Home services

Is homelessness growing in San Francisco? Right here’s why the info isn’t but clear

The coronavirus pandemic postponed the Point-in-Time, or PIT, count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people that was to be held in 2021.The PIT count is a federally mandated tally of people experiencing homelessness conducted every two years that is considered the best data for measuring homelessness trends across the US The last count was held in 2019, and indicated 8,035 people were experiencing homelessness in San Francisco.

As the economy tumbled and forced social distancing changes in housing services, it’s been difficult to quantify the impact of the pandemic on the number of people experiencing homelessness. But in San Francisco, the city has continued its efforts to periodically count the number of tents, structures and vehicles potentially occupied by people who are experiencing homelessness.

The number of these tents, structures and vehicles skyrocketed during the early months of the pandemic. Though those numbers began to decline in late 2020, the latest counts from November 2021 are still much higher than in October 2019.

“There’s some sense that homelessness (in San Francisco) has increased,” said Sam Dodge, director of the city’s Healthy Streets Operations Center, or HSOC, which conducts these counts. “The added shock to the system around the pandemic and other ensuing crises, like the opioid crisis, are things that lead to more population increases in homelessnesss and vulnerability to homelessness.”

In November 2021, the city counted 526 tents and structures, and more than 1,000 vehicles, which include RVs, compared with less than 450 tents and structures, and more than 700 vehicles in October 2019, HSOC data shows. The November 2021 totals — both for tents and structures, and vehicles — are still far lower than the highs during the early pandemic months in 2020.

Those early months were when social distancing measures disrupted congregate shelters most, Dodge said, which could have contributed to more people setting up camp outdoors in tents and vehicles. It was later in 2020 that many city programs to address homelessness, including the shelter-in-place hotels, which temporarily placed people in need of housing in the city’s hotels.

The city collects this data, which is based on visual counts performed by people, to help inform the city’s response programs, Dodge said. It doesn’t account for all types of living situations for people who are experiencing homeless, nor does it show who is newly homeless, he and other experts said. The delayed PIT count, which will finally take place on Feb. 23, will provide more insight. The data will be available this summer.

The tent, structure and vehicle count done by the city is not meant to be a comprehensive picture of homelessness in San Francisco, they say, but it offers insight into where help is most needed. “This is a practice that we developed long ago to have an ongoing surveillance of what we were working with to make sure there was equity where we are bringing resources,” Dodge of HSOC said.

The data shows that the South of Market neighborhood consistently hosts some of the largest congregations of tents and structures among San Francisco neighborhoods. SOMA had the highest number of tents and structures in November 2021 with 130. Tenderloin and Mission districts also generally have large numbers of tents and structures. Larger encampments tend to be in areas that are close to service providers, Dodge said. The neighborhood boundaries used in this data were established by the Mayor’s office in 2016.

The places with higher concentrations of tents and structures aren’t always the same as those where there are the most vehicles that people may be living out of. The HSOC data shows the Produce Market, Lakeshore and Central Waterfront neighborhoods had the highest counts of vehicles in November 2021. It also shows that the number of vehicles across the city haven’t decreased in 2021 as much as the number of tents and structures did .

“It comes back to the lack of affordable places for folks to live and (vehicles) becoming their primary option,” said Andrea Evans, chronic homelessness initiative director at Tipping Point Community, another Bay Area organization working on issues related to poverty.

“We’ve known for a long time that San Francisco has an affordable housing challenge that it’s trying valiantly to address,” said Gail Gilman, chief strategy officer at All Home California, a Bay Area nonprofit organization that works to reduce poverty and homelessness in the region. “But it has a long way to go to catch up (to the need).”

During the pandemic is also when San Francisco greatly accelerated its pace of providing at least temporary housing options, such as the residential hotels, Gilman said. That showed that quick responses and streamlined processes can make a big dent in reducing homelessness, she added. “When we act with urgency, we can bring individuals indoors.”

Yoohyun Jung is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: yoohyun.jung@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @yoohyun_jung

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button