This is the second in a two-part series by Fellow Rachel Alonso on her experiences volunteering for the San Francisco Homeless Count. In her first post, she wrote about her experiences arriving at and leaving the count. In this post, she focuses on her experiences during the count.
Part 2, The Count itself was an interesting experience:
I arrived at the Department of Public Health at 7pm, which was the deployment location for the Downtown/Central City area. The room was full – I noticed many young people, volunteers with Community Ambassador jackets, and some Code for America fellows in the audience, as well as a wall lined with police officers. My friend had saved me a seat, where for about thirty minutes we received instructions about how to safely count the homeless population. Volunteers weren’t allowed to approach people, ask questions, or enter large parks or abandoned buildings. In addition to individuals on the street, we were on the lookout for people living in tents, cars, and other structures. We needed to note each person’s gender (male, female, transgender, or unknown) and age (under 18, 18-24, and over 25). There was a section for families, though it was unlikely we would see many.
My friend and I were expecting to walk, as neither of us have a car. However, because we are city employees, we were placed with two HOT (Homeless Outreach Team) members in a city car. The four of us were assigned two locations: Lower Haight/the edge of Hayes Valley, and the northwestern part of SoMa. In the Lower Haight, we saw fewer than ten individuals. Knowing that the neighborhood won the 2012 Curbed Cup Neighborhood of the Year earlier this month, I was not very surprised to find more hipsters congregating outside bars than homeless people. The only ‘hotspot’ we saw was at a construction site along Octavia. After this, we headed to SoMa, where more than thirty homeless people were counted – fewer than I was expecting. The HOT members seemed surprised as well; attributing the diminished homeless presence to the on-going mid-Market construction boom, they noted an overall population shift to the south and east.
Our group finished the count earlier than expected, close to 10pm. After dropping our tallies off at the DPH deployment center, the researchers confirmed our totals, and I went home with a lot on my mind. I attended the homeless count because I was interested. The methodologies of such homeless censuses have been criticized, so I wanted to see for myself how the work was organized and assigned, and whether it seemed accurate or not. I also wanted to learn more about the City’s efforts related to homelessness, because increasing access to safe, decent, and affordable housing and improving the lives of disadvantaged and vulnerable populations are personal and professional interests of mine. I was less critical of the process than I expected to be, and I liked the logic of having all of the homeless counts across the country take place in late January.
Our team’s biggest challenge was efficiently navigating the boundaries of our areas; I pondered the usefulness of creating some sort of smartphone application to make this process more effective. On the one hand, this idea seems like a prime candidate for something that could be developed at a civic hack-a-thon and/or by Code for America – yet wouldn’t the resources for making such an app be much better allocated to directly serving the homeless population? Making the homeless count more efficient does not actually address the problem of chronic homelessness. Ideally, a count would not need to occur, because everyone would have access to safe, decent, and affordable housing. In reality, the count is a pragmatic way to evaluate the number of homeless individuals at a single point in time. Personally, I see both sides of the situation, but am ultimately uneasy at the thought of prioritizing homeless-related work (i.e., enhancing counters’ navigation) at the expense of thinking bigger picture and targeting the structural issues underlying homelessness, such as housing costs and supply, jobs, or access to mental health care, facilities, and treatment. I’d rather see hack-a-thons and other civic-minded technology tools focus on meeting the bigger picture. What do you think, reader?