London Breed’s office is making a big to-do over the latest city numbers that indicate tent encampments are at a five-year low, and while these numbers vary wildly over time, it does look like the trend line is going in a positive direction.

San Francisco, like pretty much all US cities, performs a “homeless census” known as the homeless point-in-time count, in conjunction with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, every two years. We don’t have the 2024 data yet, but the 2022 count showed about a 3.5% decline in SF’s homeless population. That count attempts to count people, rather than numbers of tents, encampments, and parked RVs serving as peoples’ homes.  

The City of San Francisco does its own count of tents and encampments as well. The Healthy Streets Operations Center (HSOC) performs much more frequent quarterly counts of tents, encampments, and RV dwellings, and KRON4 reports that latest quarterly counts shows the lowest number of tents and encampments (360 tents and structures citywide) in the last five years, according to that station.

"Our encampment teams and outreach workers are working tirelessly to go out and help bring people into shelter and clean up encampments,” Breed said in a Monday press release. “We are continuing to use all of the resources we have and working to add more, but there is a lot more to do. We will be relentless in our efforts to help people into safer, supportive facilities, and make our neighborhoods cleaner and healthier for everyone. I want to thank our outreach workers across all of our agencies for their commitment to getting people help. This is not easy work, but it is making a difference.”

The thing is, these numbers go up and down pretty wildly with each quarter, so we don't have a strong historical trendline on this yet. But looking at every quarter’s tent and encampment count going back to 2019 (and the latest numbers have not been added there yet), we see this does represent decreasing numbers of tents and encampment for the last consecutive three quarterly counts. There were 609 tents and structures in the July 2023 count, and those numbers have gone down in each count since.

And of course, Breed’s office typically only puts out these press releases when the news is good, and not when the numbers are discouraging. But credit where it’s due, as the HSOC’s numbers are seemingly trustworthy since they documented many past quarterly encampment increases, and Breed’s office is admittedly seeing positive momentum on clearing encampments for several months in a row now.  

Breed’s office is crediting the drop to the addition of more shelter beds, and significantly, a September legal ruling that allowed the city to resume clearing encampments after a judge had temporarily halted encampment-clearing in December 2022. And the city is likely to get more aggressive at clearing encampments if the Supreme Court rules in favor of an anti-street camping law case they're currently considering, with a decision in  that one expected in June.  

Related: Supreme Court Sounds Inclined to Allow Cities to Clear Homeless Encampments, Enforce Camping Laws [SFist]

Image: Joe Kukura, SFist