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It's Time To Apply ¡Housing First! To Homeless Families

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Housing is clearly the primary solution to homelessness, along with homelessness prevention. However, families see their homelessness within the context of poverty, which they can only escape with living wage employment, education, childcare, decent public benefits, and health care.

San Francisco is now focused on a “Housing First” policy, as reflected in its 10 Year Plan to Abolish Chronic Homelessness, as well as changes in public health budgeting and HUD McKinney grantmaking. The “Housing First” policy reasons homeless people should be placed directly into housing, instead of first having to go through the shelters and transitional housing systems. We strongly agree with this policy, but strongly disagree with how it is being funded. And Housing First is being selectively implemented by focusing on only the most visible portion of the homeless population.

We are calling for Housing First to be applied to homeless families in San Francisco.

Housing First for families in San Francisco must prevent homelessness, place homeless families directly in housing, and stop the “merry-go-round” homeless families face.

This housing must not be paid for by cuts to fundamental poverty abatement programs such as treatment and employment. It must not be funded from the backs of other poor people’s welfare benefits as we have seen under Care Not Cash. In other words, it must bring us new solutions, rather then relying only on cuts to already severely undermined existing services for poor people.

Homeless children are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population (Mayor’s Conference on Homelessness, 2004). Children who experience homelessness are devastated; homeless children are more likely to experience developmental problems, educational delays, behavioral issues and learning disabilities. The stress of instability leads to lapses in education, and feelings of shame and low self-esteem.

The effect on the family is equally discouraging. Nationally, 600,000 families are homeless (NSHAPC, Rog, Shin and Culhane, 2003). Homeless families are poorer, younger, more likely to be pregnant and/or from an ethnic minority, and less likely to have a housing subsidy. Homeless families are not more likely to be mentally ill, depressed, or less educated (Shinn & Weitzman, 1996; Bussuk et al., 1997).

As a group, homeless families are poorer, not more “troubled.” In fact, studies show subsidized housing cures homelessness (Rog et al.).

A nine-city study finds 88% remained housed 18 months post-placement. Two New York City studies find 93% remain housed two years post-placement, whereas 38% of families without a subsidy returned to homelessness. Taken collectively, data points very clearly to housing as the first solution to homelessness. (NSHAPC, Burt et al., 2002; Rog, Shinn and Culhane, 2003)

Here in San Francisco, more than five hundred children under 17 years of age live in San Francisco emergency and transitional shelters on any given day. In addition, a 2002 report by the San Francisco City Controller found the City “lacks sufficient shelter beds for homeless families,” so families usually wait three to five months for space in a full-service shelter.

In 2005 the wait list to get into a full-service family shelter continues to be as high as 100, and the wait continues to be three to five months. San Francisco’s housing crisis is in part due to the fact that it costs a family of three over $69,000 annually to live in the City. Most homeless families don’t earn enough money, even those who are employed, to pay for “affordable” housing.

Homeless families have never enjoyed center stage during homelessness policy discussions in recent years; instead the mention of families tends to be relegated to passing comments or footnotes. Mayor Newsom has called for 3,000 units of supportive housing for homeless people by 2008. Fifty percent of those units are planned to be “master leased,” where a block of rooms in a privately owned Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotel is leased for a number of years.

So far, almost all those units have been master-leased under Care Not Cash. Those “over 800” housing units frequently mentioned by the city to the press are actually Care Not Cash units, paid for by lost welfare benefits, and including not one housing unit for families with children. The eligibility criteria for these housing units are limited to the County Adult Assistance Program, for which families do not qualify.

The Coalition on Homelessness conducted a survey of 61 homeless families living in shelters and SRO hotels. We wanted feedback directly from the families on some overarching policy issues of today. Policy makers are forgetting families, so we wanted to ensure that not only were they remembered but that their voices, opinions and experiences were heard. We attempted to survey every family in every city-funded shelter. We were unable to capture everyone, but many of them did have a chance to respond.

We also surveyed some families in SROs in the Tenderloin, because they are considered homeless by the city. Lastly, we interviewed some formerly homeless families now in permanent housing.

When asked how long families had been homeless, we found that most qualified as “chronic homeless”—despite the fact that little of the housing developed for chronically homeless people could accommodate a family. Sadly, 62% of homeless families in San Francisco had been homeless for more then two years. This also calls attention to the fact that families are stuck in what we have long dubbed a “merry-go-round,” where they move from shelter to shelter, to SRO hotel, to shelter again, and do not exit the shelter system as quickly as they should.

