If you're wandering the streets of the Mission, Bayview, downtown area or the Sunset tonight, you may notice groups of people with pens and paper taking notes as they walk around. No, they won't be playing a citywide game, asking for signatures, or petitioning residents. Tonight volunteers will be participating in a count of the city's homeless population, an event which takes place every two years.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires that communities around the nation conduct a "point-in-time" count of homeless persons on every odd-numbered year. San Francisco's system currently follows federal point-in-time guidelines. This means adding up the number of people in shelters, transitional housing, safe havens, and on the street at one given point in time. In our case, this will be between 8pm and 12am on Thursday, January 29th.
The data is used for city planning, outreach services, and to assess areas where homeless populations are growing or decreasing across the city. Many homeless non-profit organizations in the city depend on government funding, and this data assists in supporting their services.
One example of how the data is used is this report put together by CA Homeless Youth, studying the youth counted during a point-in-time count in 2013. The data was used to assess what needs were most urgent, and to develop a strategy for reaching those communities going forward.
As with most human-related data collection systems, this one is not perfect. Critics of this point-in-time survey point out that only those homeless people in plain sight will be counted, not those asleep under tarps, in old buildings, or in cars. Another big flaw is the need for volunteers to assume whether someone is homeless or not, based on their appearance and situation. Mark Horvath, founder of Invisible People, explains "at best [point-in-time counts] are a good guess."
Bevan Dufty, Director of HOPE (Housing Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement), supports the count. "I think breaking the cycle of poverty is still one of the major crises our society faces," he stated in an interview with Horvath. "The direct service informs the policy. We know that the reason that people can be chronically homeless is because there's too many barriers in the system." By first understanding the size of our homeless community, the city can then start to create resources to address the issue.
The city depends heavily on volunteers to assist with the count, and this year is no exception. Over 500 volunteers have signed up to go through a one hour training seminar from 7pm-8pm. From 8pm to midnight, volunteers will split up into teams to cover the the Mission, Bayview, downtown and Sunset tonight.
This year's volunteer positions are filled up, but there'll be another count in 2017. In the meantime, we'll let you know the results of the count when the data becomes available.