“Thank you,” Ali Schlageter, a policy analyst with San Francisco's Homeless Coordinating Board, told hundreds of volunteers who crowded into the Department of Public Health's hearing room Thursday night.
“I know all of you could be home watching 'American Idol,' but instead you're here to count the homeless,” she said.
Thirty minutes later, the crowd, mostly city workers and employees of social service nonprofits, fanned out across the city, checking sidewalks, parking lots, subway stations, freeway underpasses and fast-food restaurants as part of San Francisco's biennial count of the homeless.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development requires that a census be conducted every two years as a condition of receiving federal money under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. This year, San Francisco received $18 million from HUD under the program.
Other Bay Area counties, and local jurisdictions around the country, also conducted their counts last week.
The volunteers, for their safety and out of courtesy to the people they were counting, were instructed not to speak to the homeless, just to tally the number of people they saw who appeared to be living on the street.
“It's an art, not a science,” Jim Buick, the deputy director of the Department of Human Services, said as he passed two disabled men drinking malt liquor in front of a park at Larkin and O'Farrell Streets.
“If they had all their belongings in a shopping cart or had a sleeping bag, I probably would have counted them,” Buick said. But all the pair had were aluminum cans wrapped in paper bags, so he guessed that they lived in one of the Tenderloin's residential hotels and were using the sidewalk as their living room.
Buick counted four homeless people during his walk, which covered blocks bounded by Van Ness Avenue and Larkin, Post and Ellis Streets.
In addition to the street count, the city will get a count of homeless people who were sleeping in shelters Thursday night, in hospitals and in jail. Park rangers and police officers covered large parks that had brush obstructing street views.
Homelessness has been a stubborn problem in San Francisco, with a slow but steady rise in the number of homeless counted in recent years.
In 2009, San Francisco's homeless count found 6,514 homeless, including 2,709 people literally sleeping on the street, 1,516 in emergency shelters, 394 in jail and 98 in hospitals and clinics.
That number was up slightly from the 2007 count, which was itself higher than the count in 2005.
In an interview, Mayor Edwin M. Lee said the numbers were rising because San Francisco was a national destination for the down and out. “People come to San Francisco for a lot of different reasons, including the weather and our success in providing services,” Lee said.
Advocates for the homeless say the nation's homeless population rose about 3 percent from 2008 to 2009, numbers that mirror the trend in San Francisco.
At Polk and Olive Streets, a man and a woman had tucked all their belongings into the lighted doorway of a business that was closed for the night. They sat on a flattened cardboard box, the woman hunched over the man.
“Are you here to help?” the woman asked when Buick walked by with a reporter and a cameraman in tow.
“No,” he replied, “we're here to count.”