The policy debate in San Francisco for more than a decade has more often than not been centered on homelessness. The past two years have been no exception; the only difference is that the City is now actually addressing the issue. There have been countless articles and news stories about the City’s success, including heart-rendering stories about individuals who have been housed. However, for all its intensity in the media, the City’s efforts have barely scratched the surface of the homelessness problem. Media stories repeat lines from the Mayor that homeless deaths have decreased, even though a study has not been done for three years, and that homelessness has decreased substantially, even though the numbers of homeless people seeking services at social service agencies continue to increase.
Across the nation, there has been growing momentum for a “Housing First” model and yet another new buzzword—”chronic homelessness.” Housing First is a policy the Coalition on Homelessness has called for consistently during the past 10 years. What it means is that homeless people can be placed in housing directly off the streets, without first going through a “readiness process,” shelter, or transitional housing program. This idea challenges popular beliefs in the social work field that you must have a “continuum” whereby homeless people must be “housing ready” before placement in housing. Of course, at the Coalition on Homelessness, we have always believed that all homeless people are housing ready!
However, as good ideas mixed with politics often go awry, so does Housing First in San Francisco. There are two problems with the way Housing First is being implemented in San Francisco. First, the City decides without input or choice from homeless persons that housing is paid for by cutting poor people’s programs and benefits. It has been used as a way to garner political points, justify budget cuts and implement paternalistic welfare reform policies. The most obvious example of this is Care Not Cash, where two to three homeless welfare recipients have their benefits cut in order to pay for housing for one very lucky individual. In the rush to create housing, City department heads are cutting fundamental programs to pay for temporarily subsidized housing in Master Lease hotel rooms that the City does not even own. Public Health has recommended in its budget an almost elimination of residential mental health treatment and substance abuse outpatient treatment to pay for additional master lease rooms under its Direct Access to Housing program. Human Services railroaded over community concerns to recommend gutting $3,000,000 from HUD McKinney funding for treatment, employment, childcare and legal services to pay for two housing programs that would barely make the requisite timeline.
Secondly, this “Housing First” policy has, for the most part, focused on a very narrow portion of the population—those dubbed “chronically homeless.” This is defined as an unaccompanied disabled individual who has been sleeping in one or more places not meant for human habitation or in one or more emergency homeless shelters for over one year or who has had one or more periods of homelessness over three years. It typically refers to single adults, and chronic homeless initiatives funded from the federal government are not meant for homeless families. In San Francisco, we were able to get families included in the definition of chronic homelessness, so at least on paper, this is our policy. This has yet to be reflected in most homeless housing developments.
We all agree that housing is a fundamental solution to homelessness, and we welcome the recognition of this fact by the City of San Francisco. But critical questions remain as to how this housing is paid for and who has access to this critical resource. This second question of who gets the housing becomes even more important as we look deeper into how homeless policies are being implemented. The people who are not being housed are paying for the housing of others more fortunate them themselves. As we will demonstrate in this article, poor and homeless people are paying for the housing—not for themselves—but for other, luckier, poor people. They are paying with their public benefits. They are paying with lost employment programs. They are paying with further destitution. They are paying with cuts in treatment programs. They are even paying with lost legal services and childcare.
While the success stories, and we applaud them, shine in the limelight, barely visible in the shadows are homeless children, youth, immigrants, disabled people, seniors, veterans, working homeless people, all quietly suffering. We are now drawing back the curtains, and homeless people are using their voices. Homeless people of all stripes are demanding input and inclusion. Homeless people are demanding housing for all—not just the few. Homeless people are demanding that their housing not come at the expense of others. Homeless people are also demanding jobs and healthcare, including treatment. Homeless people are coming together for justice and will not be divided and played against each other. We need true solutions to homelessness and poverty!
The dirty secret behind San Francisco’s new homeless policy is that the City is housing a few hundred homeless individuals literally at the expense of thousands more who are being forgotten. While City officials mount an unprecedented public relations campaign that is repeated unchallenged by the major media, vulnerable human beings are suffering further destitution, despair and hunger.
