Editor’s Note: This is the last in a five-part series on the state of nonprofit organizations and how they navigate a city that is experiencing a historic economic boom, housing crisis and widening income gap.
Dec. 21: The Arc
Monday: Independent Living Resource Center
Tuesday: AIDS Legal Referral Panel
Wednesday: Real Options for City Kids
Compass Family Services
Latonia Williams was living drug-addled and homeless on the streets of San Francisco when state authorities seized custody of her newborn son. Williams never even brought him home from the hospital — not that she had anywhere stable to call home.
Back then, she counted herself among the 6,500 to 8,000 homeless individuals now living without a stable home in The City, and her story illustrates a less visible and especially heartbreaking aspect of urban poverty: families without homes and families broken up because of it.
Fast-forward 16 years to last spring, and that same woman was valedictorian of her class at City College of San Francisco, now working toward a four-year degree in social work at San Francisco State University and striving for a master’s degree after that. More importantly, she regained custody of her son, Lawrence, now 16, and she is also engaged to be married.
Needless to say, Williams required a lot of help and direction between her two distinctly different lifestyles. Her main help came from Compass Family Services, a San Francisco nonprofit that is now dealing with some of the largest caseloads and waiting lists in its 100-year history, as The City’s housing crisis continues to worsen.
“The economy has improved, but it hasn’t improved for the poorest and the homeless. It’s difficult or impossible for a low-income family to find housing,” said Erica Kisch, the executive director of Compass. “All of a sudden, for real estate that wasn’t considered exciting, property owners are trying to make the most they can, and displacing folks who have been living in these places for years.”
Kisch said while her organization has commonly faced waiting lists to connect families with a stable place to stay, things became critically difficult two years ago around Christmastime. This holiday season, there are 250 families on the Compass waiting list, with most families waiting out nearly a year before housing can be secured. Before The City’s economic resurgence and accompanying housing issues, families would wait only a few weeks, Kisch said.
Although impoverished families tend to have more social-service resources than homeless individuals, Kisch said there’s another reason they are not as commonly seen by downtown passersby.
“Families kind of try to stay below the radar because they don’t want to draw attention and lose their children,” Kisch said. “Homelessness in and of itself is not supposed to be grounds to have children taken away, but as a parent, it makes you more likely to come under scrutiny.”
Five years ago, many families could be connected with a home in one of San Francisco’s low-income neighborhoods, but Kisch said most of the available housing now has to be sought in far-flung cities like Fairfield, Vallejo or Antioch.
“It used to be that the last resort was the Tenderloin. We tried for better, but there was always a place on Hyde Street or somewhere like that,” Kisch said. “The tricky thing is that when we house a family, we try to stay in touch, but it’s a lot harder when they’re living far away.”
Williams, who got involved in drug recovery in 2011 before the slow process of regaining custody of her son, was one of the lucky few who was able to stay in San Francisco. Having been out on the streets, Williams envisions that without Compass, she would be couch surfing and probably not nearly as successful in her academic pursuits.
“They don’t just cure the homelessness part of the problem,” Williams said of Compass. “They deal with the whole person, what the parent is dealing with, what the child is dealing with, and what the family as whole has been dealing with.”