A new agency was supposed to solve SF’s homelessness crisis — it got worse

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By Kristi Coale

I never fully appreciated the meaning hidden in a snatch of a phone conversation I overheard when I was 23 between my mother and her older sister, my Aunt G.R., until I held several black and white photos in my hands two decades later.

The pictures were of my mother and aunt when they were little girls, along with their mother, father and, likely, other families in the same predicament. There they were posing on a car in open fields, in front of what looked like wooden barracks, and in front of a large canvas tent. 

“Guess what, G.R? Kristi loves camping,” my mother told my aunt, emphasizing the word camping.

My aunt and my mother had lived at times in a tent, in barracks or in other people’s houses. In other words, my mother’s family was homeless for many periods during her childhood. 

While covering homelessness in San Francisco for the last three years for The Frisc, I’ve periodically replayed in my head my mother’s Texas drawl telling my aunt about my affinity for spending recreational time in a tent. 

A lot of the homelessness we’ve seen in San Francisco and all over California is the result of a housing affordability crisis. Over the last decade, rents for two-bedroom apartments in San Francisco increased by 37% to 48%, depending on the real estate index used. Over the same time, the minimum wage in San Francisco increased from $9.92 to $15.59 per hour. It’s now $16.32, but that yields an after-tax income of roughly $30,000, not enough to afford even a studio apartment in the city.  

This lack of affordable housing showed up in the 2019 one-night census of unhoused residents in San Francisco, known as the point-in-time count. The number of people living on the streets or in unstable housing increased by 15% over the previous count, in 2017. 

Two out of every three respondents in the 2019 survey said the main obstacle to permanent housing was that they couldn’t afford rent. 

What made this jump in homelessness more startling was that it happened on the watch of the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH), created in 2016 to streamline services previously provided by several city bureaucracies. The department would use information technology to track people across the social services system. This would solve the homelessness crisis, city officials said. 

But it wasn’t working. The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing was underperforming. That was the conclusion of a scathing August 2020 report by the investigative arm of San Francisco’s legislative branch. Most of the research was conducted before the pandemic. COVID-19 made the situation much, much worse. 

The Frisc’s series on SF Homelessness, supported by the Center for Health Journalism’s Impact Fund, focused on the city’s plans and programs for aiding its most vulnerable residents and on how a young department could fall so short of doing its job. I wanted to track HSH’s progress in improving its operations

The mayor was opening up the budget coffers for getting chronically unhoused people into supportive housing. I wondered whether this focus would leave others who may not be considered chronically homeless — because they have been homeless for a year or less or don’t suffer from mental illness or addiction — out in the cold. Were there plans for them

Finally, I wanted to know whether the strict focus on the chronically homeless would overstretch the city’s ability to provide behavioral health services needed to keep this group of vulnerable people housed

Of course, all of this was now happening in conjunction with the public health emergency of COVID-19. So I looked at how the city was dealing with the pandemic on top of the pre-existing condition of a homelessness crisis. 

I began by talking to service providers — the network of nonprofits that run supportive housing sites, provide transitional housing, and offer support services to unhoused families, youth and adults. They told me they had many open units of housing just waiting for people to move in, but the people weren’t coming. In fact, there were nearly 900 vacancies at one point.

I had trouble getting a response from HSH about this issue. The pandemic meant that some services created to help unhoused residents during the pandemic — leased hotel rooms for sheltering in place, for example — were not part of HSH’s responsibilities. The quickest responses I got were those telling me to contact yet another department. 

But an obscure city board proved helpful. It included people who had once experienced homelessness, worked as service providers, or represented subpopulations of unhoused San Franciscans. The interim director of HSH gave a presentation at the monthly meetings of this board, and these reports included key data, such as the vacancies in supportive housing. 

Board members and anyone else in attendance (usually service providers and advocates) could question the interim director and other department staff about the issues presented. These Q&A and public comment periods were a valuable way for me to see first-hand how the department interacted with service providers. Sometimes the director or a staffer stuck to talking points. But sometimes there was a straight answer.

Perhaps the most important asset at these meetings was the board co-chair, Del Seymour, a formerly homeless veteran who could crystalize what was at stake, just as he did when he finished listening to all the comments and questions on the vacancies. 

I’ll never forget the emotion in his voice when he said, “There’s 100 people laying outside tonight that could really be inside tonight … so I’m asking now that the department listen to these providers. Every one of them said they’re willing to sit down with you to talk about how to fix this thing.”

It’s really important to listen to people who’ve experienced homelessness or who are unhoused. They know what’s working and what isn’t. 

When I interviewed Nathan Caine and his family, they had been awaiting a placement into supportive housing for five months. The holdup? The department said they didn’t technically qualify as a family. Nathan’s daughter, Nova, was only 5 months old. Family placements were for people with school-aged children. 

That made me really think about how hard it is to see homeless families. They don’t look like single adults or youth. 

Unhoused families might live doubled-up with other families. My mother had to do that when my grandfather’s work didn’t provide housing for the family. That left my grandmother scrambling for a live-in housekeeping job where she could have my mother and aunt with her. 

People living out of their cars accounted for the largest increase among homeless San Francisco residents in 2019. 

Many moved into their cars mostly because they no longer could afford rent. It was their first, best alternative to living on the street, as they had doors that locked, and they could use their home to get to school or work. 

Although I’d internalized this, it really hit me when my editor and I talked about my story on bridge housing alternatives and said to each other: unhoused people are not a monolith. 

For now, San Francisco officials are focusing on permanent supportive housing and getting the most chronically unhoused off the streets. This emphasis makes sense, as many of these people have suffered trauma and long struggles with addiction and street living.

But as varied as the reasons are for people winding up without a roof over their heads, so, too, should be the solutions.

We are very grateful to the Annenberg Center for Health Journalism Impact Fund grant for giving us the ability to study how our city officials and service providers are performing at getting unhoused people off our streets. Our work uncovered several key issues needing attention, particularly the paucity of behavioral health support for the most vulnerable residents. We will keep at this investigation in the coming year. 

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