Robbing Peter to Pay Paul
There are several examples of how housing is being created at the expense of cornerstone poverty abatement programs. The 10-year Plan to Abolish Chronic Homelessness (2004) calls for 3,000 units of supportive housing for homeless people; 1,500 units by master lease (where city leases a block of rooms from a private landlord for a number of years) and 1,500 permanent supportive housing units. The hope was that this second chunk of housing would be paid in part by Proposition A, the affordable housing bond, which failed to garner the 2/3 majority vote required in order to pass. Currently, the city is $23,000,000 short in finding the funding for this housing. City departments are scrambling to shuffle resources in order to come up with the demanded funding. Rather than consulting the community on how this could be achieved, City officials have embarked upon a top-down rampage that will potentially ravage key programs that poor people depend upon for their survival.
Care Not Cash was an incredibly flawed piece of legislation passed by the voters in November of 2002. It cut public assistance payments (CAAP) to homeless adult welfare recipients by up to 85% in exchange for services offered by the City. It was implemented in May of 2004. We have been monitoring the implementation through data gathering, surveys of homeless people, and interviews with service providers.
Housing provided under Care Not Cash in Master Lease hotels comes at a cost of about $1,000 per month per unit. The amount deducted from one individual’s welfare check is approximately $300 per month. In order to house one individual, another 2-3 people must either lose their benefits or have them cut while they stay in the shelter. Under the legislation, the Department of Human Services may cut checks if the individual is offered either a shelter bed or housing. This creates a number of problems from a policy perspective. For one, there is an incentive to the department to keep shelter beds empty, or prioritize them for welfare recipients so they can cut the checks. It also limits housing options to single adult welfare recipients. It reduces flexibility and self- initiative. It causes further destitution among recipients. As of January 2005, 1,655 homeless welfare recipients have lost their benefits altogether, and the Department of Human Services has no idea how they are now faring.
This legislation had another effect; now most homeless resources—be it shelter beds or housing are prioritized based on income status. In other words, you have to be on welfare to get the housing—families with children, working people, people on disability and veterans don’t qualify!
HUD McKinney is the largest funding coming from the federal government for homeless programs. Along with the funding comes a requirement for community process of prioritization and community planning. This year was clearly the most outrageous flagrant corruption of the McKinney community process by the Department of Human Services to date. The Department of Human Services (DHS) vociferously advocated that $3,000,000 be taken away from treatment, childcare, employment, and legal services to fund two housing projects. DHS railroaded the community process and pushed through its own plan to divert $3,000,000 from life sustaining services to housing expenditures.
The Department of Public Health is proposing over $4,000,000 in cuts to residential and outpatient mental health and substance abuse programs while restructuring the programs into master lease housing programs. This again was proposed without a community process.
Families with Children
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 in San Francisco. This housing must not be paid for by cuts to fundamental poverty abatement programs such as treatment and employment. It must not be off 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 the already severely undermined existing services.
Here in San Francisco, more than five hundred children, under 17 years of age, live in San Francisco Emergency and Transitional Shelters on any single day. The Mayor has called for 3,000 units of supportive housing for homeless people by 2008. So far, almost all of the 800 new units housing homeless people have been master lease units under Care Not Cash, and they include not one housing unit for families with children.
Under current homeless policy, undocumented immigrants are being forgotten at best, and at worst are being displaced from shelters. Undocumented immigrants face unique challenges, as they do not qualify for public benefits, and are therefore ineligible for public and federally subsidized housing. The shelter system does not accommodate their work schedules. The combination of biometric imaging and set-aside beds under Care Not Cash has displaced them from the shelters. In addition, most homeless services in San Francisco are linguistically and culturally incapable of serving this population.
Victims of Civil and Human Rights Violations
Homeless people start without a home, unable to afford the basic necessities that others take for granted. Then, because they are homeless, they are treated as criminals for sleeping or sitting in public places. Their only and most meaningful possessions are taken and destroyed. They are vulnerable to abuse from police officers and other San Franciscans. These civil rights abuses can make daily existence as a homeless person intolerable. They also make it much more difficult for people to get housing, find work, and access services. Yet, these practices have been adopted and escalated during the first year of this City administration (Citations for camping nearly tripled in 2004). The City’s policies that punish homeless people for being homeless are completely contrary to any effort to end homelessness. (See the complete summary of recommendations!)