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We should be outraged about the conditions in SROs. SF must rethink what ‘getting people off the streets’ means

Illustration by Mia Carson

By Mary Kate Bacalao

Mary Kate Bacalao is the director of external affairs and policy at Compass Family Services, co-chair of the Homeless Emergency Service Providers Association, and co-chair of the Local Homeless Coordinating Board.

The Chronicle’s investigation of “unstable, underfunded and understaffed residential hotel rooms” is a sobering indictment of a housing system pushed to its absolute breaking point. 

Single-room occupancy hotels, commonly called SROs, are a cornerstone of San Francisco’s supportive housing portfolio. The supportive housing model—which at its heart combines deeply affordable housing assistance with robust on-site services—went national in the 1990s, and in recent years state and local revenues like Project Homekey and 2018’s Proposition C have catalyzed significant expansions to deal with a growing crisis of unsheltered homelessness. The problem is not that supportive housing is a failed model, but that these program expansions are happening on top of a foundation that is crumbling from decades of underinvestment.

As a nonprofit policy director and co-chair of the Local Homeless Coordinating Board, what I know based on my years of homeless policy work is this: There is a world of difference between getting people off the streets and giving them the housing and support to become stable, contributing members of a community. When the goal is simply to get people off the streets, the city may end up penny-wise and pound-foolish—taking a proven solution and underinvesting in it so completely that it no longer matches the model we started out with.

With more people falling into homelessness—and more people growing sicker with co-occurring health, mental health and substance use conditions as a result of prolonged periods of homelessness—there is intense public pressure to get more people off the streets.

That’s where SROs—and, more recently, hotels—can be helpful. SROs are typically configured in single 8-by-10 rooms with shared bathrooms and kitchens. When in good condition and adequately resourced with grants and contracts for supportive services and building operations, they can provide supportive housing to help single adult tenants heal from the physical and emotional traumas of homelessness and rebuild their lives in the community. But when they fall into disrepair—a predictable consequence of short-sighted policy and spending choices at the federal, state and local levels—the entire system can crumble under the strain, and it only takes a few (inexcusable) failures of leadership to produce the conditions that were the subject of the Chronicle’s recent investigation.  

We should all be outraged by conditions in supportive housing and the suffering on our streets. It was a full three-and-a-half years ago that voters approved Proposition C, the gross-receipts tax that promised to double the budget for homeless services. Prop. C survived delays—litigation by the taxpayers’ association—and the funds have only started to hit the streets over the last year or so. Nor have they been disbursed all at once: San Francisco has new street crisis response teams, but (as another opinion writer wrote in The Standard last month) we don’t yet have the beds, services and treatment for the teams to connect people to. 

It’s a process. And sometimes the process looks like a lack of progress. 

We need to be realistic: Prop. C is not the end-all, be-all solution to homelessness and inequality in San Francisco. It is a dramatic step in the right direction toward funding enough beds and services for people experiencing the worst forms of homelessness. 

In the interests of full disclosure, Compass Family Services, where I work, recently won a collaborative contract with DISH (Delivering Innovation in Supportive Housing) and UCSF Citywide to provide case management to families at 1321 Mission St., a building purchased with state Homekey and local Prop. C funds; Prop. C will also fund ongoing services. However, Compass does not provide supportive housing and raising funds to address habitability issues in supportive housing programs would not benefit Compass financially.

The unfortunate reality is that hundreds of older, privately owned SROs extract market-rate rents from individual tenants, including entire families living in a single room (a major social cost of our collective failure to produce affordable housing). In our homeless response system, privately owned SROs often warehouse formerly homeless tenants on publicly funded “master leases” of entire buildings—where tenants fall through the cracks between private landlords’ incentives to sit back and collect high rents and city and nonprofit incentives to defer costly maintenance that the rents don’t cover. 

The issues are stark: New federal, state and local funding streams are flowing into systems parched by years of underinvestment, including flat grant and contract funding that cannot keep pace with inflationary and other cost pressures or pay the full cost of supporting vulnerable people. In spite of this infusion, nonprofit housing operators still struggle. Flat year-over-year funding levels on individual grants and contracts—in some cases dating all the way back to the 1990s, when U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds helped launch the older “legacy” housing programs—lead to deferred maintenance on broken elevators, mold and pests, and poverty wages for staff positions that go vacant as a result. Tenants have been left to fend for themselves in uninhabitable conditions that incubate hopelessness and trauma. 

I get it. San Franciscans want to get people off the streets—but we’re not playing the long game on deeply subsidized housing and services. We want to see results yesterday to a crisis that has been generations in the making. That makes for bad public policies on homelessness and bad incentives for public officials, who respond to voters’ outrage by pointing fingers rather than reframing the conversation, by touting shiny new initiatives rather than doing the less glamorous work of reinvesting in our crumbling foundation of older legacy housing programs. Political pressure always bends in the direction of doing new things versus doing things right. We also need to accept that while money can fix a lot of things, it cannot fix everything: we need oversight and accountability for supportive-housing operators.

If we want the work of ending homelessness done, and done right, then we need to value the work. We need a publicly funded mandate to raise wages across the homeless services sector, alongside built-in, multi-year cost adjustments (an “embedded escalator,” as a recent report from the Controller’s office puts it) to help grants and contracts keep pace with inflationary pressures on wages and operations.

We also need immediate relief for tenants across our supportive housing portfolio. We need a citywide plan to address habitability issues in supportive housing, a plan that holds all stakeholders to account. Nonprofit service providers and housing operators must staff and manage buildings responsibly, raising alarm bells with public funders when deferred maintenance impacts housing quality. The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing must adequately fund grants and contracts for services and building operations, and other city and state agencies must help manage the assets, making flexible building reserve funds available to the supportive housing portfolio.

Importantly, HUD must stop its decades-long practice of renewing grants at flat funding levels, especially legacy housing programs which have grown decrepit on HUD’s watch. In the private sector, building owners must lease habitable, high-quality premises—or city attorneys must renegotiate their leases (or better, shift the sites towards nonprofit ownership). And philanthropy must step in to accelerate building improvements because public investments at scale will take time. 

There are a lot of possibilities to ensure that San Francisco’s most marginalized residents are treated with dignity—if we can channel our outrage not into pointing fingers or throwing up our hands, but into strategic and practical policy solutions.

Follow Mary Kate on Twitter at @marykatebacalao

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