San Francisco will continue to count the homeless in the late evening after a proposal to move the count to the early morning met with criticism.
The Local Homeless Coordinating Board voted unanimously Friday afternoon to retain the late evening hours for the federally required biennial homeless count, which will take place on Jan. 29.
Last week, the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing presented some changes to the count due to COVID-19, but also a change in the hours of the count to have it take place from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m. In years past, the count occurred from 8 p.m. to midnight.
Some members of the board blasted the proposal, arguing it would set The City up for an undercount by reducing the number of those who would want to volunteer and making it harder to count the homeless, such as those who may be asleep in tents at that time.
Del Seymour, board co-chair, objected to the 4 a.m. start time last week, and said he wouldn’t participate. But with the return to the late evening hours he said he now would, as in past years.
“We want the most effective count we can get,” Seymour said. “It’s not political.”
Another concern raised about changing the hours was that it would make it inaccurate to compare the results to previous counts and could give a misleading impression about the trends.
The board had postponed a decision on the hours last week, given the concerns.
The biennial point-in-time count is required of communities across the nation by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and is used to guide funding and policy decisions. The outcome of the count also attracts attention in San Francisco as one way to gauge how the mayor is addressing homelessness.
Department officials said they had only proposed the morning count because they thought that’s what the board wanted. On Friday, they told the board they had no preference and it was up to them to decide.
“We had some confusion the last time,” said Abigail Stewart-Kahn, the department’s interim director, referring to last week’s proposal. “We felt we were trying to be responsive to the board’s request to take a look at an early morning count.”
She said that they could argue either way that a late evening or an early morning count could be more accurate.
The benefit of an early morning count, according to the department’s memo, is that “there would likely be fewer non-homeless people outside in the early morning, making it easier to distinguish those who are experiencing homelessness.” Also, all other Bay Area jurisdictions do it in then too. The drawbacks include the challenge of recruiting volunteers for those hours and it may be more challenging to locate and observe those asleep.
During the count volunteers fan out on 160 pre-selected routes across The City and visually observe unsheltered homeless persons. They do not interview them. The sheltered homeless, those staying in places like Navigation Centers or adult shelters, are also counted using a different method.
In the 2019 point-in-time count, there were 8,035 homeless counted, 5,180 unsheltered and 2,855 sheltered.
Erick Brown, a board member, said late evening was the traditional hours for the count because it was “assumed people had found a place to slumber at that hour and we would have a better count.”
“Nothing is going to be perfect. I don’t see one over the other is going to be that much better to get a perfect count,” Brown said. “There is funding attached to this. And we need to do the best that we can.”
No matter what time, the counts are limited in capturing an accurate picture of how many homeless are in San Francisco, advocates and city officials say.
“This process has limitations,” said Valerie Caplan, an HSH official. “The point-in-time count offers only a point-in-time snapshot of homelessness in our city and it can be very difficult to ensure that all homeless persons are counted accurately.”
While the board backed the late evening hours count, there may be a small adjustment.
Stewart-Kahn said that the start time may begin at 9 p.m. because she said in past years the initial hour was used to gather volunteers together for a training session before heading out. But with COVID-19 all training will be done ahead of time and online.