As we mentioned in our last post, #BuildingBridges serves as an educational series leading up to our interactive panel discussion on June 15. In that post, we briefly touched on how chronic homelessness has risen to what most are calling the number one issue in San Francisco. In this week’s post, we want to take a deeper dive into where we are at as a community addressing this issue, and why coming together is so important if this is something we want to solve as a community.
WHERE WE’RE AT
While numbers and statistics don’t show the full picture of homelessness and the humanity of those experiencing it, they are a helpful benchmark for understanding where our region is at in addressing the humanitarian crisis unfolding on our streets. According to the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, individuals experiencing homelessness in the Bay Area rank among the worst in the United States by virtually every measure:
- The Bay Area has the third-largest population of people experiencing homelessness (28,200) in the US, behind only New York City (76,500) and Los Angeles (55,200).
- San Francisco specifically has the second-largest ratio of homeless-to-non-homeless residents in the nation (78:10,000)
- Over the last couple of years, the number of people experiencing homelessness in the Bay Area has grown, despite the region growing its inventory of homeless support assets, including permanent supportive housing units, and rapid re-housing programs.
This is a systemic issue, in part, resulting from rising, rampant inequality across the Bay Area’s nine counties. Some jurisdictions have been successful in moving more individuals and families experiencing homelessness into stable housing. Expansions to create more affordable housing, shelter-in-place hotel solutions, and large-scale state-funded initiatives indicate that ongoing efforts are underway. Regardless, a larger number of people are experiencing homelessness for the first time, and the current coronavirus and resulting pandemic have only escalated the situation at hand. We understand it can be overwhelming to think about. It’s easy to feel powerless or to lose hope that we’ll make meaningful progress towards a solution. But we know that this is an issue that the broader San Francisco community truly cares about, so we need to change our mindset. It will take all of us to move the needle on addressing homelessness and housing instability in the Bay Area and beyond.
COMING TOGETHER HAS NEVER BEEN MORE IMPORTANT
While advocating for systemic and legislative changes is going to be a critical part of the solution to chronic homelessness, we can’t forget about those of us who are living and dying on our streets at this moment. We need to continue to fight for people’s rights to have their basic needs met and to have access to dignified housing and compassionate support systems. And while many groups and organizations are working towards this, when we’re able to break down silos and work together, the results can be even more impactful:
In March of 2020, the shelter-in-place order was issued by the San Francisco Department of Public Health due to the community spread of COVID-19. Individuals experiencing homelessness became one of the most exposed and vulnerable communities, especially those with existing medical conditions. Project Roomkey served as an initiative run by state, federal, and local partners to bring these vulnerable communities indoors. The state legislature made $150 million for emergency homelessness aid available for shelter support and emergency housing.
This funding was used, in part, to support local governments in identifying hotels, negotiating and executing operating agreements, and assisting local providers with documentation requirements for FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) reimbursement for their services. Every hotel/motel within Project Roomkey is providing wraparound services, such as daily meals, custodial, laundry, security, and support staff, which can be paid for in part by FEMA funds. Behavioral and physical health care services are also being provided by local government and community partners, as needed.
There are many examples of departments like the San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing working with local nonprofits to create very low-barrier and accommodating sites, leveraging nonprofit organizations’ outreach expertise to help people feel comfortable participating in the program. As of the start of this year, Project Roomkey has provided temporary housing solutions for over 20,000 individuals across California. It has also paved the way for Project Homekey, a follow-up initiative on the success of Project Roomkey, to turn these temporary housing solutions into more permanent housing and services environments by purchasing these hotels and motels from private owners.
While Project Roomkey provided relief to some people during the pandemic, the project hasn’t been a perfect end-all solution to chronic homelessness. Overly strict eligibility requirements, substandard living conditions, inconsistent social services, and people experiencing increased isolation leaves a lot to be asked for from the project moving forward. It does, however, highlight a shift in our approach to a long-entrenched challenge. This has opened opportunities for us to find creative ways that communities can start to work together to solve some of these challenges. Furthermore, this project showcases how impactful local, state, and federal entities are when they come together with purpose and urgency.
Accessibility to Water During the Pandemic and Beyond
Before the pandemic, many of the city’s individuals experiencing homelessness relied on bathrooms in restaurants, libraries, and other public facilities to bathe, collect drinking water and use the bathroom. Covid-19 and shelter-in-place orders took away many of these facilities, leaving homeless residents without water access. Water access has become critical during the pandemic, and the lack of fresh water available has many advocates calling the situation a human rights abuse.
The burden has been mainly shouldered by local nonprofits, and the cost of providing water to disconnected communities for these groups is unsustainable. Local service groups were spending nearly $300-$400 a week trying to provide bottled water to individuals, in addition to their normal supplies and services. At the urging of homeless activists and service providers, the city created programs to address diminished water access. In March of 2020, the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing—and later, the Department of Public Works—began rolling out handwashing stations, drinking water spigots, and toilets in neighborhoods with large homeless populations.
But these temporary “fixes” fall well short of addressing this human rights crisis. Ambiguity around the potability of water sources, inconsistent spigot locations, and the overall continued lack of the necessary number of water access points raise alarming flags around how we are handling this crisis. In response to San Francisco’s continued failure to provide these basic human necessities, The Coalition on Homeless conducted a report on accessibility to water for individuals experiencing homelessness in March 2021. The report found that 65% of respondents still don’t have access to 15 liters of safe water a day, which is the United Nations’ international emergency water standard. By contrast, housed San Franciscans use an average of 159 liters of water a day.
This report confirms that San Francisco’s unhoused residents do not even have access to the lowest international standards for water and sanitation. This is a painful example of where we need to continue to show up as a community to demand that (at the very least) all of the residents of our city can meet their basic needs.
Solving complex issues doesn’t happen in silos. Finding creative ways to work together can make a huge impact on some of the challenges that individuals experiencing homelessness are facing. While awareness is definitely on the rise, and new funding is paving the way for innovative ways we can all work together, we still have a long way to go in providing the basic necessities for our community to thrive. Next week, we’ll take a deeper dive into some of the barriers that are preventing solutions to chronic homelessness and start to think about ways to overcome them.
If you haven’t already, register to join the discussion with us on June 15 @ 6:00 PM PST where four nonprofit leaders are coming together to have honest conversations about these complex issues. By registering early, you’ll have an opportunity to pose your biggest questions around homelessness for our panelists to discuss live.