About Us

Contact Us

On October 21 the Mayor’s Office on Homelessness conducted its third annual survey to determine how many homeless people make San Francisco their home. Director George Smith coordinated 121 staff members and volunteers, combining institutional statistics and on-the-street canvasses to come up with a population of 7,305, a figure 36 percent higher than the previous year’s.

The jury is still out as to whether homelessness is actually on the rise or Smith’s minions have simply become more skilled at their job.

It’s a difficult job, under any circumstances. In the article below, Jessica Scheiner puts the city’s local efforts into perspective.


Homeless people

Who, how many, and why it matters

During the first half of the 1900s, homelessness in the United States wasn’t determined by the physical surroundings in which people slept, but rather by their status in society and their relationships with other people. In the 1920s people considered outsiders, such as skid-row residents, people who were constantly moving, and vagrants, were called homeless. This continued into the 1950s and 1960s: “homelessness” was defiined not by whether people had permanent or continuous lodgings, but rather by their personal bonds with others, if they lived with their family or within a community network.

After the 1960s, as more Americans began living on their own, these definitions became outmoded. People with a home had a fixed address where they could keep their belongings and return as they wished. Homeless people, including migrant workers, did not.

By the 1980s, the definition of homelessness had again changed. People were considered homeless if they had no private sleeping space of their own, regardless of how temporary it was. Migrant workers were no longer considered homeless.

The definition of homelessness in the 1900s reflected public opinion about what an acceptable “home” was. After World War II, for example, some Americans began to define people as homeless who for all practical purposes had homes, because their housing was of “unacceptable” quality.

Distinctions between “homes” and “shelters,” as well as “homeless shelters” and “acceptable shelters,” complicate the definition. Most observers would agree that people who regularly sleep on the street, in train stations, in cars, doorways or abandoned buildings are homeless. These are places not intended for sleeping. And people who sleep alongside strangers in shelters are usually defined as homeless.

Yet the distinction is not as clear when discussing people in jails, hospitals, detox facilities, or mental institutions, who are sleeping among strangers and who, while currently having a place to stay, might not upon release. In most definitions, residents of these public and private institutions are not considered homeless. And to further complicate matters, how do we label people who double up with families or friends?

The definition of a “homeless person” found in the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 shows just how complex the issue is: An individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate residence or a person who resides in a shelter, welfare hotel, transitional program or place not ordinarily used as regular sleeping accommodations, such as streets, cars, movie theatres abandoned buildings, etc. In addition, individuals who are staying in their own or someone else’s home but will be asked to leave within the next month are considered homeless. People in jail are not homeless.

The definition makes judgments about what is considered a home, and at what point a person becomes homeless. For example, while a jail is considered a home, a car or a welfare hotel is not. Many people would call such accommodations more of a home than a jail cell. But people in jail are out of the sight of society; those living in cars or in hotels are visible.

The act also raises questions about time. People who will be evicted from their “homes” within a month are considered homeless, yet those in jail who will have no home when released are not. A cynical observer might say that with no place to go after gaining their freedom, ex-prisoners will find themselves back in jail, back at home.

Although the McKinney act does not specifically refer to homeless families, their special characteristics call into question the act’s guidelines. Local welfare departments send families with children to welfare hotels when there is no more shelter room. Although these families have private rooms and access to them whenever desired, they are considered homeless just as if they had stayed in the shelter. Families who stay rent-free in welfare hotels are considered homeless, while millions of families who live in federally subsidized housing and pay only token rent are not.

Many of these definitions include a time variable, but like the definitions themselves, there is no agreement on what the timeline is for being homeless. One approach defines people as homeless if on the day they are surveyed they have stayed in one of the places usually associated with being homeless during the last seven days. Another makes time distinctions according to who is most in need of resources: who is “literally homeless,” is regularly in and out of homelessness, in inadequate housing, or “at risk” of becoming homeless.

