By SHILANDA WOOLRIDGE
More than 100 good samaritans gathered at the Latino Center on Tuesday evening to take part in the 2009 San Francisco homeless count.
“Pay attention to vehicles that are occupied and clearly not operational. Count the vehicle and any people who may be hanging around outside,” Daryl Higashi, who represented the city and county, advised the volunteers in a one-hour training session.
Armed with flashlights, spreadsheets on clip boards and a map with a special notation of homeless hot spots, the volunteers hit the streets of the Mission and bordering neighborhoods—25 driving and seven walking routes.
As they left, Higashi, who works for the housing homeless division, encouraged drivers to leave their cars to check out transportation depots and fast-food restaurants where homeless people might be hanging out to escape the elements.
The homeless count happens every two years and is mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for all jurisdictions receiving McKinney Vento funding, which goes toward housing. San Francisco receives $18 million a year and its last count totaled 6,377.
“It will be interesting to see how many are single versus families,” said Hieu Ngo, a marketing researcher for an online retail company who volunteered with four other friends after answering an invite via Facebook.
Norma Azucar, a paralegal and 10-year resident of the Mission District, said she volunteered through Project Homeless Connect. “They sent an email and I came out to help,” she said. “I love to volunteer.”
Azucar, paired with Pasqual Yaxon, a Mayan horticultural specialist from Guatemala, nabbed a coveted walking route. They grabbed a flashlight and bottles of water, and donned reflector vests. Their route was north of the Mission bordered by Duboce Avenue to the north, Market to the east, 14th Street to the south and Buena Vista Terrace to the west.
At Duboce Park they turned on their flashlights to check behind bushes. No one. The western part of their route was also barren. “There won’t be too many homeless out here. People who live in these neighborhoods won’t have it. They’ll call the cops,” said Azucar, moving on.
At one of the so-called hot spots the city asked reporters to keep confidential, Azucar appeared puzzled. “There aren’t as many here as I thought. It’s probably too early.” At another hot spot Azucar gestured broadly and said, “If you come back here after midnight you will see cars and encampments stacked up.”
She peered at a solitary man smoking a cigarette and seated next to a shopping cart covered in plastic. “He got here early to claim his spot,” she said.
A second round of volunteers will return to the hot spots in two weeks to ask questions about how people became homeless, how long they’ve been homeless, and if they were homeless before they came to the Bay Area. Applied Survey Research will then tally the data.
On Market Street, Azucar and Yaxon saw three disheveled men sitting on a bench around the corner from a bus stop. Azucar was uncertain, but the presence of a shopping cart stuffed with personal belongings sealed the deal. Yaxon snapped on the flashlight to give Azucar some working light. This caught the attention of the men who calmly filed around the corner with the cart in tow.
Azucar and Yaxon returned to the Latino Center at 9:30 p.m. to turn in their paperwork. Many driving volunteers had already come and gone. Azucar, surprised by how few she and her partner had counted, insisted to the coordinators that they should return later to see more homeless.
Earlier, other volunteers had questioned the methodology.
“You could be couch surfing without a place of your own to live. You’re not on the street, but technically you’re still homeless,” said Ngo.
Later in the week, Allison Schlageter, a San Francisco Local Homeless Coordinating Board policy analyst, remained confident that the methodology was sound.
“The time of the count aligns with curfews at many shelters,” she said when asked about the doubts some volunteers had. “We are following the recommended guidelines from the federal government.”
She added, “It’s more practical to work with 500 volunteers at 7 p.m. instead of 2 a.m.”
The homeless count will be used to establish future McKinney Vento funding levels. The final results will take several months and will be made available at www.sfgov.org/lhcb.