Mike Lee surveys his remaining belongings outside of the US Postal Office on Allston Way in Berkeley, Calif., after he and his group were removed from their spot across the street earlier in the morning by police on Nov. 17, 2016. The group of homeless were moved by the Berkeley Police Department from the lawn where they had been camping outside of the Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center early on Thursday morning. The encampment, which calls itself “First they Came for the Homeless” has been protesting the Berkeley food and housing project for weeks.
November 17, 2016
Homelessness across the United States fell slightly last year but increased in California and other West Coast states, largely due to a shortage of affordable housing, federal officials said Thursday.
Around the nation, homelessness was down 3 percent amid growing scrutiny of the problem. In California, however, homelessness climbed 3 percent, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual snapshot assessment of homelessness in America.
“We have a lot left to do,” said HUD Secretary Julian Castro, adding that the incoming Trump administration had a responsibility to continue the effort. “I sure hope the next administration will take the baton and make more progress, and not drop the baton.”
Nationwide, Castro said, there were 549,928 homeless people counted in the “point-of-time” homeless census conducted in January.
“They’re not just a visible reminder of a public policy challenge, they’re human beings,” Castro said.
On the West Coast, homelessness increased 7 percent in Washington, 4 percent in Hawaii and less than 1 percent in Oregon. It also increased 14 percent in Washington, D.C., and grew in Idaho as well.
As it has for many years, Los Angeles recorded by far the highest homeless count outside of New York City — 43,854, up nearly 7 percent from 41,174 in 2015. New York’s tally came in at 73,523, down 2 percent from 75,323 in 2015.
Rising rents in California are making it “harder and harder to exit homelessness and to find places” that homeless people can afford, said Matthew Dougherty, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.
In San Francisco, the federal survey pegged the homeless population with a slight uptick to 6,996 people, up from 6,775 in 2015.
However, when adjusted for different counting methods between the feds and the city, the population stayed about the same. Federal enumerators added in 221 extra shelter beds that opened during the El Niño rains last winter, but weren’t open when the city did its last biennial count in 2015.
Point-in-time counts are acknowledged to have a measure of guesswork, since they involve volunteers going out on one night and visually estimating who they think is homeless — which automatically misses people who are remote or hidden. That number is added to figures from jails and other institutions such as shelters, which in San Francisco don’t have enough beds and always have a waiting list of more than 700 people.
Jeff Kositsky, director of the city Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said the disparity in the numbers punches home the urgency of one of his goals for his new department: Getting better data, which includes doing counts annually instead of every two years.
“It’s something people want to know, and I want to know, and we should have the numbers every year anyway,” he said.
Elsewhere in the Bay Area, the homeless count in Alameda County increased slightly, while it decreased in Santa Clara, Sonoma, Contra Costa and Marin counties. The survey counted 4,145 homeless people in Alameda County, up from 4,040 in 2015.
Nationwide, there were steady declines in unsheltered homeless people, homeless families and in homeless veterans over the last six years, the report found.
The statistics were released in Washington, D.C., at virtually the same time a homeless encampment of about 20 people in tents was being ousted from across the street from Berkeley High School. Two dozen officers arrived at the encampment at 4 a.m., in some cases seizing blankets and laptop computers, tent dwellers said.
The group, which included homeless activists, moved briefly to the front of the nearby Berkeley post office where, minutes later, they were evicted again.
“They were very polite, but they told us if we didn’t move we’d be cited for obstruction,” said Freeman Sullivan, 56.
Mike Lee, another member of the encampment, said the group was demanding legal camping places, affordable housing and an end to the criminalization of homeless people.
“This is the seventh time we’ve been evicted,” Lee said. “We’ve been on a mobile protest tour for the last two months.”
Two weeks ago, City Council candidate Nanci Armstrong-Temple was arrested at one of the encampments. Prosecutors declined to charge her.
Mayor-elect Jesse Arreguin observed Thursday’s homeless sweep and said the “next step is to have a location for people to go.”
“Until we have enough emergency shelter and housing for people, we need to entertain the possibility of a place for people to camp,” he said. “We’re in a crisis.”
Steve Rubenstein, Jenna Lyons and Kevin Fagan are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
At a glance
549,928 people in the U.S. were without homes in a federal count done in January.
Nationally, homelessness fell 3 percent last year, but the number of people without homes in California went up 3 percent.
Homelessness increased 7 percent in Washington, 4 percent in Hawaii and less than 1 percent in Oregon.
In San Francisco, the federal survey counted 6,996 homeless people, up from 6,775 in 2015.
The homeless count in Alameda County increased slightly, while it decreased in Santa Clara, Sonoma, Contra Costa and Marin counties.