Counting the Unhoused
Pandemic Diary Entry #59
September 28, 2020
Starting at 7:00 on Wednesday night the 23rd of September, I took part in the TNSOL count for the census.
That stands for Target Non-Shelter Outdoor Locations, in other words, those that are not housed in what the public would consider traditional housing.
I worked with two groups, my first 5 hours were in the Bernal Heights neighborhood. The hills are steep (my Fitbit said I did 84 flights of stairs, which equates to an 84 story building), but the homes are extremely high end, well-manicured, and devoid of any unhoused population. I kept wondering, knowing well the situation in San Francisco, why we were assigned this neighborhood. If you have been following my writing about the Census, you will know that much does not make sense, and to me, canvassing this area for an unsheltered population was a flagrant waste of manpower.
As I write this on four hours of sleep, my body is screaming at me, my Fitbit also said I walked 12 miles. A very strong cup of coffee is going to help me keep my interior time clock as close to normal as possible, but the 12 miles I walked on the city’s concrete sidewalks has rattled every bone in my skeleton. I do not know how beat cops do it.
In my first group I worked with two other people, the wonderful thing about San Francisco was the fact that we began by courteously asking preferred pronouns. One of the team members was a guy who had just sold a tech business, and was probably very well off, but as he said, right now, only on paper. The second was a substitute teacher living in her car and trying to make ends meet by working as many hours as possible for the census. They had both done a stint in Nevada so they had great stories to tell of guns, confederate flags and, the wide-open and beautiful county of Paradise Valley.
At the end of the first shift, I spoke with a supervisor who had a team at the Stonestown Mall counting individuals who lived in RVs and cars. While they did not return until I had already gone on to my next location so I was not able to get a first hand account of the situation, it was something new to me. Intellectually we are all aware that many places allow people to use their large parking lots for this, but I had simply never emotionally considered it. I also worry that as COVID continues and the Senate refuses to pass another relief bill, how many more people will join the population at Stonestown. While they are fortunate enough to still have a car or an RV to live in, America should be ashamed.
I joined the second group just after midnight. This team consisted of six people and that included Stephen Lewis, whose stories you have read here before.
I joined the second team after they had finished up in the Tenderloin, which I am sorry I missed, but they filled me in on some of the details. Once I was part of the team we headed into the Mission District of San Francisco.
For TNSOL the count is done by observation. While it would be far more informative to speak with people, it was after midnight. Tent flaps were closed, car doors were locked, and those unfortunate to have no actual structure had already buried themselves under whatever detritus they could find on the street to keep the streetlights from their tired eyes.
Stephen did tell me he spoke to a man in the Tenderloin who approached him, understood fully what the group was doing, and gave all of his information. He will always be on the record as a named individual, unlike all the others that go down in the records as Person One, Two, Three, etc.
Walking San Francisco at 3:00 in the morning during COVID was an experience in itself. While many say San Francisco is a rather plebian town that goes to bed at 1:00, that is not true. With COVID, however, the streets are empty of not only restaurant and bar patrons, but cars, night shift workers, and tourists.
We shared the streets with the men and women who pick up your trash, the street sweepers, an entire contingent of firemen responding to a construction fire, and a very rude meter maid who gave us a parking ticket, despite our badges and pleas we were on government business. Pre-COVID all of these workers would simply be background noise to the sea of humanity that is a big city.
I had hoped to work the Tenderloin to get a handle on how the homeless population had grown during COVID, but I understand it was rather tame, given, most likely to the fact that with all the news coverage of the situation, and law suits by surrounding businesses, the police have become more vigilant in moving people along. The sad thing is, to where? San Francisco’s homeless population is no larger, per capita, than most cities in the US, but we are such a small area, they are more visible. We all commented on how the encampments that we knew as denizens of the neighborhoods were gone, but that is for another article.
I can not say how many people we counted living in tents, on the sidewalks, or in automobiles, it was a long night and my brain was much too tired to attempt to keep a running total, but it was nowhere near as many as I had expected.
For those of you who are wondering, I had a candy bar and a 16-ounce bottle of water. The only thing accomplished by carrying those was added weight on my back. With COVID, there are few public toilets available at the best of times, and nothing at that hour of the night, I was pretty dehydrated when I got home, but that is a privileged person speaking, I had a home to go to with flush toilets and fresh running water.
The TNSOL census count is only a snapshot of one evening, and certainly not a complete picture. It would be interesting to know how our numbers compare with the bi-annual homeless count that all major cities do, but the unhoused population deserve as much representation in the census count as the people at the top of Nob Hill, and I was proud to be a part of making sure they were visible.
My Horoscope for today: It’s time to take action about a family matter. Step up to the plate and do what needs to be done.
San Francisco weather: 78 degrees and sunny
NYSE DOW compared to one year ago: 27362 up 510 points
COVID cases in the US: 7, 323, 655
Deaths from COVID in the US: 209, 488
Days since Shelter In Place was initiated: 181
Reading: It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis
My Black and White Picture of the Day
Something Silly From the Internet: