Proposal to change hours of SF homeless count faces scrutiny

Critics worry plan may paint inaccurate picture of population

San Francisco has traditionally conducted its biennial homeless count in the late-night hours on a day in January. But now The City is planning to switch the count to early in the morning.

The newly selected hours from the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing are raising concerns for the Local Homeless Coordinating Board.

One member has even said he would no longer participate in the upcoming count set for Jan. 29.

“I thought you were joking when you said those hours,” co-chair Del Seymour said at the Nov. 2 meeting of the board.

The federally required point-in-time count is used to determine funding and inform policy choices. The public also uses the results to judge the performance of the mayor in addressing one of the biggest challenges facing San Francisco.

The new hours selected were from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m. In the past, the count occurred from 8 p.m. to midnight.

“If you were to come to ask me — a person that actually spent 18 years on the streets — what would be the worst time to do a PIT count, I would have said 4 a.m. to 7 a.m. It’s cold, it’s rainy, it’s foggy. It’s the scariest time,” Seymour said. “It’s not a safe time for people to be walking around counting people.”

Advocates are also concerned that the proposed hours could innaccurately reflect a decrease in the homeless population from previous years because people could be asleep inside tents during the count and fewer volunteers may want to participate.

“If they started the counts with a morning count I think it would be fine,” Jennifer Friedenbach, from the Coalition on Homelessness, told the San Francisco Examiner on Friday. “But since the counts are inaccurate by missing so many unhoused people, the importance of doing it exactly the same rises dramatically in order to capture trends in rates.”

The hours need to be approved by the Local Homeless Coordinating Board.

At the most recent meeting, officials said they made the change in response to a longstanding request by homeless advocates and board members to consider morning hours to improve the accuracy of the count.

Volunteers walk or drive on specific routes and visually count the unsheltered homeless people they see. Another method is used to count homeless individuals staying in different types of shelter. In 2019, the total number of unsheltered persons counted was 5,180.

“We hope that this would make it easier for our enumerators to distinguish individuals who are experiencing homelessness on their routes,” Valerie Caplan, an HSH official, told the board. “It can be trickier at night when there are more people maybe hanging out on the streets. We are hoping that this will provide a more accurate count.”

But Seymour said 4 a.m. was “full-blown night.”

“Don’t come to the Tenderloin at 4 o’clock in the morning,” Seymour said. “I would feel safe walking around Walnut Creek at 4 o’clock in the morning. Damn sure don’t feel like walking around Turk Street at 4 o’clock in the morning. I have been on this PIT count for the past five years. Count me out this year.”

Abigail Stewart-Kahn, the department’s interim director, said, “We were trying to be responsive to this board and community and I think we have gotten our wires crossed around what the morning means and what’s allowable.”

Making the count later in the morning would cause other problems, she said.

“If you do an early morning count, you need to be finished before 7 a.m. or 8 a.m. in the morning, which is when everybody starts to wake up and move around The City and it becomes more difficult to determine,” she said.

In 2019, neighboring counties like Marin and Alameda did PIT counts in the morning. Both started at 5 a.m. but Marin ended at 9 a.m. while Alameda ended at 10 a.m., according to reports.

Ralph Payton, board co-chair, worried that there would be “a crazy undercount at 4 o’clock in the morning.”

Payton said people are going to be sleeping inside their tents and makeshift shelters at that time. Volunteers do not open tents.

Stewart-Kahn said that was a “challenge at either time of day.”

“You do your best to understand how many people might be in there,” she said.

The board is holding off on making a decision until officials provide further details about other jurisdictions and best practices. It is tentatively scheduled to hold a special meeting this week to vote on the matter.

The time of the count isn’t the only thing changing.

The department has consulted with the Department of Public Health to come up with changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Homeless count teams will be reduced from four to two. Volunteers can have the option to be preassigned a route in advance and deploy on their own.

Deployment centers are being located outside in five locations, two in the Civic Center, one in the Mission, one in the Sunset and one in the Bayview.

There will be no in-person training this year.

“That typical volunteer training that people got at the deployment centers the hour before the count will be moved online and everyone will be required to take that training,” Caplan said, the HSH official.

Another big change is that the count will move from paper to an app on people’s smartphones.

“We want to limit the amount of paper forms and distribution that’s happening this year because of COVID,” Caplan said, adding that other places that use the app achieve “a more accurate count.”

Also as part of surveys conducted after the count, The City will be asking people if a cause of their homelessness was related to COVID-19 or fires.

The department hopes to start signing up volunteers this month.

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