San Francisco and its nonprofit network are doing an increasingly better job of guiding homeless individuals toward services and into temporary or permanent housing, with figures now in from 2023. But one group is calling out the trend of "unsuccessful" outcomes for those seeking shelter.

While someone will always be there to claim that homelessness is "the worst it's ever been" in San Francisco, that has been generally untrue when you look at the numbers. And while we won't have the point-in-time homeless census count in until spring, a some city data suggests one headline to come will be about how many people exited homelessness into housing.

There were a couple of encouraging figures from the 2022 homeless census — there was an 11% decrease in the number of chronically homeless people in SF between 2019 and 2022, and the overall homeless population went down 3.5% despite the pandemic. Those positive figures were attributed to the creation of more transitional housing in the city. And the 2022 count also found a marked increase in the number of individuals who were sheltered on the night of the count — 3,357 of the total 7,754 homeless people counted were sheltered, which was an 18% improvement over 2019.

The latest count was conducted one night in late January, and we can expect preliminary numbers from the census sometime in April or May.

But ahead of that, as the Chronicle reports today, we have some city data on outcomes of people exiting the SF shelter system which finds that 2,800 people left shelters in 2023 to go into temporary or permanent housing. That number might be higher, were it not for the fact that the system is not particularly thorough when it comes to exit interviews.

The gist of the Chronicle piece is that over half, 52%, of those who exited the shelter system are listed as having an "unknown" destination — meaning that they either left without telling anyone, or no exit interview occurred. And 2,300 people left shelters to return to homelessness. Only 71 people, or 0.7%, left to enter treatment or a hospital.

SF's so-called coordinated entry system had 5,826 people registered in it as of last Friday — that represents everyone who has come to a city agency or contractor and sought homelessness services of any kind. The city data finds that around 5,500 people left shelters with unknown status last year — but that figure reportedly includes individuals who entered and left shelters multiple times, and were counted more than once.

The city currently has a total of 3,665 shelter beds spread across 47 locations.

"Our system as a whole is housing more and more people," says Emily Cohen, spokesperson for the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH). "I think ultimately that is showing an improvement in our system functions."

But where the system is failing is that shelters have not had enough case managers on staff on to meet with and track the individuals who pass through — something that HSH allocated $5.5 million to last year.

And it was a community group, RescueSF, that requested the city data through a Sunshine request and produced its own analysis — which led to the Chronicle's coverage of the shelter-exit issue. From RescueSF's perspective, the city spent an increasingly large amount of money in 2023 to pay for more people to exit shelters back into homelessness.

"In 2023, the City might have spent as much as $81 million serving people in homeless shelters who eventually exited shelters for street sleeping," RescueSF writes. "These disastrous results, produced at such enormous cost, are a colossal failure that should shock every resident of San Francisco."

The group's co-founder, Mark Nagel, tells the Chronicle that in order to address the homelessness crisis, the city needs to be more urgent and more thorough in how it works with people entering shelters, guiding them toward healthcare, treatment, or some form of housing before they leave.

"It’s like they don’t really have a strategy about this,” Nagel tells the Chronicle, about HSH and the city as a whole. "The attitude is let’s just do the shelters without demanding accountability, and it’s not solving the problem of getting people off the street."

Nagel suggests that people seeking shelter should be made more accountable before they just exit back to the street, "But this is just going through the motions, and the shelter exit data shows that."

RescueSF assumes that all "unknown" outcomes are unsuccessful, but while that is probably the case, unknown is unknown — and a person leaving a shelter for an unknown reason one week might be back and seeking actual services a month a later.

HSH will naturally try to spin the 2024 point-in-count data as best they can, when it's released. And no doubt, with a steady increase in the number of shelter beds in the last few years, more people will be counted as sheltered in the count than there were two years ago.

But the bed shortage, combined with what the city reports is a significant "service-resistant" homeless population, means that the unhoused population count is going to remain significant, regardless of movements in the right direction.

And from RescueSF's view, only 15% of shelter exits last year were "successful," in that they led to permanent housing of some kind.

"After living with a homelessness crisis for more than forty years, San Francisco needs a plan that will deliver results and end homelessness," the group writes. "The starting point is to have a shelter system that offers people an effective first step to permanently leaving the streets."

Related: SF Does Not Have Highest Homelessness Rate In California — We’re No. 3

Photo by Joe Kukura/SFist