A homeless man sleeps in a wooded area near Stow Lake at Golden Gate Park on Thursday, July 18, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Homeless count shows sharp decline in Golden Gate Park — but where did everyone go?

The number of homeless people counted in Golden Gate Park in past years was in the hundreds, but this year the tally plummeted to double-digits.

City officials are attributing the sharp drop to an increase in outreach and services, but that claim has been met with some skepticism by those who work with the homeless.

While the latest figures show a 30 percent increase in the homeless population citywide and an increase in most supervisorial districts, the number of homeless people counted in Golden Gate Park declined to just 83 — a steep 73 percent drop from the 313 counted in 2017. In 2015, there were 252 counted.

The 2019 park count also included just 36 youth under the age of 25, down from 132 youth in the 2017 count and the 153 youth in the 2015 count.

Meanwhile the homeless population in the districts surrounding the park, Districts 1, 4 and 5, increased by 44, 3 and 40 respectively from 2017 to 2019.

“We believe the success here is the result of the introduction of a dedicated outreach team to the area, and increased resources and collaboration between services providers (particularly youth service providers) in the Haight and areas adjacent to [Golden Gate Park],” said Tanya Ellis, a spokesperson for the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing.

Tamara Aparton, a spokesperson for the Recreation and Park Department, which oversees Golden Gate Park, said that the number of park rangers increased from 45 in 2017 to 50 in 2019. There were only 21 park rangers in 2011.

“The rangers, working alongside the [San Francisco Homeless Outreach] team, have been instrumental in engaging with people experiencing homelessness and connecting them with shelter and services,” Aparton said.

But “engaging” can also result in citations.

In the past five fiscal years, the park patrol officers issued 2,695 citations for camping in Golden Gate Park, according to data provided by the Recreation and Park Department. During the same time period, there were 426 citations issued for sleeping after hours and 475 citations for being in the park after hours.

Among those cited on a recent day was Sam Roberts, 48, a San Francisco native who had come to the 1,017-acre public park to sleep. The next morning he was issued a citation for camping and littering.

Roberts said the citations are used for toilet paper. “We call them shit tickets,” he said.

He prefers sleeping in places like the park instead of homeless shelters, which he finds unwelcoming, but said he would have to move soon since the park rangers said they would come back and “bag and tag” his stuff if he was still there.

He is among the 5,180 unsheltered homeless that were counted citywide earlier this year. The count identified a total 9,784 homeless in San Francisco. There is not enough housing or shelter beds to meet the need.

Roberts said that Mayor London Breed says she wants to help the homeless, but The City’s approach of sweeping away tents and taking people’s belongings is unproductive.

“Maybe have like a couple of tent city type things where people have their own little spots that nobody else can go into,” Roberts said, offering one solution to assist homeless like him. “You’d probably get a better reaction from people.”

The City didn’t start reporting the count of the homeless in Golden Gate Park until 2015, after a 2013 civil grand jury recommended it. At that time, homelessness in the park had become a thorny political issue for then-mayor Gavin Newsom.

“While homeless individuals and their encampments are found across San Francisco, the Jury chose to focus on this hot-button issue in Golden Gate Park because it is the crown jewel of the City’s Recreation and Parks Department (Rec & Park) and an extremely popular destination for both residents and tourists,” the June 2013 report said.

Asked to comment on the reason for the decline in this year’s count, Kelley Cutler, a member of the Coalition on Homelessness, said in an email, “I can tell you what it isn’t.”

“It isn’t that they have helped folks more in that area compared to other areas. The City is doing sweeps all around The City, but I’m wondering if a factor there is Parks and Rec?”

Mary Howe, executive director of the Homeless Youth Alliance, which provides services in the Haight neighborhood, said of the decline: “It’s obviously ridiculous. There is just no way the numbers dropped that dramatically.”

Instead, she said it’s likely the result of enforcement shifting people around, coupled with a change in the timing of when the count took place.

Every two years, San Francisco conducts a general homeless count and in 2013 added a supplemental youth count, which includes paid homeless youth to help identify this younger population who often escape notice in the general count. The counts are conducted on a night in January but for places like Golden Gate Park the counts occur the next day during daylight hours for safety reasons.

In 2019, the homeless youth count in Golden Gate Park occurred on Jan. 25 between 10 a.m. and noon, while in 2017, the youth count began at 1 pm and ended at approximately 5 p.m, the homeless department said. In both cases, a general count was conducted between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m.

“They count it during the day, but during the day everyone comes out to the street, so you are never really catching the correct number because then no one is really on the street during the night when they do the regular count,” Howe said. “I’ve worked in the Haight for 20 years and I would say the number has seemed pretty much steady in the neighborhood the whole time.”

She added, “I think between 200 and 300 people live in Golden Gate Park.”

“The only solution to homelessness is housing. Do I think like 200-plus people got housed in the last two years from that district? No,” she said.

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

This story is part of the SF Homeless Project, a media collaboration, coordinated by the San Francisco Chronicle, intended to draw attention to solutions to end the crisis.

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