The City’s bi-annual homeless count helps determine funding allocations. (Photo by Ekevara Kitpowsong/S.F. Examiner)

The City’s bi-annual homeless count helps determine funding allocations. (Photo by Ekevara Kitpowsong/S.F. Examiner)

SF to cancel 2021 unsheltered homeless count due to COVID-19 surge

San Francisco is canceling plans to count the homeless people living on the streets this year due to the ongoing surge of COVID-19 cases.

The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing had intended to conduct the count later this month and had drafted a plan with safety measures to lower the risk of volunteers contracting COVID-19.

But the Department of Public Health recommended The City cancel the count due to the ongoing surge in cases and the health risk it could pose to volunteers.

On Monday, the Local Homeless Coordinating Board, which oversees the homeless department, unanimously agreed with the recommendation.

“If the Department of Public Health recommends that we don’t do it, we should not do it,” said Del Seymour, co-chair of the Local Homeless Coordinating Board.

Seymour said it didn’t make sense to put volunteers at risk “for a count they didn’t have to do.”

Last month, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development issued new guidelines allowing cities like San Francisco to apply for exceptions to the count’s requirements. The federal agency requires jurisdiction to conduct homeless point-in-time counts every two years and uses the data for funding allocations.

The City will now apply for the exception with HUD to not have to do the count of the unsheltered homeless for the 2021 count.

The counts are usually conducted on a night in January from 8 pm to midnight. The City intends to still count the number of sheltered homeless, such as those living in shelters or shelter-in-place hotels, but not the homeless living on the streets, on Jan. 28.

Of The City’s 8,035 homeless counted during the 2019 count, 5,180 were unsheltered and 2,855 were sheltered. That was an increase from the 2017 count that saw a total of 6,858 homeless with 2,505 sheltered and 4,353 unsheltered.

Officials with the homeless department do not expect they will lose any funding by canceling the count of outdoor homeless.

Of the 44 jurisdictions in California who conduct homeless counts, about 20 have applied or have been granted exceptions to not count unsheltered homeless, according to Valerie Caplan, a Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing official.

Caplan said some of the cities with the largest homeless populations have already received exceptions and are forgoing the unsheltered count, including Los Angeles, San Diego, and King County, Seattle.

“These communities cited safety concerns and resource constraints as the main reason for requesting exceptions,” Caplan said.

Homeless advocates raised concerns about the exception.

“I’m shocked,” said Brian Edwards, an advocate with the Coalition on Homelessness. “There is probably no time more than the present that we need an accurate count of who is out there.”

But Edwards said while he did not support skipping it, “I regret to say it’s probably the right thing to do.”

“But I think we need to acknowledge that this is a loss,” Edwards said. “We are skipping another opportunity to actually get an idea of how many human beings are out there suffering on any given night.”

David Elliot Lewis, with the Tenderloin People’s Congress, said that he supported the cancellation of the count, but said The City should consider doing smaller scale counts to get some data.

“If there’s a way to figure out how to randomly sample throughout the city, that might be safer and still give you some useful information,” Lewis said.

Dr. Deborah Borne, a medical director with the Department of Public Health who focuses on people experiencing homelessness, said the recommendation is not to do the count when The City remains in the state’s highest purple tier with widespread community spread of COVID-19.

“The risk is for the volunteers,” Bourne said. “The decision was made around the volunteers themselves.”

For the 2019 count, more than 700 community volunteers and city staff participated in the street count and teams of two to four people canvased their assigned routes. Some routes require people to be in cars.

Bourne predicted that the state’s current stay at home order tied to intensive care unit capacity in the Bay Area would stay in place through February.

“Given what the numbers are, there is a very good chance that things are going to get way worse before they get better,” she said.

Caplan said that the department intends to do its own “unsheltered count in 2022 to ensure we do not have a large gap in our data collection for this population.”

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