Definitions of homelessness are often measures of public attitudes. There are “worthy homeless” such as families, children, and people suffering from mental or physical handicaps, but not drug abusers, alcoholics, or ex-criminals. Most people feel compassion toward homeless children and people with disabilities but rage over the use of valuable resources for the “unworthy” homeless.

The “visible” homeless most affect our lives. Discussions invariably revolve around the shabbily dressed people with shopping carts that we define as homeless without knowing whether they indeed have no home. Regardless of whether the actual numbers change, increased visibility creates a feeling that the problem is growing, Similarly, a decrease in visibility supports the conclusion that homelessness is no longer a problem.

How we define homeless people has many consequences. Whom we label as homeless determines what the causes, demographics, and needs of a homeless population are. Only those who fall under the homeless definition will receive assistance from homeless programs.

The definition that is used affects who and how many people will be counted as homeless. These counts have serious implications for the way programs are implemented and resources are used, as well as how policy decisions will be made. But counting homeless people is just as controversial and as defining them.

Counting methods are chosen according to the goals of the researchers, available resources, characteristics of the specific homeless population, and simply because it seems like the best process. Not surprisingly, inconsistencies in how homelessness is defined and counted mean that there is no agreement on the number of homeless people either nationwide or locally.

Research teams have looked at shelters, soup kitchens, streets, abandoned buildings, hotels, train stations and cars to enumerate homelessness, but rarely at jails, detox facilities, hospitals, or people doubling up with friends and families. Sometimes they obtain additional information from shelter operators, welfare administrators, activists, and other knowledgeable people.

In a statewide analysis published by the Public Policy Institute of California, John M. Quigley, Steven Raphael, and Eugene Smolensky combined data from four sources: case studies from the Homeless Assistance Project (HAP), estimates from county officials to HUD as part of the Continuum-of-Care funding process, the U.S. Census Bureau’s S-Night count of the homeless, and homeless shelter survey data gathered by researchers at the Urban Institute.

In contrast, in 1983 in the city of Nashville, researchers began counting the city’s homeless population twice a year, in June and December. Their counts consisted of two parts: First, the staff at shelters and other facilities with free temporary bed space, alcoholic treatment programs, SRO hotels, and other settings where there was a mix of homeless and non-homeless clientele, were asked on the designated night to keep records on the number of homeless people they saw, including those who would be without a home if released the next day. Second, teams of two to four members conducted a street count, carefully checking all areas where homeless people would likely be. The teams consisted of people with experience working with the homeless population, who could use their knowledge to help determine who was homeless.

It is difficult to find a method for counting homeless people that is not considered in some way flawed. Data collection is complicated not just by relationships and familiarity with the local homeless population, but also by the goals of the counter. Concerns over who does the enumerating are enmeshed in politics, policy, and the allocation of resources.

Homeless advocates will push for higher numbers to accentuate the severity of the problem and to obtain policies and resources that support the needs of homeless people. They may publicize the high numbers of “worthy homeless” over other groups to attract the sympathy and support of the public. Politicians, on the other hand, might support lower estimates to show that homelessness is decreasing, to demonstrate that they are doing a good job, and to free up resources for pet projects.

One of the prevailing suggestions for improving the homeless enumeration process is for local jurisdictions to collect their own data using people who know the targeted population. Local researchers have inside perspectives on not just who is homeless and where they can be found, but also characteristics specific to the area such as social programs, climate, police crackdowns, and laws. Additionally, people already working in the local system know what questions will be most useful to local politicians, activists, and planners.

If despite all good intentions an enumeration attempt seems seriously flawed, there are mathematical models to fill in the gaps. These methods have received acclaim not just for their provision of more accurate estimates, but also for their cost effectiveness and ability to map out the impacts of social and policy changes on homelessness.

Definitions of homeless people matter. They determine how the homeless population will be portrayed, and consequently how and what policies, resources, and programs will be used.

Counting homeless people tells planners how to plan. Changes over time gauge what has helped and what has increased the problem of homelessness. The process matters because every homeless person deserves to be counted and given the assistance needed for a safer, more productive, and happier life.

Jessica Scheiner is a graduate student in the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley.