Numbers released Friday show there was either a 17 percent or a 30 percent increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco this year compared to 2017.
It all depends on who is counted as homeless.
The City’s own definition of homelessness is broader than the definition reported to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which requires the biennial homeless count.
Traditionally, The City’s homeless count tally released every two years and cited by city officials has been based on The City’s own definition, which includes, for example, people staying in jails, hospitals, or rehabilitation facilities.
This year, however, something different has happened: The City is relying on the narrower federal definition for its official report.
The change makes a substantial difference. It means that city officials are telling residents they found 8,011 homeless persons during a point-in-time count on the night of Jan. 24, rather than the 9,784 homeless persons that would have been reported under the broader city definition.
It also means they are reporting a 17 percent increase in homelessness since 2017, as opposed to the 30 percent increase seen using the city standards.
In 2017, The City reported a homeless point-in-time count of 7,499, using its own local definition. At the same time The City reported to HUD the lower number of 6,588, a difference of 641 residents.
The 2019 homeless count released Friday by the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing only provides the higher tally based on the local homeless definition in an appendix.
The report acknowledges the “shift” and calls the use of the local homeless definition “beyond the scope of this particular study and therefore not included in the Point-in-Time Count data presented in this report.”
“This shift allows for greater consistency and comparability between the data identified in this report and other communities across the nation,” the report said.
The report also said that a “significant portion” of the increase in the homeless counted using The City’s definition is due to “several improvements to the methodology.”
Based on the report there were 641 homeless persons that met The City’s definition of homelessness in 2017 that weren’t reported to HUD. That figure increased to 1,773 in the 2019 count.
Improvements in the count, the report said, included better outreach to hospitals and residential treatment programs.
“A total of 59 programs were represented in the supplemental count in 2019, 28 of which were new additions since 2017 accounting for 445 identified homeless persons,” the report said.
There was also a significant increase in the reported number of those who are homeless and in jail.
“In 2019, 472 inmates in San Francisco county jails were identified as homeless in the Point-in-Time shelter count. This represents a significant increase (57.9 percent, or 173 individuals) from 2017 when 299 inmates were identified as homeless,” the report said.
The report suggests the increase wasn’t an increase in homeless persons behind bars, but instead “improved clarity in data collection processes, survey administration, and survey response options that allow for a more accurate identification of those homeless at arrest.”
The report notes that while The City’s expanded definition of homelessness includes persons who were “doubled-up” in the homes of family or friends and families living in Single Room Occupancy (SRO) units, this data was not included “due to challenges identifying and locating families living in SROs and persons ‘doubled-up’ in the homes of family or friends.”