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SF Homeless Deaths: We Can’t Afford to Know

by Larry Bush on 04/10/2011

in Merely Rumors

When city leaders hunker down during the next few weeks over spreadsheets and numbers in the annual exercise to determine what the city can afford, one number won’t be on any of the spreadsheets.

In fact, it has been left off and been uncounted year after year since 1999, more than a decade ago.

It’s the City Hall count on the number of homeless that died in the city in the past year.

It’s information that the city leaders decided we couldn’t afford to know.

Halted abruptly in 1999, 12 years after the city began an official count, so far City Hall has resisted all efforts to revive the count of the dead.

On May 13, 2002, then-supervisor Gavin Newsom introduced a resolution supporting a state mandate to require local governments to report the deaths of homeless persons for each calendar year, institute the creation of a state homeless death count and provide the public access to the information. The bill, authored by then State Senator John Burton, failed to become law.

In 2003, mayoral candidate Gavin Newsom requested a report from the city’s Health Department on homeless deaths; the report stated 169 homeless had died in the past year.

For Newsom, the information was ammunition for his mayoral campaign and his Prop M measure which he said would reduce homeless deaths. He didn’t hesitate to begin citing it, saying “It’s time for change. How can we defend what’s going on in our emergency rooms?”

But the following year, when Newsom sat in the mayor’s chair and could decide on reinstituting the city’s annual count, he turned down the request from homeless advocates to do exactly that.

“We had gone to him about restarting the count and he refused, “ recalled Jennifer Friedenbach, head of the city’s Coalition for the Homeless. “He had it [the death count] on his billboards but he didn’t reinstate it afterwards.”

In 2005, the Board of Supervisors unanimously passed measures urging officials to resume the annual tally. The city did not resume the count.

Annual Count Useful in Targeting Programs

The count, which Friedenback agrees was never comprehensive, nevertheless provided important insights into how to target services for the most vulnerable homeless.

“It showed that homeless people were dying much younger – an average of 20 years younger,” said Friedenbach. “Human being are just not meant to live outside.”

“It’s been a loss of information. It was really helpful to see if things are shooting up or not,” she said.

The count was drawn from two sources – the medical examiner’s office and the city’s Health Department. San Francisco’s relatively mild climate meant that exposure was less likely to be a cause of death for a homeless person than a drug overdose, homicide, accident or poisoning.

The medical examiner’s office data alone is insufficient as a stand-alone source since it handles only about half the deaths in the city.

The initial reports when the count began indicated that the “vast majority” of the deaths were preventable, according to a December 23, 1999 San Francisco Chronicle article.

That story also reported that many of those who died had recently used the city’s homeless services.

For advocates such as Sister Bernie Galvin and Rev. Glenda Hope, the annual count was also important as a means of recalling the lives of those who lived in the city’s midst – and often died there as well. Using anecdotal information, the religious witnesses conduct an annual reading of the names on the steps of City Hall.

Newsom’s departure from the mayor’s office may ironically create an opportunity to resume the annual count.  Having made use of the homeless count when he was a candidate, he appeared to have no interest in it when he was in office.

Newsom’s priorities on homelessness took second place to other, more immediate, opportunities. Initially named chair of the U.S. Mayors Task Force on Hunger and Homelessness, that national organization had to find a mayor to pinch hit for Newsom at the first press conference. Newsom himself had flown off to Davos, Switzerland to be part of an international set of high level business and political leaders.

In each of the seven years Newsom served as mayor, and after the Conference of Mayors downgraded him as co-chair rather than chair of the Homeless and Hunger Task Force, Newsom never attended any of the press conferences on homelessness. While those press events took place in December, when the actual Conference sessions took place in January, Newsom would drop by for a day or a session and then jet off to Davos.

Friedenbach says her group will seek again to restart the count this fall, the usual timing of the report to coincide with the Thanksgiving and Holiday season when the public is more attuned to the needs of others.


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