How much has homelessness increased during the pandemic? We’ll have hard numbers soon, as Bay Area cities conduct their first official “homeless census” in three years.

Any San Franciscan who has previously volunteered in the “homeless census,” more formerly known as the homeless point-in-time count, probably did not do so this year. It already happened Wednesday night, and top of that, the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) pretty much nixed the idea of having volunteers this year — in their words, “limiting participation in the count to outreach workers and targeted volunteers.”

Yet there is a general (though anecdotal) sense that homelessness in San Francisco, and really all Bay Area cities, has gotten worse during the pandemic. In the last two years, we have all seen tent encampments on medians and sidewalks where we had never seen such things before. But we have had no reliable numbers to back this up, because the biennial point-in-time count was canceled entirely in 2021 when COVID-19 deaths were at record levels, and then delayed for about a month in 2022 because of the Omicron surge.

By last count, conducted a full three years ago in January 2019, San Francisco was found to have 8,011 people living on the streets — a count that is always likely to be an undercount, given how individuals may be hidden away or taking temporary shelter with a friend. But the 2019 also used a different set of criteria than the 2017 count, excluding all those people temporarily housed in rehab facilities, hospitals, and jails. Had the city used the previous methodology, the county would have been closer to 9,800, which would have been a 30% uptick from two years prior.

Around the region, the counts are finally happening again this week. Bay Area News Group reports that we’re finally conducting the first homeless point-in-time counts since 2019. San Francisco conducted theirs Wednesday night, Alameda County did theirs Wednesday morning, Santa Clara County's count is currently in progress, while Contra Costa and San Mateo counties will conduct their counts Thursday.

They’re doing these counts all over the country, as the video seen above is from a count being conducted in Kansas. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires these counts every two years, to help determine funding allocations. As Bay Area News Group explains, “The results will influence everything from how much federal funding each county receives for homeless housing and services to how local aid organizations structure their programs.”

It is well-established that these counts are massively unreliable. But the counting methods are considered, well, the “least bad option,” though we probably are undercounting people significantly. Yet it's pretty much the same methodology as used in 2019 (though this year, Bay Area counters used an app instead of pen and paper), so we will have a solid comparison on the pandemic’s effect on homelessness. And are we sure that things are worse? Have San Francisco’s homeless hotels and Navigation Centers possibly put a dent in the problem?  

We’ll know this summer, when the results of this count come in.

Related: UC Hastings Proves That If You Want Homeless Moved Off the Streets in SF (During the Pandemic), You Should Sue

Image: darwinbell via Instagram