Vacancy rate ‘far too high’ in supportive housing for homeless

City officials working to improve system for matching clients to units

San Francisco has about a six percent vacancy rate in its permanent supportive housing units even as thousands remain homeless.

That figure, from The City’s most recent count, was condemned by Supervisor Matt Haney Thursday at a Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee, who said The City should have a vacancy rate of only two or three percent “at a time when we urgently need to get everybody off of the streets that we can.”

“The vacancy rate remains far too high,” Haney said.

Abigail Stewart-Kahn, interim director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said the agency is working to lower it. The department oversees the coordinated entry system that is used to refer the most vulnerable homeless into the available units.

“We were making progress on process improvements, and in the two months before COVID we’d seen increases in referrals to permanent supportive housing and decreases in vacancies,” she said. “We have certainly not fixed all the system’s issues that were underlying that, but we were pushing the system faster and learning about the problems.”

The department has 8,012 units of permanent supportive housing units in its portfolio, of which 484 were vacant, Stewart-Kahn reported to the committee Thursday.

She said 196 units are matched with homeless persons awaiting their move-in, 71 are available for referrals and 217 are offline and being prepared for move-ins, receiving repairs and repaintings.

The San Francisco Housing Authority has another 15,251 units or housing vouchers, of which 959 were vacant.

Stewart-Kahn said the department is developing a universal housing application that could make the process more efficient.

Improvement are also underway to the Online Navigation and Entry System, or ONE system, which is used to track clients and connect them to housing and services. The system will expand next fiscal year to track offline vacant units, a recent recommendation from a Budget and Analyst audit after there was confusion about when a batch of offline units became available for people to move into them.

“The clearest evidence of the system’s inadequacies occurred in December 2019 when the Department realized that an estimated 250 units were available and ready for occupancy, but with no referred clients,” the audit said. “Once discovered, the Department acted quickly to accelerate referrals, using Department staff to support the Housing Navigation team in order to place approximately 100 clients in housing units within six weeks.”

The department is using a “temporary fix” known as a vacancy tracker app that has started to capture the vacancy data in a more usable and reliable manner.

Stewart-Kahn said she also plans to discuss with nonprofits how to bring more of the offline units back into use more quickly.

“There are multiple initiatives underway to improve the process and we welcome further ideas,” she said.

The Supportive Housing Providers Network pointed to several challenges slowing down moving homeless persons into units and offered ideas on ways to improve the system.

Tramecia Garner, chief operating officer for Swords to Ploughshares, and a representative of the network, said that “once housing applications are received this process is sometimes slowed due to outside providers having to locate and find those folks who are being referred to housing.”

Another issue, she said, was not matching the person in need of housing with the right units, such as referring someone who needs a private bathroom to an SRO hotel with only shared bathrooms.

“It’s heartbreaking to have someone come to view a housing unit that they are not eligible for,” Garner said. “This really puts a burden on the person and is a waste of time for that potential tenant and it really creates more struggles.”

Garner also called for monthly reporting by the department of the efforts to refer people into permanent supportive housing, including the number of vacancies per building, when the vacancies are ready for referral, how many are referred to the vacancy and the time it takes someone to move in from the time referred.

“We feel like having access to this information could bring about much more accountability and improvements to the system of care,” Garner said.

Sara Shortt, with the Community Housing Partnership, a nonprofit with permanent supportive housing mostly in the Tenderloin, said they have had close to 80 vacancies.

“We think there needs to be far more transparency from HSH and the Housing Authority in terms of tracking, in terms of sharing with us information about the process,” Shortt said. “We think that there needs to be ongoing coordination and communication with the housing providers such as us so that we can troubleshoot so that we can have these conversations in real time about why these move ins are not happening.”

Shortt also called for more people to help the homeless navigate the process to secure the housing.

“We have swelling numbers of homeless people on the streets living in tents during a pandemic and it is just absolutely egregious that we have a situation where there are so many vacant units in supportive housing, the very type of housing that is meant to serve that population,” Shortt said.

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