurate count of people on the streets.


“If we had been able to do a safe and effective count. ... It would have been very critical data,” she said. “It would have helped us understand, thus far, the impact of COVID-19 and which communities are being most impacted.”


The Department of Public Health said canceling the count this year will likely not affect how much money the city gets from the state and federal government for homelessness.


Tomiquia Moss, founder and CEO of All Home, an organization that works on a regional approach to housing and homelessness, said she isn’t concerned about canceling the count this year, which she said is an imperfect and sometimes skewed measure of the homeless population.


While she said the counts give cities a “baseline,” there are other ways regions can count people struggling with homelessness. Some examples include counting people in shelter-in-place hotels, as well as in San Francisco’s “coordinated entry system,” which connects people with social services.


“There is real-time data being captured with folks experiencing homelessness that is more timely to what people actually need, as opposed to a cumulative count,” she said. “I don’t think we will lose anything, and it doesn’t mean that jurisdictions are pulling their foot off the gas in responding to our most vulnerable.”

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