Family homelessness may be underrepresented in city’s count

Photo by Joe Sciarrillo.

San Francisco’s bi-annual Homeless Point-In-Time Count and Survey vastly underrepresents the scope of family homelessness in the city, according to data gathered by Compass SF, an organization dedicated to providing family services for the homeless.

I can tell you without a doubt that the count for homeless families is often hugely under-represented,” Compass Program Director Kristin Keller said.

After a count of people on the streets and in shelters, conducted one night in January, and a follow-up survey, the city report found just nine families, or a total of 26 individuals in families who are homeless. Moreover, 87 percent of them live in some sort of shelter.

But between January and May, Compass recorded 319 homeless families — more than 35 times the number cited in the city’s report. And even that, Keller suggested, might be low.

At Catholic Charities, an organization with a number of programs aimed specifically at ending family homelessness, demand for their family resources remains high, according to Director of Communications and Marketing Cailan Franz.

“There has always been a need and waitlist for family shelter beds,” Franz wrote in an email.

Compass recorded the number 319 over the course of five months, which might explain some of the discrepancy between its numbers and the numbers collected in the report’s single night sweep of the city.

Another reason is that the Homeless Point-In-Time Count and Survey report is obligated to use a narrower definition of homelessness than Compass’s definition. That definition –  living either in a supervised homeless shelter or in a public place –  keeps its survey consistent with national surveys on homelessness. Families in these situations make up about 30 percent of the people in Compass’s data.

What is also striking, though, is the disparity between their reports of how many families are living on the street, in tents, or in other places not meant as dwellings.

The majority of the families in the Homeless Point-In-Time Count and Survey report are sheltered, and according to the report, those numbers have improved in recent years because of rapid re-housing programs, which subsidize rent for homeless families.

But Compass said they saw a huge increase in the number of families living on the streets from 2016 to 2017.

They found almost 94 families living in “places not meant for habitation,” which includes people living on the streets or in cars. This is an increase from 33 families in 2016. At the same time, they counted fewer homeless families overall.

According to Compass Program Director Kristin Keller, it is hard to accurately capture the number of homeless families for two reasons.

First, many homeless families “double up” in someone else’s home, couch surfing or otherwise moving quickly between temporary homes, so they will not be reflected in data collected on the streets.

Second, Keller noted, because of safety concerns, families with young children living on the street are likely to stay hidden for safety reasons and so might be difficult to find and count. This is why the number of unsheltered individuals is likely underrepresented in the city’s data.

Franz from Catholic Charities said that it has become increasingly difficult for families to find permanent housing and noted that in the last year, families have been taking longer to exit their shelters.

When they do find housing, it is almost always outside of San Francisco. In the past year, only three of the 29 families they have served at St Joseph’s Family Center, at Guerrero and 21st, have found housing in San Francisco.

The Point-In-Count Report states that the city will add 30 additional shelter units for families this year in order to provide resources to a larger population.

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