SF homeless count reveals impact of programs for youths, adults

San Francisco Chronicle, by Kevin Fagan, June 17, 2017

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Spackled into last week’s 80-page report detailing San Francisco’s latest homeless count were two big revelations: While the number of homeless youths plummeted 40 percent, the population of severely troubled homeless adults shot up 31 percent.

What the statistics show, according to those charged with helping the poor, is that the extra effort toward helping homeless children over the past two years is working. But they also show that despite creating millions of dollars worth of new shelters, supportive housing and street counseling teams, there is an intractable core of homeless adults who keep getting older, sicker and harder to pull inside.

Those statistics were overshadowed by numbers showing that camps are spreading alarmingly into different neighborhoods while the overall street population has stayed the same. But like dozens of other subcategories included in the report, the youth and hard-core adult numbers can help policy managers tighten their focus to where the needs are greatest.

“There’s really nothing to celebrate until this number goes to zero,” Jeff Kositsky, director of the city Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said Friday as he released the results of the biennial one-night homeless count, which was conducted in January. “But what we can see from this is that there are areas where, when we invest wisely, we see reductions.”

The report showed that San Francisco has 7,499 homeless people overall, a dip of 0.5 percent since the last one-night count taken in 2015 — and that within that population, the most striking drop came in that 40 percent dip in the number of street people 24 or younger.

Sherilyn Adams, head of a leading nonprofit in the state helping homeless youths, questions the results of the one-night count, saying homeless kids “know very well how to hide.” Other tallies indicate there are more kids on the street.

Still, she believes some of the drop in the survey’s numbers can be attributed to the quadrupling of supportive housing for homeless youths in San Francisco over the past four years, and to increased counseling outreach services for kids on the street.

The agency she leads, Larkin Street Youth Services, upgraded its drop-in center since the 2015 count and in the fall will help spearhead a $2.9 million federally funded effort in San Francisco to create new programs for homeless youths. In addition, Mayor Ed Lee is proposing an additional $2 million over the next two years for youth homeless programs that will include an emphasis on LGBTQ people — who constitute 49 percent of the latest homeless youth count.

“The whole focus is to prevent youth homelessness to begin with, and make it rare, brief and non-reoccurring,” Adams said. “The city has set a goal of ending youth and family homelessness by 2020, and I think we can do that.”

On the flip side, the new count of 2,138 chronically homeless people — up from 1,629 in 2015 — reinforced studies by universities and hospitals showing the homeless population has been aging so steadily that the average age in the streets is now 58.

The chronically homeless are hard-core people who’ve lived outside for a year or more and suffer from narcotic, mental or other troubles that keep them on the street. The new city count reveals that among that group, not only did their numbers rise but their difficulties increased.

Sixty-three percent have psychiatric or emotional conditions, up from 55 percent in 2015, and 65 percent struggle with drug or alcohol abuse, up from 62 percent in 2015. A full 49 percent reported chronic health problems, up from 43 percent two years ago.

And perhaps as telling as any figure, the report found that only 25 percent of the overall homeless population were new to the streets — compared with 48 percent five years ago. The problem is so acute that homeless street outreach teams now focus most on those who have lived outside for at least 13 years — and there are never enough shelter beds for them.

“Our greatest challenge in our residential treatment center program for substance abuse and mental illness is that 95 percent of our clientele (of 300 people) is homeless, and for too many of them there is nowhere to go after they’re done with the program,” said Vitka Eisen, head of the community health nonprofit HealthRight 360 in San Francisco.

She said the maximum stay in her center is six months, but under proposed state and federal funding changes that could drop to three months, “and there’s no way with 90 days that you’re going to exit into stable housing. So we need more supportive transitional housing for people coming out of residential treatment. Outpatient treatment just doesn’t work well if you’re living outside.”

The Tipping Point Community charity has pledged to give the city $100 million over the next five years to help it cut the chronically homeless population in half.

Few were less surprised at the hard-core street numbers going up than the chronically homeless themselves.

“What do you expect in a city where the rent is too high, and you’re a guy who never made a lot of money?” said Wayne Biggs, 66, who has been homeless since 2007 when his rent got jacked above what he could pay with his federal disability check.

Sitting the other day with his giant rolling suitcase at the main city library, Biggs said he is close to giving up on getting by with soup kitchens and the occasional hotel room. When his check of several hundred dollars comes in next month, he said, he’s heading north where maybe he can rent a room in some small town.

“I was a construction worker, an honest guy who worked until I got too old to swing a hammer,” he said. “What am I supposed to do? What are all of us supposed to do?”

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