San Francisco’s homelessness department is hoping to fill hundreds of vacancies in its supportive housing stock by moving people directly from the streets into housing.
The new initiative called Street to Home, which launched as a pilot in June, has already housed 19 people who, only hours before, were living in tents on the city’s sidewalks. The program is the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing’s answer to criticism over persistent vacancies within its housing facilities.
“What we were seeing was that folks on the street weren't getting in [to housing]. So this is a way to open the door wider,” said Emily Cohen, deputy director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing.
The department’s process for placing people into housing, called Coordinated Entry, has long been criticized as overly confusing and bureaucratic.
The homelessness department funds 16,775 permanent supportive housing beds for formerly homeless people and housing accounts for 59% of its $1.35 billion dollar two-year budget. However, reports from the department’s director, Shireen McSpadden, have consistently found between 800 and 1,000 rooms for the homeless were sitting empty. Meanwhile, over 4,000 people sleep on the city’s streets on any given night.
The Street to Home program circumnavigates much of the bureaucratic hassles, such as acquiring identification and other documents, that often stand in the way of homeless people’s paths to housing. The department said its outreach teams will preapprove certain people who are living on the streets to participate in the program based on their histories of homelessness.
“We're going to presume you are going to meet the needs and eligibility of this housing,” Cohen said. “We'll worry about the paperwork later.”
Many homeless people have apprehensions about entering shelters because they don’t want to forfeit their belongings or their past interactions with the city have left them distrusting of the government, effectively excluding them from the city’s housing selection process prior to the program.
The Street to Home program will start within housing units that are entirely funded by the city with the goal of eventually earning buy-in from the federal government.
The department estimated in April that with another $600 million in funding, it could cut street homelessness in half over the next five years. Cohen said that without those investments, the Street to Home program can only do so much.
“It is not a silver bullet,” Cohen said. “We are never going to fully address the crisis on the streets without scaling our programs to the level they need to be.”