The Project Homekey bonanza has San Mateo County officials talking as if they will solve homelessness in their county in 2022, though their homeless population is a fraction of San Francisco’s.

We are always skeptical of these moonshot claims from elected officials that they’re going to completely eliminate some sort of societal problem and get it down to “zero.” Consider the Vision Zero program, a program initiated in 2014 with “the goal of eliminating all traffic deaths in San Francisco.” Several years later, the SF traffic death rate is still effectively the same as it was in 2014.

So there are reasons to doubt — or have great optimism — in a Chronicle report about San Mateo County officials claiming they can “become the first Bay Area county to reduce its unsheltered homeless population to functional zero.” Of course, that county has a substantially lower homelessness rate than that of San Francisco.  But like San Francisco, they got a big boost from state and federal Project Homekey funding, which may not last forever.

“There are a lot of counties where they dithered, but that didn’t happen here,” Rep. Jackie Speier tells the Chronicle, while touring the Coast House interim housing complex, a former hotel that San Mateo County bought up with Project Homekey funds. “This is a lasting use of the federal funding because San Mateo County saw an opportunity in a crisis.”

But it’s important to point about that San Mateo County, while far larger, has dramatically fewer unhoused people than San Francisco. The Chronicle points out that San Mateo County’s latest “one-night homeless count from 2019 showed 900 people in the streets.” San Francisco County’s last count for the same year showed more than 8,000.

Both counts could be significantly higher once we have the final point-in-time counts from last month, which should be made public by summertime. It has been three years, after all, and those years included a global pandemic.

And the term “functional zero” does not mean actual zero homelessness whatsoever. It means the number of available supportive and transitional housing units is equal to or greater than the number of unsheltered people. For San Mateo County, they have an estimated 900 unhoused people, and a (reachable!) goal of 1,000 available units this year. That doesn’t mean they'll get everyone into them, it just means the availability of solutions matches the scale of the problem.

Project Homekey alone would not solve this problem in San Francisco, as it might in San Mateo County. But if one county in California can functionally end its homelessness problem, well, we would not resent them for raising the roof and celebrating.  

Related: Deaths Among Unhoused Individuals in SF Doubled During First Year of COVID-19 Pandemic [SFist]