Families were asked how homelessness affected their families. Their voices were powerful, thoughtful and insightful. Unsurprisingly, homelessness has a devastating impact on families. Families reported that homelessness caused their family tremendous stress and often sickness. Lack of privacy also was a common concern for families.

Homelessness not only affected the whole family, but also had negative impacts on children specifically. Families reported that their children’s social and educational development had been impaired by homelessness. Some families also reported how grateful they were to have a roof over their head. “It’s very hard being homeless. You are treated different from the rest of the world… meaning you are treated like less of a human being,” a mother of one child who had been homeless for less then six months told us.

Families were also asked what barriers were keeping them homeless in an attempt to identify these walls that need so badly to be torn down. The responses relate to each other closely, and several themes emerged from these discussions. The most common response was housing. 30% reported that rents were too high and they simply did not have enough money to afford rent. The second most common response, highly related to the first, was employment—26% reported that the inability to find a job was keeping them homeless.

Other barriers families reported were bad credit or criminal history, not earning high enough wages, as well as disability and lack of information.

For all the media attention and posturing by city officials on San Francisco’s embrace of a “Housing First” homelessness policy, little has been done to include families experiencing homelessness. Homeless families have been virtually absent from planning and policy discussions.

We decided to give families a chance to weigh in on whether they should be included in this new policy by asking them directly. When asked whether this policy should be applied to families with children, an overwhelming 84% said that it should. Families should be placed directly in housing, without any requisite stays in shelter or transitional housing.

Again, this housing must not be paid for by cuts to cornerstone poverty abatement programs such as treatment and employment.

The federal government has implemented cuts to current Section 8 housing subsidy recipients, and is considering further cuts to the Section 8 program overall. When we asked families how this would affect them, 80% responded that these cuts would negatively affect them. Most families responded that they would not be able to afford an apartment without the subsidy, or would lose the possibility of getting housing. Some were on the wait list, and felt this would hurt them, while others believed this would diminish their hope of ever finding an apartment of their own. Some felt it would not affect them.

We also asked if families had applied for housing through the Housing Authority. This is the local arm of the federal agency that provides housing for poor and low-income people. We found that 79% of those who responded to the question had indeed applied for housing. This is good—as it is a nice high proportion. However, barring immigration issues, all 100% of respondents should be applying for housing. This question was not asked to non-English speakers.

We also asked how long people have been on the waiting list, and we found that 48% have been on the wait list for one year or less. 28% have been waiting for two years, and the remaining 21% for three years or more. Given that families have often been homeless for more then two years, we found that to be a disturbing discrepancy. Families should be put on the waiting list as soon as they become homeless or better yet, when they are at risk of homelessness. The wait list for housing in San Francisco is currently two to four years.

Of course all the pain and injury to families that homelessness causes could be avoided if families were prevented from being homeless in the first place. Homeless families, being their very own experts, were asked how to prevent homelessness among families. The responses were consistent with our other findings in this report.

The top responses were affordable housing, jobs, and keeping people in their housing, with 16% responding this way in each category, respectively. 15% responded that having families included in policymaking would prevent homelessness. Other families stated additional advocacy and case management would help prevent homelessness, while others believed lower transportation costs would do the job.

Families were also asked what changes should be made to the family shelter system. The most common response was that families wanted physical changes to the shelter itself. This included 16% of families wanting bigger rooms, more amenities, and a cleaner environment. Families (13%) also wanted more services inside the shelter, such as education assistance for children. The third most common response (11%) felt shelters should consult residents and have families participate on policy decisions within the shelter. 10% reported the need for more attentive staff.

Lastly, families want to be involved in creating social change. When asked if they wanted to join our campaign for ¡Housing First! for Families, 70% responded that yes, they did.


Author: Street Sheet Editor

The STREET SHEET is the oldest continuously published street news paper in the United States. Organizationally, it is the public education and outreach tool of the Coalition on Homelessness. Every month, the STREET SHEET reaches 32,000 readers through over 200 homeless or low-income vendors. Our vendors are charged nothing for the papers they receive, and keep all money they earn through STREET SHEET distribution.

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