By TJ Johnston
The 2010 Census could help address one of the thorniest problems in dealing with San Francisco’s long-standing homeless problem — getting an accurate head count.
The city’s homeless figures have ranged between about 6,500 and 8,600 people in the last decade, but the real number is anybody’s guess. The sketchy knowledge of who is living on the street has been a big impediment to perennial attempts to solve the crisis.
Temporary census workers will spend three days at the end of March interviewing homeless people at their usual gathering places, including shelters, soup kitchens, parks and highway underpasses. The census workers will ask questions similar to those asked of people who do not reply to questionnaires delivered to households.
The official number of homeless people in the city matters because it can potentially affect the number of representatives for state and federal legislative because they’re drawn based on population. It also impacts federal, state and city grants for social service programs for the homeless.
Part of the problem has been that for each count, the methodology changes, and so does number of workers and time dedicated to the count. These tallies have been conducted by the city and an array of private nonprofit service and advocacy groups, each with its own political agenda and definitions of homelessness.
Politicians and advocacy groups have also been known to use different numbers depending on the audience. And no one in the government is quite sure of the real number.
“Part of it has to do with conflicts between academic estimates of the homeless population and community and activist estimates,” said Chris Bettinger, who teaches sociology at San Francisco State University.
Bettinger said the Census Bureau, which has only been including homeless people in its counts since 1980, could not guarantee that this year’s numbers will be definitive, or even better than other methods. The advantages are that the counting of the homeless across the country will be somewhat standardized and conducted by paid staff, not volunteers.