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Homelessness in SF is Complex. Here Are Answers to the Most Common Questions

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The number of people living without a home has increased since 2017 in at least five of the nine Bay Area counties.  (Monica Lam/KQED)

For the SF Homeless Project, Bay Curious collaborated with the San Francisco Chronicle and their podcast Fifth & Mission to answer a handful of questions from the audience about homelessness.

How many people are homeless in the Bay Area?

Since Bay Curious first answered your questions on homelessness in 2017, the cost of living has continued to rise in the Bay Area and with it, the number of people living without a home.

In the nine-county Bay Area, just over 34,000 people are experiencing homelessness, according to point-in-time counts conducted in January 2019 by most counties.

In at least five of the nine counties, the recent count revealed an increase in the number of homeless people from the last time the count was done in 2017.

How is the homeless population counted?

In San Francisco, about 600 volunteers and staff canvassed the entire county between 8 p.m. and midnight on Jan. 24, 2019. The city is broken up into a grid, and counters walk down every street within their sector.

"You look at people and you assume that they are homeless or not homeless," says San Francisco Chronicle reporter Kevin Fagan, who has covered homelessness for more than two decades. "It's kind of a judgment, which by definition makes [the count] imprecise, and the people you can't see make it imprecise, but it's a good benchmark that you can use year to year."

A version of this process is repeated in most of the Bay Area's counties. Sometimes homeless people are paid to help counters find less visible areas where people may have set up camp.

A tally of the people living in emergency shelters, transitional housing facilities and domestic violence shelters is added to the street count to calculate a total homeless population.

Counts are typically done every two years, and are required for counties to be eligible for federal funding for homeless services.


What are the primary causes of homelessness?

"I think people ask this question because they want a single answer that we can easily solve," says Audrey Cooper, editor-in-chief of the San Francisco Chronicle. "The problem is this population has multiple diagnoses and multiple problems."

Along with the point-in-time homeless count, counties administer a survey to homeless people that collects demographic and historical information.

Year to year, the self-reported primary causes of homelessness have remained the  same: job loss, alcohol or drug use, eviction, arguments with friends or family who asked them to leave, mental health issues and a divorce/separation/breakup.

Because many are struggling with multiple challenges, it can be hard for survey respondents to pinpoint a primary cause. You can get a glimpse at the range of challenges people face when you see how the group responded to a question about health conditions.

Seventy-four percent say they are living with one or more health conditions, up from 68 percent in 2017. The most often cited condition was alcohol or drug use, followed by psychiatric or emotional conditions. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) had the highest percentage point increase between 2017 and 2019.

"That adds up to more than 100 percent, so there are many, many problems, not just one thing that is keeping people on the street," says Cooper.

You can read the summary of the report for your county below. Napa County has some figures published from 2018 in its Update of the Napa Plan to End Homelessness. Those with an asterisk have yet to publish 2019 figures.

What is San Francisco doing to help the homeless?

"The city really does follow what is termed 'best practices' around the country. And the city models best practices," says Fagan.

About 9,500 people are living in supportive housing units in San Francisco. Among them are six Navigation Centers, which offer intensive housing and counseling services to residents. Case managers work to connect Navigation Center residents to income, public benefits, health services and housing.

The city also has an outreach team that helps get people into stable housing or a medical care facility.

"Outreach counselors are some of the most dedicated, sincere people you'd want to meet," says Fagan. "They don't have enough resources to put people into. But if they weren't doing what they're doing, we would not have 8,000 people [living homeless in San Francisco] — we'd have 30,000. It would be mind-blowing."

Fagan also cautions that sometimes appearances can be deceiving.

"At least some of those people you think are homeless are not," Fagan says. "They're just dirt-poor, living inside. And that's better than sleeping outside."

Under the Interstate 80 overpass over Gilman Street in Berkeley. (Monica Lam/KQED)

Is there anything on the horizon that will make a difference in helping homeless people?

City officials are ramping up a tracking system they hope will help them serve people and save money.

"They'll say, 'This is what kind of shelter you've tried. This is what kind of drug rehab you've tried. These are the mental services you tried.' So they don't repeat the same things that didn't work," says Fagan.

Tracking systems have worked well in Houston, New York and Los Angeles, Fagan says.

Are most of the homeless people coming to the Bay Area from other areas to take advantage of services?

An oft-cited statistic from homeless advocates: About 70 percent of people who are homeless became homeless while living in the Bay Area.

