Preliminary figures released Monday suggest that homelessness in San Francisco has dropped by 3.8 percent since 2019.
That might not sound like a lot, but it is the biggest drop the city has seen since the federally mandated Point-In-Time count began in 2005. What is more, the number of unsheltered homeless – meaning people who are living somewhere not meant for human habitation – has fallen 15 percent in roughly three years.
This drop comes against the backdrop of the pandemic, during which the homeless population was expected to swell. Instead, with a massive investment in housing, the numbers fell. And with the addition of shelter-in-Place (SIP) hotels, bankrolled by the federal government, people were able to find shelter at a higher rate. Sheltered folks made up 43 percent of homeless San Franciscans this year, compared to 36 percent in 2019.
“We proved we can move quickly, invest at a new scale, and cut red tape to house and protect thousands of people, and there’s no going back – it’s time to double down on what’s working,” said Tomiquia Moss, CEO of anti-homelessness organization All Home, in a press release.
Overall, 7,754 homeless people – those with and without shelter – were counted in the city during the nighttime tally on February 23. Some 8,035 were counted during the 2019 tally.
This new data comes from the Point-In-Time (PIT) count, a federally mandated survey of homeless populations across the country. It was initially scheduled for 2021, but was pushed back a year due to the pandemic.
The PIT count is one of the city’s main ways to track homelessness, but it is by no means a perfect measure. While experts are pleased with the positive trajectory of the figures, they say the results should be taken with a pinch of salt.
“There is a false concreteness to it,” said Sam Dodge, Director of the Healthy Streets Operations Center. He explained that because the count takes a snapshot of a given day, it may not capture those who become homeless for a short time and then get back on their feet. The count might also miss people who are homeless but not on the street or in shelters.
Dodge estimated that San Francisco sees around 18,000 to 22,000 people in a year engage with the city’s homelessness services. He said it was possible more people could be experiencing homelessness in the city now than at the start of the pandemic, but added that there was also more money going toward helping people find shelter.
“I think all of these things can be true simultaneously,” said Dodge.
“And I think reasonable people can agree that it is a great achievement to not have a big spike,” he added, given the challenges of the pandemic and the city’s ongoing affordability problem.
Emily Cohen, deputy director at the San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said that the count’s methodology this year was very similar to previous years, meaning that we should be able to make reliable comparisons – because even if undercounting takes place, a similar amount is likely to be done each time.
“What this goes to show is that when you invest more money in shelter and housing, homelessness gets better,” said Cohen. “Investment works.”
One of the main drivers that got more people off the streets during the pandemic was the use of SIP (or shelter in place) hotels. Per capita, San Francisco saw some of the highest use of SIP hotels anywhere in the country. According to government data, the city has used over 2,400 SIP hotel rooms and trailers since the pandemic began, serving over 3,800 guests.
That scheme is expected to wrap up by November, and there is now pressure to ensure that the occupants do not end up back on the streets. Over 2,500 SIP hotel residents have already left, leaving 918 still at SIP hotels today.
We can see the declining temporary shelters reflected in the data. A partial count from 2021 shows that there were 4,000 sheltered homeless in the city last year, compared to 3,357 this year. Cohen attributed the drop to a reduction in pandemic shelters like the SIP hotels.
According to city data, 42 percent of former SIP hotel occupants have moved into some form of housing. The other 58 percent have gone in various directions – other institutions, more temporary shelter, or back onto the street.
Part of the solution may come from buying up housing and converting it to specifically cater for the formerly homeless. At a press conference yesterday, Mayor London Breed opened the city’s latest such project – the Panoramic, 160 units of former student housing in SoMa.
“My hope is that we are able to continue to move forward as aggressively as possible with getting more of these projects,” said Breed.
Meanwhile, the mayor has stalled plans to use $64 million approved by the Board of Supervisors for the small sites program, which keeps low-income residents in place by purchasing their buildings.
Kelley Cutler, organizer for the Coalition on Homelessness, said that money from 2018’s Proposition C – which Breed opposed – seems to have helped the city’s homeless already. Prop. C levied a tax against large businesses to fund homelessness support, including the purchase of more buildings, improving mental health provision, and creating more shelters. More money from the proposition will become available in the coming years.
Cutler added that there was still much more that could be done, including reopening the 311 shelter waitlist service that was halted during the pandemic.
According to the PIT count data, San Francisco has managed to curtail rising homelessness better than most Californian counties. A majority of counties saw a rise during the pandemic, with major increases of 35 percent and 21 percent in Contra Costa and Alameda respectively.
It is worth bearing in mind that there are still far more people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco today (7,754) than there were when the count started in 2005 (5,404). But the figures released today have nonetheless lent experts and politicians some cautious optimism.
A full breakdown of the PIT count data, including demographic and neighborhood information, is scheduled to be released in July.