#SFHomelessProject. Coverage all week.

Maraea Master was raised in a pre-gentrified Bernal Heights where the ice cream shop sold melted ice cream and the pet shop sold dead pets. 

That is, pleasantly, not a universal San Francisco memory. But in many ways, Maraea Master’s story is, increasingly, San Francisco’s story. 

Master now oversees homeless and at-risk youth programming at City College. Before that, she was a front-line worker on the city’s Homeless Outreach Team (HOT). And, before that, she was homeless, a drug addict, an erstwhile inmate struggling to raise her children and grandchildren. 

“When homeless people first started filling up Division Street, I heard all about these ‘new’ homeless people in San Francisco,” she says. “But my mother lived under a freeway at Cortland and Bayshore for 15 years. My uncle did, too. When I was on the HOT team, I actually saw a lot of people I grew up with.” 

They’d been in San Francisco for years. And homeless. But now, you couldn’t ignore them. 

Many, like Master, grew up in oft-chaotic homes with eight aunts and uncles and a procession of spouses and kids and God knows who else gallivanting through, with everyone packing in with their myriad problems. But the key word here is “in.” 

“Homeless people weren’t visible before because they still had grandma’s house,” Master says. But now grandma is gone, and someone else who paid a small fortune is living in that house. 

So now, they are seen. 

“To me,” says Master, “it feels like the same number of people are homeless. But now, more are getting counted.” 

The items belonging to several homeless men were tossed onto the sidewalk in late March. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

Does San Francisco have more homeless people than before? Or are we just getting better at counting? 

The best answer appears to be: “Yes.” Both of these can be true.

Somewhat amazingly, in the year 2019 — the year in which Blade Runner was set — San Francisco still measures progress in alleviating homelessness based on numbers assembled on one night by volunteers with clipboards, deployed throughout the city to tally on pen and paper how many people look homeless — every other year. Yes, algorithms are involved and folks living 12 to a room are, by design, missed. 

This is problematic. But the real concern isn’t so much the point-in-time (PIT) count, which is still useful — it has highlighted trends among sub-populations like veterans or car-dwellers and has revealed overrepresentation among the homeless of former foster care children, people of color, and the LGBTQ. Also, if you don’t do the PIT count, you don’t get the federal money. 

So, that’s for the good. The problem, rather, is the outsize and all-encompassing role the PIT count has come to play. 

In much the way the Stanford-Binet test was a well-meaning method of spotting and remedying children’s learning disabilities — that was, instead, repurposed into the IQ test measuring purported overall human intelligence, with drastic and unforeseen worldwide consequences — the PIT count is an effective set of data points that has, instead, been repurposed into the end-all be-all of measuring overall homelessness. 

We in the media play no small role in this. The PIT count, like the IQ test, provides a single, tangible number. It’s easy to understand and report on. If the numbers go down, that’s good. If they remain stagnant or go up, that’s bad. There are few subjects more complex than homelessness — its origins; the obvious connection to housing and real-estate markets; local, state, and federal budgeting issues; mental health and substance abuse issues; program administration and evaluation — but the PIT count provides the veneer of simplicity. 

When the numbers are released, they can be reported on with the fanfare of NFL Draft Day. 

And, for that, the city also deserves its share of blame. The PIT count is the most meaningful homelessness data the public is presented with. This should not be, but in San Francisco we were far too slow to establish the centralized, data-driven systems other cities did. We shouldn’t need to send out volunteers with clipboards and ball-point pens every other year to come up with abstract numbers indicating success or failure in our homeless programs. We ought to be able to draw from a wealth of individualized data points to do this, at the touch of a button. 

We ought to know how we’re doing — and in real time. 

San Francisco is progressing toward such a scenario, but much of it is years away. The needs of our homeless residents, of course, can’t wait. 

A sign that Elizabeth Stromer wrote after the heavy rain storms hit San Francisco. Photo by Lola M. Chavez.

“First rule in government spending,” cackles the mysterious billionaire S.R. Hadden in the film Contact, “Why build one when you can have two at twice the price?” 

That’s cynical, but not unwarranted. The same, however, can’t be said when it comes to abstract statistics masquerading as straightforward markers of progress or regression. When you release multiple sets of numbers ostensibly defining the same subject, people get confused. 

To wit, this year San Francisco tallied 8,011 homeless people in its PIT count — a 17 percent spike over the 2017 count. Well, that’s depressing. But this is actually a less terrible number than most anywhere else in the state; homelessness is a growth industry in California. 

(For what it’s worth, the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing in 2017 actually predicted a rise in chronic homelessness in the 2019 count, due to a dearth of housing in the pipeline. Lo, this came to pass. But you didn’t read this in any news stories: Perhaps wary of being perceived as spinning and minimizing the grim results, no city official offered this in defense.) 

