San Francisco's untouchables - Page 4

Is San Francisco trying to help the homeless -- or drive them away?

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GUARDIAN PHOTO

Fast forward more than a decade, and many who work within the city's homeless services system echo this refrain. The pervasive lack of access to permanent, affordable housing is the city's toughest nut to crack, but it doesn't need to be this way.

At the committee hearing, Friedenbach, who has been working as a homeless advocate for 19 years, spelled out the myriad funding losses that have eviscerated affordable housing programs over time.

"We've had really huge losses over the last 10 years in housing," she said. "We've lost construction for senior and disability housing. Section 8 [federal housing vouchers] has been seriously cut away at. We've lost federal funding for public housing. There were funding losses in redevelopment."

A comprehensive analysis by Budget and Legislative Analyst Harvey Rose found the city — with some outside funding help — has spent $81.5 million on permanent supportive housing for the formerly homeless.

That money has placed thousands of people in housing. Nevertheless, a massive unmet need persists.

 

WAITING GAME

Following the hard-hitting economic downturn of 2008 and 2009, San Francisco saw a spike in families becoming homeless for the first time. Although a new Bayview development is expected to bring 70 homeless families indoors, Dufty said 175 homeless families remain on a wait-list for housing.

Yet the wait-list for Housing Authority units has long since been closed. And many public housing units continue to sit vacant, boarded up. Sup. London Breed said at a March 19 committee hearing that fixing those units and opening them to homeless residents should be a priority.

DPH's Direct Access to Housing program, which provides subsidized housing in SROs and apartments, was also too overwhelmed to accept new enrollees until just recently. Since the applicant pool opened up again in January, 342 homeless people have already signed up in search of units, according to DPH. But only about a third of them will be placed, the results of our public records request showed.

Meanwhile, the city lacks a pathway for moving those initially placed in SROs into more permanent digs, which would free up space for new waves of homeless people brought in off the street.

City officials have conceptualized the need for a "housing ladder" — but if one applies that analogy to San Francisco's current housing market, it's a ladder with rungs missing from the very bottom all the way to the very top.

In the last fiscal year, HSA allocated $25 million toward subsidized housing for people enrolled in the SRO master-lease program. "It's often talked about as supportive housing," Friedenbach notes. "But supportive housing under a federal definition is affordable, permanent, and supportive."

In SROs, which are notoriously rundown — sometimes with busted elevators in buildings where residents use canes and wheelchairs to get around — people can fork over 80 percent of their fixed incomes on rent.

"An individual entering our housing system should have an opportunity to move into other different types of housing," Dufty told the supervisors. "It's really important that people not feel that they're stuck."

Amanda Fried, who works in Dufty's office, echoed this idea. "Our focus has to be on this ladder," she told us. "If people move in, then they have options to move on. What happens now is, we build the housing, people move in, and they stay."

 

START OF THE CYCLE

Homelessness does begin somewhere. For Joseph, a third-generation San Franciscan who grew up in the Mission and once lived in an apartment a block from the Pacific Ocean, the downward spiral began with an Ellis Act eviction.

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