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New information reveals 20,000 folks shall be homeless in San Francisco this 12 months

San Francisco officials estimate as many as 20,000 people will experience homelessness at some point in the year 2022 — and for every one person housed by a city program, four more will become unhoused.

Those figures contained in a report set to be released Thursday reflect the Sisyphean nature of battling one of the city’s worst crises in some of the strongest terms ever. As dire as those numbers are, though, the report also shows the most significant headway in 17 years in reducing overall homelessness in San Francisco.

The new data is contained in the city’s full Point-in-Time Count, which fleshes out details hinted at in a much briefer summation released in May, when officials announced San Francisco saw a 3.5% drop in homelessness over three years, going from 8,035 to 7,754. That number reflects a snapshot in time — one night — versus the 20,000 people over the course of a year.

The count, normally taken every two years to qualify for federal funding, was conducted in one night in February. The last tally was done in 2019, but the city skipped a year because of the pandemic.

“There’s been some good progress made, but the fact of the matter is that people are falling into homelessness faster than we can house them,” said Tomiquia Moss, founder and CEO of regional housing advocacy group All Home. “We know how to house people, but we have too little of what we need.”

The 20,000 and 1-to-4 numbers — presented as educated estimates, not hard-and-fast figures — are contained in the 70-page report’s forward. According to city officials, they’re based on crunching a variety of figures including those from the city’s homeless information tracking system, the Department of Public Health and a formula used for many years by the Corporation for Supportive Housing, a nonprofit that studies poverty and promotes housing with services for homeless people.

City public health and homelessness officials have informally been using estimates ranging from 15,000 to 20,000 for many years, but this is the first time one has been placed in such a prominent report.

The 1-to-4 figure is also slightly higher than the 1-to-3 figure commonly used by nonprofits in the region, including Moss’.

“We have included this in the forward of our report because we think it’s incredibly helpful for understanding the local context of homelessness, not just on Feb. 23, but from what our community experiences over the year,” said Emily Cohen, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. “It’s an estimate for sure, more art than science.”

She added that the 1-to-4 figure doesn’t mean an immovable stream of homeless people will pour into the streets. Many newcomers in any given year are only unhoused for a brief period and either leave or find their own housing again.

For instance, she said, “this past fiscal year, 2,057 people exited homelessness through an HSH solution like rental assistance or supportive housing, which means about 8,000 others became newly homeless in the same period. The reason we don’t have tens of thousands of homeless people on any given night is that many of those people resolved their homelessness by themselves or with the help of others.

“Remember, this is an estimate.”

Also worrisome was the Point-in-Time count’s revelation — in supplemental figures released to the press — that the number of Latino people living in shelters or on the street has shot up 55% in the past three years from 1,524 to 2,357, reflecting what observers say is the disproportionate effect of the pandemic on lower-income people of color, many of whom lost service jobs during lockdown. Latinos are now a full 30% of the homeless population, compared with being 16% of the general population, according to the report set to be sent out Thursday.

Black people make up 38% of the homeless count compared with being 6% of the general population , a number that has been fairly consistent for many years.

Laura Valdez, director of Dolores Street Community Services, which runs the only Latino-specific shelters in the city, said the coronavirus definitely wreaked havoc on the Latino population, but the disparity predates that. Several factors might have contributed to a more accurate accounting this year, she and others said, including that this year’s count teams included more on-the-ground homeless-aid workers and COVID made it harder for people to move around.

“Our analysis is that the Latinx community has always been undercounted, and we finally have data reflecting the seriousness in the community,” she said. “Black and Latinx people are going to be overrepresented in the numbers of homelessness because of poverty, systemic racism, the historic marginalization of our communities, redlining, lack of affordable housing, gentrification.”

She added that income inequality got worse during the pandemic because of job loss and lack of affordable housing.

“But I do think people are getting reconnected to the human suffering caused by this housing crisis. Everyone in the Mission, everyone in San Francisco — it’s come to the point where you can no longer obscure the magnitude of the vast number of people impacted by homelessness,” she added.

Reflecting the worsening addiction crisis in the streets, particularly with fentanyl, the percentage of homeless people with drug or alcohol problems came in at 52%, up from 42% in 2019.

On the plus side, in addition to the overall homeless count dipping, the number of unsheltered people — those living in tents, vehicles or on the street — dropped 15% compared with 2019, landing at 4,397. People living in vehicles accounted for 24% of the unsheltered count in 2022, a drop from 35% in 2019.

The last time there was such a significant drop in the unsheltered figures was 2005, when the overall count plummeted 28% to 6,248 from 8,640 in 2002, and the unsheltered figure dropped 41% to 2,655.

There’s a parallel between the two dips. In 2005, the city had housed thousands of people through new initiatives, including the Care Not Cash program that swapped welfare checks for housing. And since 2019, the city has devoted millions of dollars in new initiatives that include sheltering people in hotels, safe parking and tent sites, and creating new supportive housing.

The city also found fewer chronically homeless people this year. The federal government defines chronic homelessness as someone who is homeless for more than a year or has four episodes of homelessness adding up to a year over three years, and also has a disabling condition. There were 2,691 chronically homeless people in 2022, an 11% drop since 2019.

The percentage of people who were living in San Francisco when they lost their housing stayed about the same as it has been for many years: 71%.

Officials and experts agree the biannual tally is an undercount that doesn’t track people couch-surfing with friends and family or who are institutionalized. Separately, the city also counts people who are homeless in jails, hospitals and residential treatment facilities. That number dropped 30%, from 1,773 in 2019 to 1,238 in 2022.

The city’s progress on housing and shelter are perhaps most notably reflected in the steep decline of homeless people in San Francisco’s District 10, which includes Bayview-Hunters Point, an area with significant pockets of poverty. The overall numbers there fell 39% from 1,841 to 1,115, and the unsheltered number fell 55% to 687.

Officials attributed the drop to the creation of three navigation center shelters in the district since 2016 — one of which opened during the pandemic — and stepped-up outreach efforts.

“I’m so excited that the numbers are down, and I can see it here,” said Gwendolyn Westbrook, executive director of Mother Brown’s, the main homeless services nonprofit in the Bayview. “Some of that is that a lot of the old-timers here found housing units or shelter somewhere. The emergency housing vouchers from the pandemic also helped a lot.”

But Westbrook isn’t sure if the progress is sustainable.

“What I want to know is — is this permanent, or temporary from the things they’ve done during the pandemic, like the hotels they put everyone in? We’ll see.”

Kevin Fagan and Mallory Moench are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: kfagan@sfchronicle.com, mallory.moench@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @KevinChron, @mallorymoench

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