Friday, February 18, 2005

Death for the homelesss

Putting the numbers in historical perspective: Mayor Newsom's office released the latest figures on how many homeless people died in the city over the past year---101 as compared to the 169 who died in the previous year. "These numbers are a good sign," the mayor's office said (SF Examiner, Feb. 18-20). Well, yes, it's good that fewer homeless people died last year, but, unfortunately, the 101 number is consistent with the homeless body counts going back to 1986.

More than five years ago, Rachel Gordon wrote a front-page story on homelessness in the city that included a sidebar showing the death count from 1986 through 1999 ("Grim Times for Homeless," SF Examiner, Dec. 23, 1999). In all but three of those years, the death toll was more than 100, with a 14-year average of 115 annual deaths. 

It's important to understand that the numbers fluctuated considerably from year to year, even though they were over 100 every year in that period, except for the aforementioned three years---and the toll was 98 in one of those years. For example: there were 69 deaths in 1987, which jumped to 116 in 1988; 154 in 1996, which dropped to 104 in 1997.

To his credit, the mayor seems to understand this: "There is no number more meaningful to me than that number...Even though I'm pleased it's down, it still belies an underlying tragedy. It's still outrageous" ("Hope for the Homeless," Kevin Fagan, SF Chronicle, Feb. 18).

But clearly the recent homeless count showing far fewer people living on our streets demonstrates that the mayor is on the right track with the supportive housing approach. Thanks to Mayor Newsom and Angela Alioto, we're making real progress on homelessness, but the tragedy on our streets is far from over.

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