Homeless count an inexact science

Volunteer Rajesh Parekh and David Nakanishi walk around the Tenderloin on Jan. 27, counting possible homeless people around. The citywide homeless count will help bring future federal funds to San Francisco. Erik Verduzco | staff photographer



San Francisco conducted its citywide homeless count on Jan. 27 in an attempt to document any change from the 6,514 estimated homeless citizens tallied in 2009.
Executive director for the Coalition on Homelessness Jennifer Friedenbach believes these counts may leave out a large number of homeless.

The biennial homeless count is supposed to provide the federal government information on how much funding each city needs to combat homelessness. Major cities like New York, Los Angeles and Washington D.C., also perform similar counts, which help determine where the most assistance is needed in terms of creating housing and other support for homeless populations.

“There is no real way to tell if someone is homeless or not,” Friedenbach said. “Many may not be counted because they don’t have tattoos or carry bags, but they are still homeless, even for that night.”

Dr. Rajesh Parekh of the Department of Public Health knows these issues well, noting that every volunteer group has an official who helps with judgment calls of that nature.

“This may just be a snapshot of one night,” Parekh said. “But it’s information that helps us change that.”

The lack of manpower is a major flaw in the homeless count, according to Friedenbach.

“The result of the count is dependent on the number of volunteers that attend,” she said. “Less volunteers, the less people to count. The less counting, the less counted.”

The approximate 150 volunteers were sent out to cover San Francisco’s nearly 50 square miles on Thursday.

At the volunteer orientation, policy analyst Ali Schlageter discouraged enumerators from interacting with homeless and to avoid encampments and people living in cars.

These encampments are calculated separately through a “mathematical method” according to Schalgeter.

These types of variables fuel Friedenbach’s argument toward inconsistent counts.
David Nakanishi, a volunteer since 2001, said that determining the differences among transients, homeless and someone drunk on the streets is a very difficult judgment call.

“Places like the Haight, Tenderloin and Mission might cause a lot of confusion for someone who doesn’t have a familiarity with the people of the neighborhood,” Nakanishi said. “Some people may admit to being homeless if you just walked up and asked them, not everyone would. Especially if they’re younger.”

After safety precautions and other business were discussed in the orientation, groups were supposed to be separated in teams of two or three with an accompanying escort and given a section of the city to explore, either by foot or by automobile. Some teams ended up traveling in packs ranging from two to eight.

The count, which took place between 8 p.m. and midnight, becomes a part of the data that San Francisco sends in to the federal government, in addition to additional counts in parks, shelters and food banks. Testimonials from homeless surveyors also add into the data given.

“This information will give both quantitative and qualitative data,” Parekh said. “It’s more than just a number that we’re aiming for. We’re following a trend.”

Though the final goal is to obtain a definitive number to gain funding that will help combat homelessness, it may be all for naught.

“The process is a waste of time and resources,” Friedenbach said. “It’s not worth the money that can be used to create housing for every man, woman and child.”

The data from this count and accompanying information will be completed by early April, according to Pamela Tebo, assistant to the executive director of the Human Services Agency.

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