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Homeless Families Left Out: “That’s Not What We Asked For…”

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Total Chinatown Tenderloin Mission SoMa
Surveyed 77 56 14 6 1
Placed 18 12 4 0 0
Approved 24 23 1 0 0

Since 2006, three agencies have been placing families in a $3 million shallow subsidy program designed for low-income working families to get out of shelters and singleroom occupancy (SRO) hotels in San Francisco. Since the program began, life is much better, for now, for the families placed. However, “for now” is not a good forecast for any family in regards to its housing situation. Since this subsidy was designed, the Housing First for Families Campaign, one of the projects of the Coalition on Homelessness, has designated a monitoring committee to assess the needs of these families and how the subsidy is working for them. In order to do this, the monitoring committee created a list of survey questions.

All five organizations that make up the SRO Families Collaborative conducted surveys with families living in SRO hotels. Of the SRO families with whom we work, we were able to survey almost all of the families who applied for the rental subsidy program. We know that these are not all of the families that have applied for the program, but it is a significant percentage of the total.

The surveys were carried out by peer organizers who conduct regular outreach to the SRO families.

In addition, we spoke to a number of families who decided not to apply at all. These people’s experiences are relevant because they point to some of the core issues with this program.

Overview of the Survey Findings

We surveyed a total of 77 families: 56 families in Chinatown, 14 families in the Tenderloin, six families in the Mission, and one family in SoMa.

Of the families that were surveyed, only 18 have been accepted and placed in new housing. Twenty-four families have been accepted into the program but not found housing. Nineteen families either withdrew their application or were approved but decided not to participate in the subsidy program, primarily because of their concern about what would happen when the subsidy ended. Eleven families were denied, and seven are still waiting or never heard back from one of the agencies.

A few things that stand out most from this data is that only 18 out of 77 (23%) families have been placed, and not a single family from the Mission or SoMa has been placed. What this says is that the program is not working effectively for the families living in SRO hotels. The rest of this report seeks to explain some of the reasons for this.

Two things stood out the most from the survey findings. The first is a concern with the time limit; the second is that the subsidy is not deep enough. Both issues stem from the lack of housing that is truly affordable for low-income families in San Francisco; the fact is that low-income families simply need more help if this program is actually going to enable families living in SROs to move into more adequate housing.

The time limit is the main concern that SRO families have with the rental subsidy program. The most common response to the question about what changes they would like to see in the program was to remove the time limit (thirty-eight people). Having a time limit means that the agencies administering the program have to look for families who can raise their income by $500 a month, or $6,000 a year, within two years. This automatically disqualifies the majority of families who need the subsidy.

This concern was raised by families who have been accepted and placed, and who are afraid of losing their housing when the subsidy ends.

In addition, this seems to be one of the primary reasons that many families chose not to apply to the rental subsidy at all, or to withdraw from the program. Peer organizers who work with the families living in SRO hotels have mentioned over and over that many families did not even want to apply because they were afraid that once the subsidy was cut off, they would no longer be able to afford their new housing and that they wouldn’t be able to move back to the SRO hotels either because the rent would have gone up or because the hotel would not accept them anymore.

The second concern that came up consistently was that the subsidy is not deep enough. The reality of rents in San Francisco is that even with the $500 subsidy, it is difficult for low-income families to find housing that they can afford. This is especially the case for families who are currently renting a single room for their entire family in an SRO hotel. The second most common response to the question about what changes they would like to see in the program was a deeper subsidy. Thirty-four people responded either that the wanted a bigger subsidy or that rent was still too high.

These two concerns: the time limit and the shallowness of the subsidy, are interrelated and together mean that most low-income families in the SRO hotels have not been able to participate in the rental subsidy program.

While we have some suggestions for how the program could be administered in a way that is more helpful for low-income families, our primary recommendations are changes to the structure of the program itself. Also to be noted, the suggestions we have were the original suggestions made for this subsidy before it was ever administered. The rental subsidy, as it is currently structured, is not serving the families who need it the most. Our proposed changes to the rental subsidy program are:

  1. Remove the arbitrary time limit and make the rental subsidy indefinite and need-based. In other words, the amount of the subsidy would decrease or increase depending on need.
  2. Most low-income families need a deeper subsidy. We propose that the subsidy be up to $1000 instead of up to $500.

We also recommend that these changes be made to the current contract and apply to the families currently in the program.


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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