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SF initiates ambitious plan to prioritize homeless families

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Stephanie Grant waits for the bus in the Mission as she takes her son, Jackson, to daycare. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

En route to daycare from her Mission District apartment on a recent Tuesday morning, Stephanie Grant made a pit stop at Burger King at 16th and Mission streets to buy her 16-month-old son, Jackson, a French toast breakfast.

“At daycare, all he gets is cereal. I try to make him eggs or at least buy him some toast beforehand,” she said, tearing the toast into bite-sized pieces and placing them in the tray of her son’s stroller.

Two years ago, such daily routines with her son were nearly unimaginable for the 33-year-old, who arrived in San Francisco four months pregnant and homeless in early 2016.
Grant’s pregnancy with Jackson was the first that the mother of five, a recovering heroin addict, experienced while living in a tent — but she is certainly not the first mother in The City who has experienced this.

Admission into San Francisco’s family shelter system has been historically “problematic,” according to Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.

“It was totally micromanaged and it had its problems. [There were] six pages of eligibility criteria for shelter and you had to verify your homelessness from two independent sources,” Friedenbach said. “There was a lot of stuff that needed changing.”

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This year, The City has attempted to address these hurdles by implementing new prioritization requirements for waitlisted families and by phasing in a new coordinated intake system this fall.

Still, advocates and service providers for the homeless say the new requirements could leave expecting homeless mothers like Grant and families seeking refuge in emergency shelters behind.

Grant said her pregnancy with Jackson was “hard.” She recounted living out much of it in sidewalk encampments in the Mission District with her former boyfriend, John Visor, who died in August.

Stephanie Grant rides the bus through San Francisco with her son, Jackson, on Oct. 3, 2017. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

“We were tented up in so many places. People would take our stuff — our clothes, the bikes we had outside,” Grant said. “We were getting some stuff ready for the baby, and somebody took all of that stuff.”

Unable to enter a family shelter with Visor, Grant said she quickly gave up on trying to secure a bed, despite efforts made by Homeless Outreach Team members to get her off the streets.

“I was in my [drug] addiction. I thought I’d be better off out here, even though I wasn’t,” Grant said. “I was in a tent, there were needles everywhere without caps on them. It was very stupid not to go into a shelter, pregnant and everything.”

During her pregnancy, Grant contracted Hepatitis C. “The street is nowhere for anybody with a family to be,” she said.

The City estimates that some 7,500 people are homeless in San Francisco on any given night. Pregnant women and families with children make up a growing portion of that statistic, but it is unclear exactly how large.

A Homeless Point in Time Count conducted in January identified 190 families with children under age 18 as homeless, with 97 percent of homeless families staying in shelters or transitional housing programs. The report identified 3 percent of the homeless families counted as unsheltered.

Not included in The City’s data are families that live doubled-up in rooms, apartments or motels. That population, however, is counted by the San Francisco Unified School District, which reported more than 2,100 students as homeless this year — a number that’s on the rise.

Across The City, four long-term shelters offer some 90 private rooms for families for up to six-month stays. In addition, 70 mats at two nightly shelters — as well as 46 beds and eight cribs at a third — offer temporary, emergency respite in a congregate setting.

On Tuesday, The City’s Department on Homelessness and Supportive Housing released its Five-Year Strategic Framework to tackle homelessness. Among the plan’s goals are ensuring that “no families with children are unsheltered by December 2018” and “ending family homelessness by December 2021.”

In line with that effort, the Homeless Department in January revamped existing prioritization policies for family shelters. The aim was to reduce waiting lists for long-term shelters that serve families for up to six months and offer private rooms.

A homeless encampment is seen near Ninth and Division streets in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood in July. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

The plan points out that the process for families to access shelters has “unintentionally encouraged many families with children to wait long periods for shelter prior to addressing their housing needs,” resulting in “assistance often going to the families who are most persistent, not necessarily those with the greatest needs.”

According to data from the Homeless Department, one family placed in a long-term shelter since the policy changes in January had waited a total of 462 days for placement.

