City budget boosts homelessness spending, but not enough to meet demand

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The new city budget would increase spending on programs to prevent families from becoming homeless.
Camila Bernal

The city budget that is now awaiting approval by the Board of Supervisors includes new funding for individuals and families facing homelessness, but community advocates say it doesn’t devote enough of the city’s rebounding revenues to addressing this growing problem.

Last Thursday, the Board of Supervisor’s Budget and Finance Committee approved $2.4 million in “add-backs” to homeless services, on top of the $2.3 million that Mayor Ed Lee pledged to supplement the city’s initiatives to curb the burgeoning number of San Francisco’s individuals and families becoming homeless.

The committee’s proposed budget will go before the full Board of Supervisors’ for a vote this month, devoting at least $2 million for this fiscal year and $1 million the next in to continue the successful Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-housing (HPRP) program that provides eviction defense and rent and utility vouchers to residents at-risk of homelessness.

Other homelessness initiatives in the proposed budget include extending the Lower Haight First Friendship shelter for homeless families to a year-round schedule, permanent housing units at 5th and Harrison streets for transitional age youth, 33 Local Operating Subsidy Program (or LOSP) subsidies for low-income homeless individuals and families, and funding to construct 24 shelter beds for the City’s first LGBTQ-focused homeless shelter at Dolores Street Community Center.

But for many residents and families, these initiatives may not be enough to stay in their homes, or re-house themselves after becoming homeless. And as the rent prices continue to drastically rise in San Francisco as the city’s economy heats up, the search for affordable housing or shelter beds has become more and more desperate.

January’s point-in-time homeless count identified 6,436 homeless persons on the streets and in the shelters in the city, a majority of which became homeless as San Franciscans. The current number on the city’s wait list is 220 families with an expected wait of seven to eight months, according to the Human Services Agency, which runs the city’s homeless shelter system. This is slightly down from 268 families earlier this year, then the largest in city history.

As the Guardian reported recently, the number of eviction notices in San Francisco hit a 12-year high this year, indicating an increase in displacement that may compound the number of families on the emergency shelter waiting list.

Bevan Dufty, the mayor’s point person on homelessness, told the Guardian that “the city definitely is not seeking to expand the shelter system,” despite the near-record waiting list.

 “Yes, we have lost shelter beds in recent years, and the 24 we are adding at Dolores Street Community Services is a minimal number,” Dufty added. “But you have to have a toolbox to respond in different ways.” And Dufty claims that re-housing families through programs like HPRP services in the budget has been shown to be the best way to prevent homelessness.

In response, Jennifer Friedenbach of the Coalition on Homelessness told the Guardian that, although the $1 million of HPRP services did prevent 1,300 San Francisco households from becoming homeless last year, it only covered 15 percent of the city’s overall need based on the number of people seeking services through San Francisco’s Eviction Defense Collaborative.

When asked to respond to the Coalition’s estimate, Dufty replied that he could not comment on its accuracy, but he conceded that the HPRP funding is "certainly not going to satisfy all the need."

Dufty stressed that the city has been able to reduce the number of homeless veterans and has responded to a noticeable outcry in the need for more transitional housing, especially from LGBTQ community activists. Although the version of the budget making it to the Board of Supervisor’s vote this month would not expand the homeless shelter system beyond the Dolores Street Community Services project, it would improve the city’s oft-criticized shelter reservation system for single adults.

Along with Dufty and the Mayor Lee’s support, Friedenbach advocated in the homeless community to change the current line-based system to a lotterized system run through the city’s 311 system.

“The current shelter waitlist system is really archaic,” Friedenbach told the Guardian. “People spend 17 hours a day trying to get a bed at night.” Mayor Lee proposed this change in his budget, especially so the indigent and elderly no longer have to stand for hours waiting in line for a bed.

Though Friedenbach acknowledges the positive in the budget initiatives, she pointed out that there is still only one shelter spot for every six homeless persons in San Francisco, and that she “doesn’t know what standard you can go by to say that is too much.”

The new revenue from November’s business tax reform measure, won through a ballot initiative pushed by on-the-ground community groups like the Coalition on Homelessness, should “go back to low-end communities who are hurt from years of reduced services in mental and public health,” Friedenbach said.

Last month, the Coalition on Homelessness and other advocates pushed the Budget and Finance Committee to double Mayor Lee’s proposed $1 million for HPRP for 2013-2014 and an additional 75 LOSP rental subsidies on top of the 25 the Mayor had already pledged. At its last meeting before the new fiscal year, the Budget and Finance Committee pledged an addition $1 million for HPRP, but only added eight new LOSP subsidies.

Friedenbach attributed the lower number to the city’s logistical problems of trying to find additional service providers for subsidies. The “add-backs” marked “a lot of progress for poor folks,” Friedenbach said, although the city will still have “a situation where a lot of money is coming in, but not trickling down.”

“San Francisco is at a critical juncture,” Friedenbach prefaced her public comment at a Budget and Finance hearing last month. “The influx of wealth is pushing the heart of the city—the working class and poor—out.”

The budget approved by the Budget and Finance Committee last Thursday will likely go to the full Board of Supervisors starting next week, July 9.