New data shows 20,000 people will be homeless in San Francisco this year

San Francisco officials estimate that up to 20,000 people will experience homelessness at some point in 2022 – and for every person housed by a city program, four more will become homeless.

Those numbers, contained in a report due out Thursday, reflect the Sisyphean nature of battling one of the city’s worst crises in some of the toughest terms ever. As dire as those numbers are, the report also shows the most significant progress in 17 years in reducing overall homelessness in San Francisco.

The new data is contained in the city’s full point-in-time tally, which fleshes out the details discussed in a much shorter summary released in May, when officials announced San Francisco had recorded a 3.5% drop in homelessness. over three years, rising from 8,035 to 7,754. This number reflects a snapshot in time – one night – from the 20,000 people over the course of a year.

The count, normally done every two years to qualify for federal funding, was done overnight in February. The last count was made in 2019, but the city skipped a year due to the pandemic.

“Good progress has been made, but the reality is that people are falling into homelessness faster than we can house them,” said Tomiquia Moss, founder and CEO of regional housing advocacy group All Home. “We know how to house people, but we have too little of what we need.”

The numbers 20,000 and 1-4 – presented as educated guesses, not absolute numbers – are contained in the foreword to the 70-page report. According to city officials, they’re based on a variety of numbers, including those from the city’s homeless information tracking system, the Department of Public Health, and a formula that the city has used for many years. Corporation for Supportive Housing, a non-profit organization that studies poverty and promotes supportive housing for the homeless.

City public health and homelessness officials have informally used estimates ranging from 15,000 to 20,000 for many years, but this is the first time that one has been placed in such a large report.

The 1 to 4 figure is also slightly higher than the 1 to 3 figure commonly used by nonprofits in the area, including Moss.

“We’ve included this in the front of our report because we think it’s incredibly helpful in understanding the local context of homelessness, not just on February 23, but from what our community is going through during year,” said Emily Cohen, spokesperson for the city’s Department of Homelessness and Housing with Supportive Services. “That’s an estimate of course, more art than science.”

She added that the number 1 to 4 does not mean that a still stream of homeless people will pour into the streets. Many newcomers in any given year are homeless for only a short time and leave or return to their own accommodation.

For example, she said, “In the past fiscal year, 2,057 people have moved out of homelessness through an MSM solution like assisted housing or supportive housing, which means that about 8,000 more became new homeless over the same period. The reason we don’t have tens of thousands homeless on any given night is that a lot of those people have solved their problem homelessness on their own or with the help of others.

“Remember, this is an estimate.”

The revelation of the Point-in-Time tally – in additional figures released in the press – was also disturbing: the number of Latinos living in shelters or on the streets has increased by 55% in the last three years, from 1,524 to 2,357, reflecting what observers say is the disproportionate effect of the pandemic on low-income people of color, many of whom have lost service jobs during the lockdown. Latinos now make up 30% of the homeless population, compared to 16% of the general population, according to the report due out Thursday.

Blacks make up 38% of the homeless, compared to 6% of the general population, a fairly consistent number for many years.

Laura Valdez, director of Dolores Street Community Services, which runs the city’s only Latino-specific shelters, said the coronavirus has definitely taken its toll on the Latino population, but the disparity predates that. Several factors could have contributed to more accurate counting this year, she and others said, including the fact that this year’s counting teams included more homeless workers on the ground and that COVID has made it harder for people to get around.

“Our analysis is that the Latinx community has always been underestimated, and we finally have data that reflects the seriousness of the community, she said. “Black and Latinx people are going to be overrepresented in homelessness numbers because of poverty, systemic racism, historical marginalization of our communities, redlining, lack of affordable housing, gentrification.”

She added that income inequality has worsened during the pandemic due to job loss and lack of affordable housing.

“But I think people are reconnecting to the human suffering caused by this housing crisis. Everyone in the Mission, everyone in San Francisco – it’s gotten to the point where you can no longer obscure the magnitude of the large number of people affected by homelessness,” she added.

Reflecting the worsening addiction crisis on the streets, especially with fentanyl, the percentage of homeless people with drug or alcohol problems stands at 52%, compared to 42% in 2019.

On the positive side, in addition to the overall decline in the number of homeless people, the number of homeless people – those living in tents, vehicles or on the streets – fell by 15% compared to 2019, reaching 4,397. People living in vehicles accounted for 24% of the number of homeless people in 2022, down from 35% in 2019.

The last time there was such a big drop in unprotected numbers was in 2005, when the total number fell by 28% to 6,248 from 8,640 in 2002, and the unprotected figure fell by 41% to 2,655.

There is a parallel between the two troughs. By 2005, the city had housed thousands of people through new initiatives, including the Care Not Cash program that traded welfare checks for housing. And since 2019, the city has poured millions into new initiatives, including housing people in hotels, secure parking lots and tent sites, and creating new supportive housing.

The city also found fewer chronically homeless people this year. The federal government defines chronic homelessness as someone who has been homeless for over a year or has four episodes of homelessness totaling up to one year over three years, and also has a disabling condition. There were 2,691 chronically homeless in 2022, an 11% drop since 2019.

The percentage of people who were living in San Francisco when they lost their homes has remained about the same for many years: 71%.

Officials and experts agree the six-month tally is an undercount that doesn’t track people who are couch surfing with friends and family or who are institutionalized. Separately, the city also has homeless people in prisons, hospitals and residential treatment centers. This number has dropped by 30%, from 1,773 in 2019 to 1,238 in 2022.

The city’s progress in housing and shelters is perhaps best reflected in the sharp drop in homelessness in San Francisco’s District 10, which includes Bayview-Hunters Point, an area with large pockets of poverty. The total number there fell by 39%, from 1,841 to 1,115, and the number of unsheltered people fell by 55% to 687.

Officials attributed the decline to the establishment of three navigation center shelters in the district since 2016 – one of which opened during the pandemic – and increased outreach efforts.

“I’m so excited the numbers are down, and I can see it here,” said Gwendolyn Westbrook, executive director of Mother Brown’s, Bayview’s leading homeless-serving nonprofit. “Part of it is that a lot of the elders here have found homes or shelter somewhere. Pandemic emergency housing vouchers also helped a lot.

But Westbrook isn’t sure the progress is sustainable.

“What I want to know is – is this permanent or temporary because of the things they did during the pandemic, like the hotels they put everyone in? We will see.”

Kevin Fagan and Mallory Moench are editors of the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: kfagan@sfchronicle.com, mallory.moench@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @KevinChron, @mallorymoench

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