STAFF EDITORIAL: Not everyone counts

Aaron Teixeira - Investigative Cartoonist

When San Francisco last conducted a citywide count of the homeless population in 2009, it concluded that there were 6,514 homeless people.

By most accounts, however, that number was far from exact. The system by which the city arrived at these biennial counts was flawed.

Yet, on Jan. 27 the Human Services Agency of San Francisco gathered its volunteers to once again count the homeless population. The system is still flawed.

The process for counting the number of homeless is loose with the factuality of the numbers – to the point of aiming for inaccuracy. Rather than having the volunteers interact with those they suspect are homeless, the HSA instructs them to observe but not approach, leaving volunteers to assess whether someone is homeless based solely on perspective.

Safety comes first, said HSA analyst Ali Schlageter.

In a city renowned for its liberal ideology and compassion for those pushed to the fringe, treating the homeless as if they have the plague is deplorable. Not only is it morally reprehensible, it also skews the numbers and fosters a mentality that hinders any ability to fundamentally aid the homeless.

The official HSA count is used in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual homeless assessment, and San Francisco compares the numbers from previous years to evaluate the effectiveness of programs that address chronic homelessness.

The latter purpose is one of the ways the city justifies its cavalier attitude toward accurate number counts.

“It’s not about the actual solid numbers,” said Dr. Rajesh Parekh, with the Department of Public Health for a Jan. 27 article in [X]press. “We are focusing on the trends, if it’s generally more or less than it was in the past.”

But paying attention to trends while ignoring statistical precision is a contradiction in terms. Anyone who takes a stroll down Market Street or through the Tenderloin district or knows the pathetic wait time for a shelter bed – about six months – will fully comprehend that homelessness is overrunning the city, and the programs currently in place are not enough.

Now, obviously the flawed counting system is not the root cause of homelessness in San Francisco – blame former Gov. Ronald Reagan’s defunding of mental institutions for that. Nor is it the primary hindrance to solving the problem – blame the lack of shelters for that. But if the city is not even willing to produce an accurate count of the homeless, how can it ever seriously tackle ways to get them off the streets?

Along those same lines, most of the volunteers are already active in the homeless community. So why not have them speak with their “subjects” (because, after all, that is how the city seemingly views the homeless) and collect crucial data, such as length of homelessness and reasons for homelessness?

The city’s answer is that it is afraid for its counters’ safety. That answer is a cop out.

Speaking with the homeless and obtaining more information than just “that person looks homeless”, is critical to finding solutions to improving the quality of life for one of San Francisco’s most consistently ignored communities.

The city must address the glaring flaws in its process for counting the homeless, because it, along with its current attitude toward the homeless, is insufficient.

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