"That means 30 percent ... are 'coming here to be homeless,' " says Cooper. "That's still a ton of people. I think until we start to talk about those numbers, we're not really addressing people's concerns.

"When we deny that San Francisco is — as Fox News would say, 'a magnet for homelessness' — if we don't talk about the actual facts, we really lose an opportunity to deal with this population."

A homeless man pushes a cart with his belongings on May 17, 2019. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

What do I do if I think someone needs help?

San Francisco has a 311 number to call if outreach or other resources are needed. In Alameda County and Contra Costa County, you can call 211.

There are also outreach groups that aid homeless people, such as the San Francisco Homeless Outreach Team (415-734-4233) or the San Francisco Mobile Crisis Treatment Team (415-970-4000).

For more information, check out the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness’ 10 Things To Do When You See Homeless People.

What about those who live in vehicles like RVs or camper vans full time?

While the majority of San Francisco’s unsheltered homeless population is living outdoors, 35 percent are living in vehicles. That’s compared to 13 percent in 2015.

To address this rise in vehicle living, the city is testing a program to provide safe overnight parking, and plans to open a Vehicle Triage Center across from the Balboa Park BART Station. This center would provide bathrooms, sanitation services, 24-hour security and connections to social services, among other resources.

The number of people living in vehicles in Oakland is on the rise, too. It has increased 124 percent since 2017.

In response, cities all over the Bay Area are starting to reconsider their laws and resources for RV full-timers.

In June, Oakland opened the Bay Area’s first 24-hour safe overnight parking area near the Coliseum BART Station. Residents can park there for up to six months. Last March the Berkeley City Council voted to ban overnight RV parking, but has since delayed the ban until a safe overnight parking area is built.

While for many homeless people, full-time RV living is a step toward permanent housing, it’s also a solution some low-wage workers are using to stay in the Bay Area. Some live in vehicles part time to be closer to work, while having a permanent address outside the area.

As cities build safe overnight parking areas, they are also planning tighter restrictions or bans on overnight RV parking everywhere else. Take Mountain View, for example. In May, 212 Mountain View residents were living in an RV or vehicle. By November 2019 the city plans to open safe overnight RV parking, but only with an estimated 60 spots. Once the parking area is up and running, Mountain View plans to restrict or ban overnight oversized vehicle parking by January 2020.

Woman and her dog.
April Campbell and her dog, Rocky ,wait for assistance from passers-by on Tuesday, June, 28, 2016. Campbell lives behind a nearby Neiman Marcus store. (JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)

How do homeless people get pets? Are they allowed in shelters?

According to Renee Lowry, executive director of Pets of the Homeless, there are three common ways homeless owners get their pets: They owned the pet before they became homeless, they found a stray pet while living on the street, or the pet was given to them by another homeless person. Pets of the Homeless is a national organization that focuses on feeding and caring for pets of homeless owners. Its website also has a tool for finding local resources and pet-friendly homeless shelters.

Homeless pet owners may have to pass up housing opportunities because the majority of homeless shelters do not allow pets. According to Pets of the Homeless, in San Francisco only the Navigation Centers accept residents with pets. In the greater Bay Area the only pet-friendly shelters are PATH San Jose and HomeFirst in San Jose.

There are several organizations in San Francisco that provide free or reduced pet food and veterinary care, such as Veterinary Street Outreach Services (Vet SOS) run by the San Francisco Community Clinic Consortium. The San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SF SPCA) provides free spaying and neutering to homeless owners.

Who are the people creating and selling the S.F. newspaper Street Sheet?

Street Sheet is a twice-monthly publication run by the Coalition on Homelessness. Many of the publication’s contributors have personal experience with homelessness and pursue stories sourced from the community, such as the rise of fentanyl in the Tenderloin and pest infestations in single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotels. After the stories are written, editor Quiver Watts and assistant-editor TJ Johnston edit them and get them ready to print.

“Street Sheet is a way ... to demonstrate that people who have lived experience of homelessness are the experts on their own lives, and therefore, as experts on what they most need and what policies [are] going to be most effective,” says Watts.

Up to 100 copies are given to vendors each day, and each copy can be sold for $2. Vendors keep all of the proceeds, and many use their earnings from Street Sheet to pay for necessities like housing, food and medication.

With about 230 homeless or low-income vendors, Street Sheet reaches about 16,000 readers each issue. Watts says it provides the vendors a way to ask for money while maintaining their dignity, and provides readers a unique perspective on homelessness and an opportunity to engage face-to-face with vendors.


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