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How San Francisco Counts Unhoused Residents

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Outreach specialist Sean Bullock inputs data during a point-in-time homeless population count in the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood in San Francisco on Jan. 30, 2024. Teams spread out through San Francisco to count sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness on a single night. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

View the full episode transcript.

The biannual “point in time” count of unhoused residents is imperfect but an important part of tracking the homelessness crisis in cities across the country. KQED’s Sydney Johnson joined city workers as they drove around one San Francisco neighborhood to count the number of people living on the streets.


Episode Transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our team has reviewed it, there may be errors.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra, and welcome to the Bay. Local news to keep you rooted. Every two years, cities around the country are tasked with counting the number of people living on the streets on a single night. Everyone agrees it’s hard to be exact, but these numbers matter, and it’s this point in time count that helps the federal government decide how to dole out money for homeless services.

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Sydney Johnson: So I think about it as a really important spot check of are we doing better or are we doing worse today?

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: KQED reporter Sydney Johnson takes us to Bayview Hunters Point to see how city workers count San Francisco’s unhoused population. I know you recently went out with the team doing a headcount in Bayview Hunters Point. Can you take us to the scene? Where did you go first?

Sydney Johnson: I and several other folks gathered in a conference room downtown in a public health clinic.

Jose Torres: Where are you going to be? Seeing as many vehicles. You know, anything that’s abandoned? You gonna count those anyways? Of course. Tents and definitely people. So you might see people.

Sydney Johnson: And that’s where we received our instructions from Jose Torres. He’s a program manager at the SF Homeless Outreach team, and he told us what to look out for.

Jose Torres: When we see a light in the baby right now is, RVs, vehicles, people sleeping in vehicles. So.

Sydney Johnson: It was a one night assignment, and folks were pretty ready to just go out and do their job. I think many folks who were there had done it before. For the most part, I think these are professionals who were eager to go out and kind of see their line of work from a different perspective for one night.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Okay, so after you get these instructions, you leave the clinic. Where do you go next?

Sydney Johnson: So after we received our instructions, some teams took off by foot to more dense neighborhoods like the tenderloin. So I piled into the back of a small corolla with three of those city workers.

Sydney Johnson: We drove to the Bayview. It’s a pretty residential neighborhood in the city’s southeast corner. I didn’t get both of your names up in the front. Well, I’m Sydney, by the way.

Elester Hubbard: My name is Elester.

Sydney Johnson: Elester, would you spell it for me?

Elester Hubbard: Sure. It’s.

Sydney Johnson: Elester Hubbard is a San Francisco native. He drove us around all night, and he works in the Bayview, often connecting folks to homelessness services and also overseeing other outreach workers who do that same work as well.

Sean Bullock: I’m Sean, S E A N, and.

Sydney Johnson: Riding passenger was Sean Bullock, who is also an outreach worker for the city. Here’s a little bit younger than I am.

Sean Bullock: Really new.

Sydney Johnson: When did you start?

Sean Bullock: January 8th.

Sydney Johnson: Oh, awesome. And then in the back seat with me was another city worker nam ed Elizabeth Hudson. You already told me. What is your title?

Elizabeth Hudson You just h manager of supportive housing programs. Great. Okay.

Sydney Johnson: And she was highlighting the parts of the map that we would complete as we drove around, block by block, alleyway by alleyway. Yes, we do need to go down, Miranda. Depends on if you want to.

Elester Hubbard: Just like however you would like.

Sydney Johnson: Sure. Go down.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Here. In what exactly were the workers looking for? I assume just these more visible signs of homelessness, like tents.

Sydney Johnson: Right? We were told to count every individual that we saw, but also every RV and vehicle that appeared to be lived in as well. Half of the area that we were covering were, you know, single family homes and apartment buildings. But a lot of the area that we were covering, too, was super industrial. You know, we were scanning between warehouses and factories. There were a lot of arv’s that we were looking for.