Randy Quezada, a spokesperson for the Homeless Department, called the new Coordinated Entry System (CES), which prioritizes families’ living situations over shelter waitlists or medical condition and which will be implemented by next winter, a “game-changer.”

“We envision a system and a future where there aren’t waitlists,” Quezada said. “If people need a shelter, we will connect them to that route. But if there are other things we can do to help families maintain, we want to be able to do that, too.”

According to the plan, the system rollout will include “access points” connected to schools and social services in neighborhoods where “families with a housing crisis can be assessed and receive problem solving support.”

For a family that’s housed but threatened with homelessness due to an outstanding debt, for example, “a rental subsidy might go a long way,” he said.

Previously, families were placed in private rooms at long-term shelters on a first-come, first-served basis, or received prioritization based on medical conditions, said Kristen Keller, program director at Compass Family Services, a nonprofit service provider for low-income and homeless families. The new entry system, however, prioritizes families escaping domestic abuse and those who are deemed “unsheltered.”

Unsheltered families include those sleeping in tents on the streets, in cars, in laundromats — any place not meant for habitation, Keller said.

The designation does not include families living doubled-up without individual leases or those currently living in emergency shelters, nor does it give priority to medical conditions such as early-term pregnancies.

Some homeless service providers and advocates have voiced concerns about those priorities.

“Families in emergency shelters are deprioritized,” said Nick Kimura, a shelter client advocate supervisor with the Eviction Defense Collaborative. “The way The City is now prioritizing or considering people for long-term shelters is leaving families staying in a congregate settings [for long periods].”

Since the new entry priorities were implemented in January, waitlists for placement at long-term shelters averaged 110 days for sheltered families and 78 days for unsheltered families, according to data provided by the Homeless Department.

The department had no records for the number of families placed directly from emergency shelters.

“We are seeing families staying at [night-by-night] shelters, with no access to showers, for over a year,” said Kimura. “We also see people saying, ‘I’m sick of waiting, I’m going to go sleep in a tent so they see me out there.’ In a way, it incentivizes a worse situation.”

Under the new entry system, families with children are required to spend 60 consecutive days in emergency shelters — where beds must be renewed on a daily basis and that often do not provide showers — to receive priority placement.

“You have to be calling before everyone else, on a day-to-day basis, calling to reserve the beds you need on time not just for you, but for your family [members],” Grant said about the emergency shelters. “It wasn’t realistic for me at all.”

“The reality is that there are folks who need a break from that for a couple nights [and] spend money on a cheap hotel room. So they get knocked off that priority list,” Friedenbach said.

Two years ago, when Stephanie Grant was homeless and pregnant with her now-1-year-old son, she gave up on trying to secure a family shelter due to issues with the admission process. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

In addition, pregnant women must be in their third trimester or experiencing a high risk pregnancy in order to qualify for priority placement in family shelters. Apart from The City’s navigation center, couples are not admitted at regular adult shelters, even if a couple is expecting.

“We are in this situation where reality is we don’t have enough shelter for pregnant women who are developing a fetus, which is the essential time to have safe shelter,” Keller said. “The new system hasn’t allowed for promoting families [with medical conditions] over unsheltered families.”

While Keller said that the new prioritization comes with “pros and cons,” the real issue — one that the new entry system does not address — is that “there isn’t enough capacity in shelters.”

The shelter system may not have worked for Grant, for whom it took two life altering events to end her homelessness — a police shooting that thrust her into the media spotlight, and an ultimatum.

Following the officer-involved shooting of Luis Gongora, a homeless man who lived in the same encampment as Grant in April 2016, Grant said nearly all of the encampment’s residents received placement at the Mission’s navigation center, a homeless shelter that welcomes couples but not children.

“That was a moment I realized I couldn’t do the street life forever,” Grant said.

A month later, Grant gave birth to Jackson, but lost her guardianship after testing positive for drugs. Grant returned to the streets for several months, until a judge in July 2016 gave her an ultimatum.

“I was told by the judge that I have … to get into a residential program or I was going to lose my son,” Grant said. “July 20, [2016], is my sober date.”

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