The biennial "Point in Time Count" of the homeless, typically conducted in January of odd-numbered years in San Francisco, is likely to be canceled or postponed this year due to concerns about putting front-line census-takers and other at risk of contracted COVID-19.

The count, which is mandated for all American cities by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), requires hundreds of volunteers and takes place over one night — tallying the total number of unhoused people on SF's streets, and in shelters and jails. The last count in 2019 found a staggering uptick in the local homeless population, both in SF and in Oakland as well as many other places on the West Coast, and experts expect there may be more people counted this year due to the impacts of the pandemic.

The SF Department of Public Health has urged the city not to undertake the census project right now, as COVID cases and hospitalizations have been surging for about a month and the city remains under a stay-at-home order and 10 p.m. curfew for non-essential activities. And as the Chronicle reports, the Local Homeless Coordinating Board, which organizes each biennial count, has requested an exemption from HUD in order cancel this year's count.

It's unclear if the exemption would mean that the count would happen next January, at a later date this year, or not until the next biennial cycle in 2023.

Other cities across California, including Los Angeles and San Diego, are also seeking exemptions due to the pandemic, and Seattle has reportedly already received one.

"The count has a lot of moving pieces and requires a large number of frontline workers as well as volunteers,” said Kelley Cutler, a member of the Homeless Coordinating Board, speaking to the Chronicle. "It’s simply too big of a risk to be taking during a surge."

And the Department of Homeless and Supportive Housing (HSH) adds that while a fresh set of numbers would be valuable from a policy standpoint, it may be difficult this year even to find enough volunteers to conduct an accurate count.

Critics of the homeless census have long contended that it is a gross under-count, because it typically fails to capture those people who are marginally housed, in hospitals, crashing on a friend's floor or couch, or otherwise not visible to the census-takers. The census process is typically a visual one, and volunteers don't often knock on doors of occupied RVs or actually look inside of tents, either.

Still, the count is an apples-to-apples, point-in-time dataset that at least identifies trends, and the total number of homeless is often quoted in the media and in policy-making for the two years after it's finalized.

The 2019 count found 8,035 homeless individuals in the SF city limits, representing a 14% rise the 2017 count. A change in the count that year to conform with other cities and counties in the region which excluded counting individuals in hospitals and jails meant that the real number might have been closer to 9,700.

Back in November, HSH was still intending to conduct the census, and had proposed moving it to early-morning hours (between 4 a.m. and 7 a.m.) in order to better capture those who were definitely unsheltered versus those who were just hanging out on the street. The Homeless Coordinating Board at the time voted to hold the count as usual between the hours of 8 p.m. and midnight, saying the change in hours might discourage volunteers, and also might lead to a less accurate count because more people would be sleeping and less visible.

Homeless advocates say that a count can still be achieved without wandering the streets on a given night, using numbers based on shelters, "Safe Sleeping Villages," people seeking city services, and people temporarily housed in hotels. And this count could provide a more accurate picture of what the immediate needs of the population are.

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