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Ending homelessness with … housing

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To really address homelessness, The City needs to double the amount of housing available to homeless people in San Francisco by building new affordable units for very low-income residents with on-site supportive services. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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The first step of any plan to end homelessness needs to be keeping San Franciscans housed. As study after study has shown, it is primarily San Franciscans that make up the people who experience homelessness in our city — not people who have come here from other places, but people who had homes here and lost them — due to a variety of reasons, including the increasing rash of evictions. We need to begin by ensuring that folks stay in their rent-controlled housing whenever possible and are quickly rehoused when displacement can’t be prevented. Part of this includes funding rapid-rehousing opportunities.

But for many who do end up living in their cars or on the streets, the route out of homelessness is through — you guessed it — housing! From a fiscal perspective, we know that it is far less expensive to house homeless people than to keep them homeless, as we spend more on health care, social services and criminal justice while someone is homeless than we do on housing for them. For every $1 spent on housing for homeless adults living with mental illness, there is a $2.50 reduction in other government spending.

Currently, we have housing for about 6,000 homeless people: About half of that housing is in residential hotels with light services and that are master leased; the other half is in nonprofit owned supportive housing, permanently affordable units that come with services to help stabilize and support residents like employment programs, youth and family programs and individual case management. 

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To really address homelessness, we need to double the amount of housing available to homeless people in San Francisco. This means building new affordable units for very low-income residents with on-site supportive services, creating permanent community-owned assets. Doing this will take a sustainable revenue source, and while we need to make sure the federal and state governments do their part, we also cannot wait for them to act. It’s up to The City to take real leadership and change the current trajectory of homeless housing funding and policy in San Francisco.  

In the last few years, our city’s housing production for extremely low-income people has shifted toward master leasing. We currently invest less then 3 percent of The City’s budget toward this issue. We should be investing more. In the current housing pipeline through 2022, we are only going to have 632 new units for homeless people — compared to the almost 3,000 units for homeless people that we built between 2008 and 2014. Since 2014, The City has capped the number of homeless units at 20 percent of all affordable housing and stopped producing buildings that are 100 percent supportive housing.

This is a misstep and represents a major shift in our city’s housing policies. In the last few years, The City’s approach has shifted to simply require that new affordable housing family and senior buildings set aside 20 percent of units for formerly homeless individuals. While this policy has resulted in a broader mix of incomes in our affordable buildings and works well for many residents, it does not replace the need for providing supportive housing buildings with 24-hour desk clerks and the kinds of on-site wraparound services so critical for people who have been chronically homeless or have dual or multiple diagnosis.  

There are currently no projects in the works for 100 percent supportive housing. If The City is truly committed to addressing the homelessness issue, and housing both families and single adults experiencing homelessness, then they need to invest in nonprofit-owned supportive housing. The Mayor’s Office of Housing needs to reconsider its priorities and immediately start planning for the release of new funds or requests for proposals for supportive housing buildings on a regular schedule over the coming years. As part of its continuum of affordable housing solutions, The City needs to pay as much attention to the building and renovation of 100 percent supportive housing for our most vulnerable San Franciscans as they do to other important kinds of affordable housing. 

Folks working on these issues know what the solutions are. What we are lacking is political will. 

Peter Cohen and Fernando Marti are co-directors of San Francisco’s Council of Community Housing Organizations. Gail Gilman and Doug Gary represent the Supportive Housing Providers Network.

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