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Perspective: We Should Be Outraged About the Conditions in SROs. SF Must Rethink What ‘Getting People off the Streets’ Means
Monday, July 04, 2022

Perspective: We Should Be Outraged About the Conditions in SROs. SF Must Rethink What ‘Getting People off the Streets’ Means

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. 

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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

  • We get it. You want more money.

    How about giving up some of those 6-figure salaries for “nonprofit” employees?

  • San Francisco has spent billions on the homeless and nothing changes. We can not just keep throwing more money at a problem with no results to show for the investment. Always, more and more money is needed to solve the problem. I’m done. I will not vote for another penny to go to the homeless. Isn’t all of this effort just attracting more homeless people into our city? This money could be spent more wisely on improving public school education for the kids in the city.

  • During the Syrian war the UN had a good approach to providing housing for hundreds of thousands of refugees. They built secured camps with amenities. Community centers were provided for mental health support in addition to meditation programs. Each family had a sturdy shelter with clean water and gravel roads. Small businesses established within the camps.

    Why can’t we do this is Gilroy area or the Central Valley? It would be far more affordable than the funds we are spending in the city. We should have zero tolerance for homeless in SF. All homeless should be processed through these centers so we can help them help themselves. There’s no excuses.

  • SF needs armed guards to patrol the streets. Call in the national guard. Build barbed wired camps to hold the drug dealers and addicts. Then sort the real homeless and mental cases from the criminals. Everybody knows the vast majority are drug dealers, addicts and Criminal aliens. This is the most effective way to solve this multi billion dollar problem once and for all. Of course, Sups and Mayors will never do this because it ends the free billion $ program they have been benefitting from. Republicans get $ from never ending wars. Democrats get $ from never ending “homeless” problem. Losers are everyday Americans.

  • We look forward to hearing more positive suggestions from people who are aware of the problem. Many of the author’s comments are repeated by tenants and other housing activists. The solution is not to just throw more money at the problem, but to re-align the system to meet the needs of the tenants. There is also widespread concern over the lack of oversight, mirrored in a lot of city departments. Maybe that is a good place to start. The voters would like to know what they are getting for their money.

  • The SF Standard’s “lock ’em up and throw them all in the Central Valley” commenters reveals the ugly heart of its readership base.

  • It’s understandable people are upset. Violence and lawbreaking are reducing everyone’s quality of life. The city has spent way, way too much for the minimal (if not negative) results it has achieved. At the same time, placing citizens in pest-infested habitations are shameful. A different approach is needed. The generous benefits offered by SF (much higher than other cities) and the misguided permissiveness vis-á-vis drugs (deadly or merely soul-destroying) are magnets that attract indigent and irresponsible people from all over the world. Crimes are not prosecuted, empowering antisocial bad actors to ramp up their depravity. Many of the guests in these apartments are unwilling or incapable of cooperating in maintenance efforts. They want to “have their cake and leave the crumbs on the floor for the rats,” too. What do “progressives” (mostly materialist atheists and utopianists) expect? Incentives matter. You get what you pay for.

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