Leading Newspaper Fails to Challenge Mayor's Homeless Count

Leading Newspaper Fails to Challenge Mayor's Homeless Count
News Analysis, Matt Gonzalez

SAN FRANCISCO -- There is good reason to doubt the accuracy of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's survey purporting to show the mayor's policies towards the homeless have reduced their numbers dramatically.

According to the administration, over the course of one year, the number of homeless living on San Francisco streets apparently fell by 41 percent and the number of people receiving general assistance was reduced by 72 percent. Total homelessness reportedly fell 28 percent to 6,248 from 8,640, which includes those on the street plus those in shelters, transitional housing, rehabilitation centers, San Francisco General Hospital and the county jail.

Given that most San Franciscans have not perceived such a dramatic change in the city's homeless population, one would expect that these figures would be scrutinized. Instead, the leading newspaper in San Francisco disseminated these figures in a series of front-page stories, none of which made a serious effort to evaluate the credibility of the administration's assertions. Which begs the question - have 2,392 homeless persons disappeared?

The primary claim is that during a survey conducted in a 12-hour period in selected parts of the city, starting at 8 p.m. on Jan. 25 and completed the following morning), 250 volunteers scoured the city and "counted" homeless people. Two years ago the city's count identified 4,535 homeless people living on the streets. This year's count yielded a total of 2,655.

The problem though is in the methodology used. Essentially, volunteers were asked to subjectively decide, without engaging anyone in conversation, whether an individual was homeless or not. They were told, apparently for safety reasons, not to go into parks or abandoned buildings. The beach, the Presidio, railroad encampments, Golden Gate Park and Stern Grove, all were left out of the count. Incredibly, they were told not to go to the Sunset District because there weren't many homeless people found there two years ago.

The administration's explanation for telling its counters to avoid places homeless people are known to frequent shifted in the face of criticism. Initially, a mayoral spokesperson claimed that volunteers were instructed to avoid these areas because "they had already been canvassed" by Recreation and Park staff (S.F. Chronicle, 2/14/2005). A day later, Department of Health Services Director Trent Rhorer reversed this position, claiming that the counting teams had counted parks, in the morning, towards the end of the count (S.F. Chronicle, 2/15/2005). Which is it?

In any case, it was apparent to homeless advocates that many homeless were overlooked. Jennifer Friedenbach, from the Coalition on Homelessness, noted there were homeless people in parks, aware the count was to take place, who stayed out in the open and never encountered any Rec & Park counters. This will not surprise city residents familiar with recent scandals involving Rec & Park gardeners caught on film by an ABC7 News crew hanging out at caf├ęs and picking up laundry when they were supposed to be tending to the public parks.

Aside from the subjective nature of the count (doesn't it really only test whether people "look" homeless), and the administration's shifting claims concerning when, where and by whom the count was conducted, the weather contributed against a successful count. It was raining for part of the day, and anecdotal reports indicate that many volunteers did not even leave their cars during the effort. Newsom's aides say it was cold for the last count, so the conditions were comparable.

But let's face it. When it's raining, homeless people do not hang out on the street waiting to be counted. Most seek shelter - many in places excluded from the count. Is this really an apple to apple comparison? Well, if you mean like comparing a green apple to a red one, perhaps.

It is widely known that the Willie Brown administration intentionally inflated its homeless count in order to obtain greater funds from the federal government. The more homeless, the more federal dollars. The strategy appeared to have worked. All of the new housing claimed by Newsom as part of his Care Not Cash initiative in the last year was built using funds obtained during the Brown administration.

It is clear that the present administration has a political need to show a reduction in homelessness. Bent on demonstrating that Care Not Cash has worked, it isn't above stretching the facts to make its case. Homeless deaths are one example. The Newsom administration initially heralded a medical examiner's report that homeless deaths for the fiscal year ending June 30 was proof that his program was working. But Care Not Cash wasn't even implemented until May, one month before the homeless death count ended.

Anecdotal evidence also does not support a decline in homeless numbers. Loren Basham, who works at a soup kitchen in the Tenderloin related a story that they had actually received a phone call from St. Anthony's, inquiring if they had ceased operations (San Francisco Sentinel, Letter to the Editor, 2/15/05). They hadn't. But the inquiry occurred because in the last few months, St. Anthony's has seen such an increase in the number of hungry people knocking on their door they assumed the other kitchen had shut down.

Police in the Haight District confirm that tickets for camping in the park (Park Code Sec. 3.12) are on the upswing. The numbers have more than doubled, going from 436 tickets issued in 2003 to 1,114 issued in 2004. Again, not dispositive of the issue, but a strong suggestion that, at best, some homeless people have moved off the streets preferring the privacy of our parks.

The other primary argument the Mayor is making showing the decline in homelessness is that the general assistance rolls have declined. They cite the implementation of Care Not Cash to explain this. But cutting monthly dollars from a high of $410 to $59 simply means most people won't bother leaping the bureaucratic hurdles to get such a small stipend.

We should ask ourselves if we will have to pay more in the future for this neglect when we see the same folks at the Hall of Justice or the General Hospital? This latter scenario reflects the findings of the Rand Corp. and others who have suggested that cutting cash grants is likely to exacerbate poverty.

Perhaps the count demonstrates what many sociologists already know - the homeless population is an unstable population, rarely staying in one place for too long.

Measuring their population at any one static moment is hardly a method to judge the efficacy of controversial public programs. Misuse of naturally shifting numbers to claim political successes undermines the ultimate objective - coming to terms with a regional problem facing many municipalities in the state and ensuring adequate resources are committed to addressing the issue.

Matt Gonzalez stepped down in January from the presidency of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He lost the mayor's race to Newsom by a narrow margin in 2003.

  • Homelessness