Here in the city of St. Francis, we value our city’s role in providing services for those less fortunate and have compassion for those who need a helping hand. It is part of our DNA.
In recent years, we have taken strides as a city to develop and start implementing a comprehensive approach to ending homelessness in San Francisco. While there are tangible successes that we can point to, we have to be real and acknowledge that the problem has grown in severity — and plain and simple, we need to do more. Refusing to talk about the issue inside City Hall will not make it go away.
Therefore, in late January, I will be hosting a hearing to address our city’s “10-Year Plan to Abolish Chronic Homelessness,” so we can renew city dialogue and focus on the homeless issue while working to drill down on data-driven and smart solutions that can help us solve one of San Francisco’s intractable problems. This issue affects all San Franciscans, and we have to renew our efforts to help individuals and families get off the streets, and prevent our residents from becoming homeless in our city.
To provide a framework for this discussion, let’s take a step back and look at the current picture of San Francisco’s homeless population. To help enact policies and legislation that work to end homelessness, I believe it is critical to better understand the homeless population and the barriers that exist for them to exit homelessness.
Homeless population facts
Every two years, our Human Services Agency conducts a Homeless Count and Survey, and the 2013 results were informative. Our current homeless population in San Francisco stands at 6,436 individuals, a figure that has remained relatively stagnant at roughly 6,500 for the last nine years. Of those individuals, roughly 59 percent of them remain unsheltered. The remaining homeless were still classified as homeless but had temporary shelter, and possibly received meals, in facilities such as emergency shelters, transitional housing, rehabilitation facilities, jail, and hospitals.
We know that 69 percent of our homeless population identified as male, 27 percent as female, and 3 percent as transgender. The average age is 39 years old, and 18 percent reported having been in the foster care system. The 2013 survey, for the first time, asked individuals to identify their sexual orientation. Seventy-one percent identified as straight, while 29 percent identified as a member of the LGBT community, or other.
We also know that 29 percent percent reported the loss of a job as the primary cause of their homelessness, while 16 percent reported having an argument with a friend or family member who asked them to leave, 11 percent reported alcohol or drug use as the primary cause, 6 percent cited incarceration, and 6 percent cited family/domestic violence as the primary cause of their homelessness.
Last, the 2013 survey revealed that many individuals within the homeless population face additional challenges to housing and employment. For example, nearly two-thirds of them reported one or more physically or mentally disabling conditions.
The 10-Year Plan
Back in 2003, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom commissioned a “10-Year Plan to Abolish Chronic Homelessness,” the goals of which were to move from a “continuum of care model,” to a “housing-first model” and build 3,000 supportive housing units to help house the chronically homeless. As a result of this initial 10-year plan, San Francisco now embraces the “housing-first” policy for our homeless population, which prioritizes placing homeless individuals first into permanent supportive housing, and then providing wrap-around services on-site to help stabilize the individuals and keep them housed. San Francisco actually exceeded the goal of building 3,000 supportive housing units by building 3,071 units since Fiscal Years 2004-05.
Even though we as a cty met and in some instances exceeded the two primary goals of the 10-year plan, we still have a high homeless population that has remained stagnant over the years since implementation of the 10-year plan. I believe that new steps and polices beyond and including those that have been previously recommended are needed to move forward to provide tangible solutions for how we as a city work together to end homelessness.
After initially calling for the hearing, I’ve spent the last four months meeting with city, non-profit, and community leaders to better understand their perceptions of the root causes of homelessness while also exploring potential solutions with them. I met individually with Barbara Garcia, director of public health; Trent Rohrer, director of the Human Services Agency; and Bevan Dufty, director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing Opportunity Partnerships and Engagement. I also met with Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness; and Angela Alioto, former supervisor and chair of the Homeless 10-Year Planning Council.
Out of those meetings, four common themes persisted regarding what is needed to solve homelessness. These included increased prevention efforts to ensure we stop more people from becoming homeless on our San Francisco streets, the need for increased housing opportunities for our homeless population, additional mental health and substance abuse treatment services, and more job training and employment opportunities.
These four themes seem simple enough. If we can stop people from becoming homeless in the first place, help house those who need it, keep individuals healthy, and provide opportunities for self-sustaining upward mobility – then we will be well on our way to ending homelessness. All of that is easier said than done.
Hearing and next steps
My hearing, which will take place in late January, will explore and expand upon these four themes while discussing current and new solutions as a comprehensive approach to addressing homelessness in our city. Should we as a city ask more of, and provide more opportunities to, residents already in supportive housing? Should we as a city restructure our current spending on homeless services to provide more mental health and substance abuse treatment services or more job training and employment opportunities (both areas, in my opinion, currently are severely under-invested in)? Should we as a city convene a new 10-year planning council of experts to provide a new policy guide for how we tackle homelessness?
All of these issues and more will be discussed as part of the hearing and will serve as the basis for new initiatives and policies that I plan to push forward in 2104. I hope you will join me and many others in the fight to tackle homelessness in San Francisco – it’s about time city Hall started working on the issue once again.