Monday, May 30, 2011

Homeless count in SF is holding steady

Since 2005, to qualify for federal aid, cities around the country are required to do a homeless count every two years. (SF gets $18.6 million from the feds, which the city calls "a critical source of funding  for the county's homeless services.") The 2011 San Francisco Homeless Count report is out, and it's remarkable how consistent the total in the 2011 report (6,455) is with the totals of 2005 (6,248), 2007 (6,377), and 2009 (6,514), which is a tribute to the effectiveness of the city's approach in the middle of the Great Recession. No one would have been surprised if the numbers this year were a lot higher than they are.

Those totals represent both the "sheltered"---people classified as homeless who are in jail, a hospital, a shelter, or some other form of "transitional" housing---and those counted who were actually on the street. But the "street"---or "unsheltered"---numbers of the homeless have also been  pretty consistent over the last three counts: 2,655 in 2005; 2,771 in 2007; 2,709 in 2009; with a spike in that number to 3,106 in 2011.

Hence, there are more homeless people on our streets, which isn't surprising, since the Great Recession is still wreaking havoc on the poor and the working class. The report tries to put a good face on the numbers by pointing out that "The percentage of chronically homeless persons in San Francisco decreased from 62% in 2009 to 33% in 2011" (page 4). 

This is good news for the city's budget, since the chronically homeless are the most expensive to deal with, as they cycle through the city jail and the city's emergency rooms. Get them off the street, and you save a lot of money, which is what Angela Alioto's Ten Year Council found in its report back in 2004. 

The city has been on that path ever since, following the lead of George W. Bush's head of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness, Philip Mangano. President Bush may have run the country into a ditch, but more than any other single individual, Mangano put the whole country on a path to deal realistically with homelessness.

What's exasperating for city residents is how the homeless problem here has apparently become permanent. Where do all these people come from? Of course they aren't simply long-time city residents who have fallen on hard times. They come from all over the country, as has been reported in the local media for years. San Francisco is not only a popular destination for well-heeled tourists, it's a destination for people with economic, psychological, and substance abuse problems.

The report tries to put a positive spin on that reality with the claim that their survey showed that "67% indicated they had lived in the city for one year or more before becoming homeless." That means that 23% have been here less than a year, and, since the count is only done every two years, surely a lot more have been here less than two years. There's no solution to that problem, since the city can't control who enters the city.

Increases to the homeless population obscure the significant progress that has been made in getting individuals into needed treatment programs and transitioning individuals out of homelessness and into stable housing.
* From January 2004 to February 2011, 7,225 single homeless adults were placed in permanent supportive housing through Care Not Cash Housing, Housing First, Direct Access to Housing, Shelter Plus Care, and the Local Operating Subsidy Program.
* From January 2004 to February 2011, a total of 12,601 individuals exited homelessness through various intitiatives (page 7).

My favorite program is Homeward Bound, which gives a homeless person a Greyhound bus ticket back whence he/she came: "During this time span, another 5,376 homeless individuals left San Francisco to be reunited with friends or family members in other parts of the country through the City's Homeward Bound Program." This is surely the city's most successful homeless program, but the city is oddly shy about publicizing its success.

People may be resigned to homelessness being a permanent problem, but the political reality is that the issue in San Francisco is no longer front-page news. The policies put in place since Care Not Cash passed in 2002 have allowed the city to deal with the issue more skillfully with more outreach to the chronically homeless and, in response to neighborhood complaints, by sweeping the homeless out of Golden Gate Park.

Progressives hate to admit it, but the credit for whatever success the city has had on the problem goes to Gavin Newsom. Back in 2002, when city voters passed then-Supervisor Newsom's Care Not Cash initiative, homelessness was the big issue in city politics. Even though Newsom's progressive critics accused him of waging war on the poor, city voters wanted something done about homelessness. 

In 2003 Newsom used the issue to get elected Mayor of San Francisco. In early 2004, homelessness was still the most important issue for city voters, but later that year Care Not Cash and policies like Homeward Bound began dealing with the worst aspects of the problem, and Angela Alioto unveiled the city's Ten Year Plan to combat homelessness, a City Hall event, by the way,  that not a single progressive city politician attended.

The best local coverage of homelessness has long been by Kevin Fagan at the Chronicle, whose "Shame of the City" series on the issue was worthy of a Pulitzer. Fagan is back on the homeless beat with a recent story on the homeless count.

Fagan quotes the city's homeless policy director:

"It could have been a lot worse if we hadn't created so much supportive housing" and secured federal funding for homeless families, said San Francisco's homeless policy director, Dariush Kayhan. "These bad economic times have created some challenges."

That things could be a lot worse isn't the kind of slogan that resonates politically, but it seems to reflect the reality. Fagan takes note of how President Obama's Rapid Rehousing program has helped keep 1,100 people, including families, off the streets, with $8.75 million as part of the president's stimulus package.

The part of the city that saw the biggest increase in homelessness is Bayview-Hunters Point, where it went from 444 in 2009 to 1,151 this year. As the report notes, 39% of the city's homeless are black, and there are more people living in cars and vans parked in the waterfront area in the southeastern part of the city.

On every homeless story, reporters feel obligated to get a contrary view from city progressives. Paul Boden is always good for a sour soundbite, which he provides the Examiner in a story on the count published way back in January:

But Paul Boden, the organizing director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, said there are many more-scientific methods of counting people experiencing homelessness at a given time.
“If the government wanted a serious analysis of how many people in this country are experiencing homelessness, nobody would say the best way to do that is to have a bunch of volunteers go out for two hours on a January night and do a head count,” Boden said. “It’s ludicrous.”

Actually, the count is four hours long---between 8:00 p.m. and midnight---and surely the city would be interested in hearing about alternative methodologies from Boden. But Boden's opinion represents nothing but rear guard carping by the city's left on the homeless issue, which they lost politically way back in 2002, when Newsom ate their lunch with Care Not Cash and then defeated Matt Gonzalez in the 2003 campaign.

Labels: , , , ,