Sydney Johnson: Many of the RVs that we saw were believed to be lived in because they had personal belongings. You know, maybe there was someone visible. So in some areas, like when we pulled up kind of behind a Amazon warehouse, there was a line of more than a dozen RVs. And our task was to drive through and try and identify which ones might have people in them. And that was really tricky.

Sean Bullock: Well, because we we didn’t see anyone. So on the app here, we just have a suspected, Tanner vehicle you believe to be inhabited but cannot confirm because of privacy.

Elester Hubbard: Okay, so I’m going to go down here because I think that’s part of it, and then I’ll come back up.

Sydney Johnson: You know, some of them, it was obvious we saw someone outside. Maybe they were listening to music or there was a light on others. It was hard to tell, you know, they were boarded up, or maybe it looked like they hadn’t been touched in years. And so some of those trickier judgment calls, a Lester and Sean would kind of go back and forth on a little bit and have to decide, what they thought at the end of it.

Elester Hubbard: People around us.

Sean Bullock: You don’t think this is you think that’s storage? Yeah. Yeah, it’s one storage. So that one.

Sydney Johnson: One of them, Elester says, no, I think that’s just storage. And it was a small trailer that was boarded up, but there was a window in the back that you could see. There was just a lot of equipment, bike parts, things like that. So I asked a Lester, I said, how did you make that call? Like, how do you know someone’s not sleeping in there?

Elester Hubbard: I’ve been through here like so many times, just like, you see, like the cart there. And then it’s you see that the tarp that’s poking out. So it’s more equipment. They would have a really hard time if somebody was to sleep in there, but there’s not. But if there was it, they would have have a really hard time because they would be sleeping on like pointing bike parts or tools or things like.

Sydney Johnson: And then for cars, we were told to look out for things like foggy windows or having belongings next to the car or on top of the car that may look like someone is living there. And then of course, we also saw encampments. You know, we walked by a group of people who were huddled around a fire under a freeway overpass because it was a really cold night.

Sean Bullock: We’ve already got fairly kind of 20.

Elester Hubbard: And so much more to go. Yeah.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: So once you actually spotted an RV or people, what happens? How do how do you actually count that?

Sydney Johnson: So a Elester was driving the vehicle while Sean was riding passenger and marking our findings in the app. So for an individual, it’s pretty straightforward. They’ll try to collect as much data as possible, so they’ll guess if it is a male or female and maybe what age they are. But you know, it’s not a direct science.

Sydney Johnson: They aren’t going up and asking these people these questions. For the RVs, though, and for cars, the counters would mark the license plate and that was only to duplicates. So when the data gets uploaded, they’ll include the license plate for vehicles that have one, and then try to non duplicate those vehicles if they happen to be counted more than once. And that’s really how it’s done.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Their experience in these neighborhoods and in this work seems like very important, very informative in how this county works.

Sydney Johnson: There’s no disagreement that this count is imperfect. Even the national experts that I spoke to who use this data understand that it is rife with human error, that these judgment calls are imperfect, that different people might assume different things. So having folks like Alastor who work in that community, who literally know some of the people that they’re talking to, you know, I think it does help with the accuracy, for sure, but I think it also helps with just the process of the count itself. You know, there were times where we were rolling past encampments, kind of slow.

Sydney Johnson: And frankly, if I were the other person, you know, seeing some car roll up to me, I would be wondering what the heck is going on and maybe a little bit on edge. And a Lester and Sean, to their credit, were really gentle and trying to just be mindful of these people’s spaces and that it was at night. And I think that comes from having experience in that community as well.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, Sydney, how long did you do this for how long were you in the car?

Sydney Johnson: Oh, boy. We were in the car for four hours. Wow. And we wrapped up just after midnight.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: And how many people did the team count by the end of the night?

Sydney Johnson: So the team counted 257.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Coming up, what happens after the headcount is done across the entire city?

