San Francisco reports 17% rise in homelessness from 2017 to 2019

San Francisco reports 17% rise in homelessness from 2017 to 2019Tents on 14th Street. | Photo: Teresa Hammerl/Hoodline
Teresa Hammerl
Published on May 17, 2019

San Francisco has released the results of its biannual Homelessness Point-in-Time (PIT) count, and they present an alarming picture.

The count, conducted on January 24, 2019, found that 8,011 people in San Francisco lack permanent housing — an increase of 17% from the previous count in 2017, when 6,858 people were living on the streets, in vehicles, or in shelters.

The real number of homeless people in San Francisco is likely even higher, as the count is an imperfect system. But even the official count is the highest the city has seen since 2004, when 8,640 people lacked housing.

Since then, the city has spent millions of dollars on adding affordable housing units and shelter beds, but continues to have insufficient amounts of either resource for those who need them. 

Still, San Francisco's increase in homeless residents pales in comparison to Alameda County's, where the count jumped 43% from 2017 to 2019. Santa Clara County saw a 31% rise in the same time period. 

The city also managed to improve on some metrics. The number of homeless veterans in San Francisco is down by 14% since 2017, and the number of homeless youth has declined by 10%.

Nonetheless, "we [...] clearly have much more work to do, especially around preventing homelessness and assisting people living in their vehicles," said Jeff Kositsky, director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH), in a statement.

Tents lining Division Street. | PHOTO: BRITTANY HOPKINS/HOODLINE

Point-in-time homelessness counts are required by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The initial reports released yesterday are only a first glimpse, with more detailed data scheduled to arrive in late June.

The numbers in June's report are expected to be even higher, as San Francisco has a broader definition of what constitutes homelessness than HUD. The city's own count will also include individuals living in the homes of family or friends, incarcerated in jail, and recovering in hospitals or rehabilitation facilities. It will also count families sharing Single Room Occupancy (SRO) units that are intended for one person. 

The increase of homeless individuals around San Francisco and the Bay Area can largely be attributed to the West Coast's "housing and affordability crisis," said Sam Lew, the policy director of the Coalition on Homelessness.

"It's forcing people to stay and sleep in cars, shelters, and on the street," said Lew, whose nonprofit advocates for the interests of unhoused San Franciscans. 

A study conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) last year echoes Lew's claims, citing high housing prices and rental costs as significant factors contributing to California's "crisis in homelessness."

In San Francisco specifically, Lew notes the increase in homeless encampment sweeps, where the belongings and tents of unhoused people are confiscated. "The city wants to address the most visible [population] first," she said.

But the point-in-time count also highlights a growing issue: a steep increase in San Franciscans living in their vehicles, who accounted for 68% of the rise in homeless citizens between 2017 and 2019.

Couper Orona, a retired firefighter who lives in an RV in the Mission, is part of this group. 

"I worry about the police towing my vehicle with my cat inside," said Orona, citing the city's oppressive fees to reclaim a towed vehicle.

When people's homes are towed away, she said, they can't pay to get them back, and often end up living on the streets in tents. "There really is nothing positive about that."

Unhoused people living in RVs in the Ocean Beach parking lot. | Photo: Will Callan/Hoodline

The city said it plans to expand its Vehicle Encampment Resolution Team, which helps connect people living in cars or RVs with services and housing. District 5 Supervisor Vallie Brown has introduced legislation to create a Vehicle Triage Center, where people living in vehicles can stay safely with access to toilets, showers and security.

Mayor London Breed also announced on Thursday that she'll be allotting an additional $5 million towards relocation and family reunification programs like Homeward Bound, mediation, move-in assistance, and flexible grants to address issues related to housing and employment. 

"We desperately need to build more housing, especially badly needed affordable housing and supportive housing, because we know that high housing costs contribute to an increase in homelessness," Breed said in a statement.

"We need as much bridge funding now as we can muster until Prop C is implemented," GLIDE director of communications Robert Avila tells Hoodline. 

But unhoused people and their advocates say more, and more urgent, efforts are needed, especially when it comes to building affordable housing and shelter beds.

"Don’t just give up on people," Orona urged city officials.