Shelters Predict Homeless Count to Skyrocket

Shelters Predict Homeless Count to Skyrocket

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SAN FRANCISCO - Willa Seldon is accustomed to seeing every last seat occupied at the homeless drop-in center at Glide Memorial Church, where crowds gather every weekday seeking a referral to one of the city’s emergency shelters. Yet Seldon, chief executive officer of the Glide Foundation and Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, has noticed a disturbing new trend over the last several months. The drop-in center, she said, no longer has enough seats to accommodate those in need. On any given day, said Seldon, a crowd can now be seen flowing out the door of the center and winding down Ellis Street in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood.

The swelling number of homeless in need of shelter and food is why Seldon and her colleagues at Glide decided to get on board with the U.S. Census Bureau’s effort this week to enumerate every homeless person in the city.

“We’re serving 200,000 more meals per year than two years ago, but we haven’t had the capacity to add staff,” she said.

Federal government agencies rely on census data to determine how and where their funds will be allocated. In total, more than $400 billion per year in federal funding is tied to census numbers, including more than $1 billion for emergency shelter programs funded through the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

On Tuesday, the Census Bureau started a three-day operation to count the homeless, which consisted of outreach to San Francisco’s soup kitchens and shelters, as well as the deployment of 800 census workers who hit the streets on Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning to canvass the entire city. They conducted interviews and obtained a head count of people sleeping on the streets.

Sonny Le, a media specialist with the bureau, said community groups working with the homeless in San Francisco were consulted to determine the main areas for street outreach in San Francisco. These include the Bay View, the old naval shipyards on the waterfront, and Golden Gate Park.

Census workers donned bright orange vests identifying themselves as U.S. Census Bureau employees, and handed out individually packaged “hygiene kits” to every homeless person they encountered. In order to protect confidentiality and decrease anxiety among those being enumerated, the canvassing operation was officially closed to the media.

The effort in San Francisco was coordinated to coincide with similar operations taking place across the country over the same three-day period.

According to the most recent count conducted by the San Francisco Human Services Agency, there were 6,514 homeless people living in the city as of January 2009. If the indicators being observed by Seldon represent a larger citywide trend, however, that number could rise substantially when the Census Bureau releases the results of its count in December.

“When we look at the growth in our shelter system, we see that these are newly homeless people,” said Seldon. “There are many more families. People who were struggling to begin with are now struggling even more.”

The apparent increase in the number of homeless families with children is discomforting for Elizabeth Ancker, the lead case manager at Connecting Point, an organization that provides housing and shelter placements for families in need.

The waiting list for families hoping to get into a shelter has doubled since 2007, said Ancker. There has also been a noticeable increase in her agency’s “priority list” - comprised of homeless families with mental health or serious medical needs. Those on the priority list, who used to get placed in a shelter within weeks, are now waiting up to three months. The inability of the shelter system to meet the growing demand, said Ancker, is forcing many families to make tough, and often unhealthy, decisions.

“What we’re seeing now is families dropping off the waiting list and falling into some other sub-standard housing situation. It’s a big gap,” said Ancker. “Lots of people are couch surfing, some will go back with their abusers, some will move out of state. And then we see lots of people in public housing, cramming into a one or two bedroom house.”

Census Bureau Regional Director Mike Burns said it will be important for family members and friends to count their homeless loved ones as part of the household when they fill out the census questionnaire, even if they are “couch surfers” who only show up from time to time.

“The homeless represent the most daunting challenge for the Census Bureau,” said Burns. “The challenge is that people are mobile.” The combination of relative invisibility and high need for government services, he said, has made the homeless a high priority for the bureau, which is why they have sought partnerships with community organizations like Glide.

“The last time there was a decennial census, we missed some people,” said Seldon, referring to the 2000 Census in which city officials claim San Francisco was undercounted by 100,000 residents, costing the city millions.

“Money and services follow people,” added Seldon. “We’re now the only site in the Tenderloin to offer shelter reservations, but the need has gone up dramatically. In regards to the census, to make sure the money is available for these services, it’s a major issue.”