The biennial Point-in-Time Count of San Francisco's homeless population is happening Tuesday, January 30, and it's the first time since 2022 that the city will get a semi-accurate picture of how many people are living here unsheltered.

While it consistently has its critics, the biennial Point-in-Time Count is the only official census of the homeless population, and it provides an "apples-to-apples" comparison of the population over time — albeit with two-year gaps. All policy decisions and fund allocations around homelessness depend on these counts, and four the two years in between, the numbers produced will be often repeated in media reports about the homeless crisis.

On the night of Tuesday, January 30, skilled outreach workers and volunteers will fan out across San Francisco to conduct the latest visual count, which will take place between 8 p.m. and midnights. (The volunteer sign-ups have closed, FYI.)

The count will attempt to enumerate the number of individuals sleeping on city streets, in cars, on abandoned properties, or in other places not meant for human habitation, as well as counting all those who are temporarily housed in shelters and transitional housing.

Oakland and Berkeley both conducted their counts early Thursday morning, January 25, between the hours of 5 a.m. and 10 a.m.

The last count was delayed a year by the pandemic and took place in January 2022, and given the impacts of the pandemic, we can expect the numbers to be different in 2024.

Both San Francisco and Berkeley saw slight declines in the number of homeless on their streets between 2019 and 2022, while Oakland saw a spike of over 1,000 individuals.

San Francisco's last count was 7,754 homeless people, a 3.5% drop from three years earlier. There was also a significant, 18% rise in the number of those who were sheltered at the time of the count — nearly half the total, or 3,357. That latter figure was used to tout the city's progress in creating more transitional housing and opening more shelter beds.

As SFist has discussed before, residents here are fond of talking about homelessness as if it's "the worst it's ever been" without actually knowing the figures. This is primarily because homelessness is a very visible problem in San Francisco in ways that it isn't in every city, with less and less undeveloped land to camp on — leading to more people camping on sidewalks.

In reality, the number of homeless in the city has declined significantly, if not steadily, over the last 25 years, and it rose and dipped over the last decade. 1999 might have been the zenith of the crisis, under former Mayor Willie Brown — and one estimate from September of that year put the number of SF homeless at 15,000.

Six years later, after Newsom's Care Not Cash initiative, the number was down to 5,404, but that ticked up through the boom years around 2011 and hit 7,000 by 2013. There were slight declines in 2015 and 2017, and the next peak came in 2019, when the number hit 8,035.

Chart via City of San Francisco

Critics point out that the census numbers, which date back to 2005, are misleading and are, inevitably, undercounts. Those experiencing homeless may be sleeping on someone's couch for a week, or they may be in jail or in the hospital, and those individuals aren't counted, per federal guidelines.

Also, the number of people experiencing homelessness in the city over time is higher — city officials put the number of "individuals experiencing homeless" in the city at any point in the year 2022 at around 20,000.

The Point-in-Time Count occurs in the winter, too, when fewer transient people may be moving around on the West Coast, and passing through the city in their travels.

The city's Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing will be releasing preliminary numbers from the count this spring, and the final report from the count will be released in the summer of 2024.

You can access all the previous reports dating back to 2005 here.

Previously: SF's Homeless Population Actually Declined During the Pandemic, and Nearly 20% More Are Sheltered

Photo via UCSF