One of the PIT count’s best attributes is not only its longitudinal nature — you can track results year by year — but consistency from county to county — you can track results locale by locale. 

And yet, we do more here in San Francisco. Rather than a narrow Department of Housing and Urban Development definition of who is “homeless,” San Francisco undertakes an additional count, tallying incarcerated people, people in treatment facilities, and people in hospitals. 

As you’d expect, this leads to a larger number in our San Francisco-only supplemental count. This year, much larger. On top of the 8,011 people tallied in the official “HUD” count, some 1,773 more were counted in hospitals, jails, and treatment facilities — for a total approaching 10,000. 

Well, that’s depressing. And our 2019 San Francisco supplemental count was 30 percent higher than the 2017 supplemental count — which was dutifully reported in the papers, and there was much lamentation. 

And yet, why buy one when you can have four at four times the price? To wit, on top of the two PIT count numbers, the Department of Public Health states that some 10,000 “unique homeless adults touch the health system each year.” And the Department of Homelessness itself applies a multiplier of 2.89 to the PIT count to estimate how many individuals are homeless not just on one day but throughout the entire year. 

This year, that’d be around 23,000 people.

This is a more real, more practical and, frankly, more terrifying number. But this number is hardly ever mentioned or publicized. 

In San Francisco homeless issues, we obsess over statistics that, candidly, are rather abstract and of somewhat limited utility — while the statistics we most ought to know are either not readily available or not available at all.  

And still, the question remains: Are there more homeless people or are we just getting better at counting? 

Near 26th and Mission, September, 2011.

The answer, again, is “yes.” It’s hard to argue, given statewide PIT counts, housing economics, the low price of spectacularly dangerous drugs, and the visual state of the city, that there aren’t more homeless people in San Francisco than in recent years. But, especially with regard to the supplemental PIT count, we’re getting a lot better at counting. 

In fact, the methodology section of the 2019 PIT count report explicitly spells this out. Some 28 new treatment programs were included in this year’s survey, resulting in hundreds of people who’d have otherwise been missed. And this year’s jail count was far, far more thorough than in years past. 

Based on raw numbers, a maximum of 35 percent of inmates polled in January 2019 may qualify as homeless. As the data is finalized this number could change — it’s not yet clear how many of the homeless inmates reside in other counties and how many prisoners refused to be polled. But, as is, it’s hardly an unprecedented tally. A 1994 study penned by Ali Riker noted that “39 percent of persons booked into the County Jail were either homeless or temporarily housed.” And this was 39 percent of a bigger number; in ’94, of course, the jail population was far higher than it is now. 

The person overseeing the 2019 homeless jail count was none other than Ali Riker. “The sheriff directed my staff and I to actually approach every single person in jail,” she says. “That is a big lift.” 

With Riker’s 1990s-era work in mind, the high count of homeless people behind bars shouldn’t be a huge surprise. In retrospect, what should’ve been surprising were the low counts in past years. 

As Maraea Master would’ve told you, these people were there. We missed them before. But, now, they’re seen. Now they’re being counted. 

You won’t be surprised to hear that the public reaction to this year’s dreary PIT count was negative and damning and provided much cover for those making bad-faith arguments about how money put into homeless solutions has been squandered. Considering the abstruse nature of PIT counts and homelessness writ large, there was much to explain — but, as anyone remotely involved in politics knows, when you’re explaining, you’re losing. And, make no mistake, the PIT count is deeply political. 

And yet, better data is better — and the city needs to collect good data even when it looks bad. That’s the only way problems are going to be addressed: Riker notes that, this year, inmates identified as homeless are connecting with workers from Episcopal Community Services even before their release dates, and getting involved in programs and lined up for shelter or housing. In the past, they’d have been out on the street and on their own, period, end of story. 

The danger of viewing the complex world of homelessness through the too-simple prism of the PIT count is that it can lead to too-simple solutions. As a HOT Team worker, Master personally witnessed homeless people being sent across district lines into the Mission by SoMa cops and then sent back to SoMa by Mission cops. If the PIT count is the end-all and be-all of homeless success or failure, it, too, could be juked with similarly crude, Giuliani-like methods. 

And while San Francisco’s relatively less-terrible numbers than those of neighboring cities and counties could be attributed to the billions we’ve put into housing, shelter, and treatment programs, it could also be an indicator of the cold hard fact that this city has already economically banished so many of its marginalized residents to the rest of the Bay Area and beyond. 

The best answer appears to be: “Yes.” Both of these can be true.

“If we obsess about the PIT count being ‘the number,’ we’re just going to build our services around that number,” sums up Master. “But this is our standard. Until someone comes up with a better idea.” 

And that’s so. But the needs of our homeless residents, of course, can’t wait.