The dire need for more supportive housing in San Francisco is only a fraction of the challenge The City is up against in helping unhoused residents find shelter.
Preventing those who do secure housing from eviction and re-entering homelessness is a whole different obstacle.
The issue is increasingly on the minds of those tasked with reducing homelessness in San Francisco as the local population ages. Now, The City is expanding a small pilot program, called Collaborative Caregiver Support Teams, which aims to keep formerly homeless adults housed.
“One of the greatest challenges for permanent supportive housing providers is habitability,” said Kelly Dearman, executive director of the Department of Disability and Aging Services. “We are seeing a growing need to support unhoused and formerly homeless San Francisco residents who struggle with issues that put their housing at risk.”
The pilot launched in November at the Minna Lee, a single-room occupancy building and permanent supportive housing site in the South of Market neighborhood. Starting this month, it will grow out to an additional permanent housing site and a third is slated for January, with a goal of reaching 1,000 people.
The idea behind the program is to more quickly connect older formerly homeless adults who are at risk of losing their housing with caregivers who can help with everyday needs and help keep a clean living space, which often is a cause for eviction if individuals struggle to maintain units on their own.
Currently, about 30% of The City’s approximately 8,000 residents in permanent supportive housing receive in-home supportive services, according to the San Francisco Human Services Agency.
The pilot is still in its early days, but it’s already had an impact on residents like James Lucas, 57, who was formerly homeless and now lives at the Minna Lee.
Lucas was at risk of eviction when the caregiver support team reached out. He was initially skeptical of the help he might receive, but he agreed to sign up for the program and told The Examiner he was relieved to have help cleaning his unit so he could pass inspection. Now, members of Lucas’ care team meet with him on a regular basis to help maintain the cleanliness of his unit.
Signing up for the services, which are offered through The City’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) and the Human Services Agency (SFHSA), is voluntary. But that can be an incredibly hard decision for individuals who have made it far on their own or have had negative experiences with health care and social services.
Lucas has seen some of the best and worst parts of San Francisco since moving to The City in 1978, and he can still remember that turbulent year when former Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated. But his vision has started to decline more recently, making even small daily tasks more difficult.
“It makes it easier for me to just function, you know?” said Lucas, regarding his experience with the program so far. “Somebody calls me and says, ‘Look, you know you got an appointment.’ I know it’s my job; it’s my responsibility. So when people do that and assist you, it inspires you to do the right thing first.”
More than just a roof
San Francisco opened 25 shelter-in-place, or SIP, hotels for homeless individuals at the start of the pandemic. As it quickly became clear that some residents needed a higher level of care, The City responded by providing in-home supportive services to people living in SIP hotels.
The success of deploying those in-home care services into the SIP hotels was a driver behind the program that’s now taking off at Minna Lee, organizers say.
“This partnership was very successful in providing people with additional services needed to stabilize. This is one of the lessons learned from the SIP hotel program that HSH is looking to bring into its larger housing portfolio,” said San Francisco’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing Executive Director Shireen McSpadden.
Now, as San Francisco officials push ahead with a controversial plan to relocate all SIP hotel residents to permanent housing, care teams are looking to ease the difficulty and trauma that can come with picking up and moving again and again.
So far, about 1,346 individuals still reside in the emergency shelters, according to San Francisco data, and 2,380 have been relocated to permanent supportive housing.
Those working in the SIP hotels and supportive housing sites say they hope the program will provide a safer experience for individuals caught in the middle of San Francisco’s homelessness policy debates.
“Compared to my other cases, I know who to contact much more quickly if a client needs assistance,” said Jatzel Martinez, an in-home support services caregiver at Minna Lee.
From an organizational perspective, the team approach has given caregivers the simple but powerful tool of having a coordinated place to turn to as needs come up or change, Martinez said.
In many cases, housing solutions are still too little and too late. A recent permanent supportive housing pilot in Santa Clara found “extremely high death rates” even among those who were successfully housed. Out of 423 participants, including some individuals who were not placed into housing, about 70 people died.
Residents like Ron Brannock, who moved to the Minna Lee after living in Hotel Witcomb on Market and Eighth streets, one of the SIP hotels, have witnessed the brutal realities first hand. Shelters and other transitional housing sites come with no shortage of problems, he said. Days and nights can be noisy, fights break out on the sidewalk sometimes and general habitability can be dreadful at some SROs.
For instance, a group of 21 tenants in the Granada Hotel, an SRO in the Tenderloin, are suing the site’s owner and property managers alleging elder abuse and forced eviction, among other conditions.
But Brannock believes things can be done better.
“This is a great place. Every Monday, they do a food pantry. And every other week, they do hygiene kits. I came here with nothing and now I have a flat-screen TV, a crockpot and a refrigerator and it’s all because of them,” said Brannock. “I can have peace of mind knowing that I won’t wake up in the rain or you won’t be sleeping somewhere outside.”