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Sydney. This was, of course, just one neighborhood in San Francisco. What happens from here? Like once this count in this single neighborhood is done? Like, how do we go from that to then the final number.

Sydney Johnson: Next, there’s going to be this follow up report where researchers are going to go out and gather more qualitative data. They’re going to ask folks in the communities that we surveyed more about their age, their race, their gender, and try and get just a little bit more rich information to add to the count. And then there will be preliminary data released in the spring, and then the full report will be released in the summer.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: And I do wonder, is it harder to get an accurate count in the Bay area versus maybe other places around the country?

Sydney Johnson: You know, in some ways it is. And that’s because here in San Francisco and really on the West Coast, the majority of people who are experiencing homelessness are unsheltered, meaning they don’t have access to any kind of roof over their heads. Whereas in New York, the majority of people who are experiencing homelessness have access to shelters.

Sydney Johnson: Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s less homelessness. I think it’s also, you know, really different wherever you look like in a much more rural state, it might be harder to find people there, too, because, you know, you don’t have such dense housing where you can spot people, but people might be more easily hidden.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Is there a better way to do this? Like what I guess is is missing?

Sydney Johnson: You know, I think it really depends who you ask on what the right way to do this is.

Dr. Margot Kushel It has been criticized for a few things. For one, it doesn’t do a good job counting young adults and homeless youth. It doesn’t do a good job of finding people, let’s say, who are couch surfing. Someone who is going from one.

Sydney Johnson: I spoke with Doctor Margot Kaushal at UCSF, who last year released the largest study of its kind looking at the unhoused population across California. And they took months to go out and talk to thousands of people who are experiencing homelessness in California and produced these really in-depth interviews. So they got somewhat of a count, but they also were looking at how people became homeless. They also asked about things like their health, you know, things like drug use, things like mental health and all sorts of attributes that may be a factor in their housing status.

Dr. Margot Kushel We learned a lot from our statewide study, but there’s more to be learned so that we can actually get to people before they become homeless and keep them in the housing.

Sydney Johnson: The experts that I spoke to said that this data really should be triangulated with other data sets that look at things like how people became homeless and what their experience with homelessness is like over a year, you know, are they going in and out of homelessness? Was there something that could have prevented their homelessness? So even though the head count from the point in time count may not be totally accurate, Doctor Kaushal said that it is still important as just one piece of the puzzle for trying to get a sense of what this population looks like, but also how we can better serve it.

Dr. Margot Kushel So I think about it as a really important, you know, spot check of are we doing better or are we doing worse?

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, Sidney, it sounds like the numbers are imperfect and kind of always have been. But what is the value of this count? Aside from the fact that federal dollars are at stake? Like how else are these numbers used?

Sydney Johnson: Well, these numbers are used for, you know, a lot of different purposes. I use them as a journalist and reporting. Doctor Kaushal uses them as a university researcher who is looking at this issue as well. The city uses it to get a sense of how much, you know, resources it needs to allocate to different neighborhoods.

Sydney Johnson: This data is important for seeing how and whether San Francisco or any local municipality is doing in terms of improving on serving its homeless population as well. We can see if homelessness is going up and whether it’s sheltered versus unsheltered is going up or down, even if the exact number is not totally accurate. If we can compare it to the past, it can tell a really interesting story.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Sydney, thank you so much.

Sydney Johnson: Thank you.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: That was Sydney Johnson, a reporter for KQED. This 28 minute conversation with Sydney was cut down and edited by producer Maria Esquinca. Alan Montecillo is our senior editor. He scored this episode and added all the tape music courtesy of First Come Music, Bluedot Sessions and Audio Network.

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Ericka Cruz Guevarra: By the way, Alan is going to take over in the host chair while I’m out on vacation for the next few days. Don’t miss me too much. The Bay is a production of listener supported KQED. I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra. Thanks for listening. Peace.

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