Officially, there are an estimated 6,400 homeless people in San Francisco. But there are many more adults, children and families with no permanent housing in The City — and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein wants them under the same classification.
Thousands of people considered homeless by The City are not included in the official biannual homeless count tally because of differing definitions of homelessness.
People doubled up with friends or family, couch-surfing, or living in single-room-occupancy hotels are not considered homeless by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
But that would change under legislation Feinstein, the San Francisco Democrat, introduced in Congress last month that would expand the federal definition of homelessness — and also expand the availability of housing services.
The disparity between people defined as homeless by the federal government and the true number of homeless people in The City is stark.
The 2013 San Francisco homeless count identified less than 900 homeless children. However, there were 2,352 homeless children in San Francisco public schools last year, according to school data.
And that disparity is playing out around the country. Nationwide, homeless counts tallied 222,197 homeless households with at least one child, but the Department of Education says there are 1.2 million homeless children in America.
Under Feinstein’s Homeless Children and Youth Act, the government would recognize children and families living in SRO hotels, motels and doubled-up with friends or family as homeless.
This is Feinstein’s second try at expanding the homeless definition, after similar legislation last year died in committee.
The law would not include single adults living in similar precarious situations as the homeless.
Advocates note that having more people defined as homeless would mean more money for services.
The City’s total budget for homeless services is about $163 million, with about $30 million coming from the federal government for homeless outreach and services.
However, shelters meant for families are at capacity, with up to an eight-month wait for family shelter, according to Elizabeth Ancker, a program director with Compass Connecting Point, which manages emergency housing for families.
“That’s a very problematic length of time,” she said Wednesday. “Families can destabilize quite a bit [in six months or longer].”
There are currently 140 families on The City’s wait list for emergency shelter. That’s lower than the recent average, but that’s after 100 chronically homeless families were moved into permanent supportive housing.
And The City’s “permanent supportive housing options are full now,” she added, with few new units in the pipeline.
It’s not clear if Feinstein’s bill will have better luck getting approved this year. If successful, The City’s homeless problem would become statistically worse overnight.
However, HUD’s “false definition” of homelessness needs changing for statistics to reflect reality, said Jennifer Friedenbach, the director of the Coalition on Homelessness.
“With a narrow definition, we create barriers to housing for people who need it,” she said. “We’re making the need appear smaller than it actually is.”