Tackling homelessness in pricey San Francisco

Martin Ross, 63, who has been homeless for the past 10 years, sits in his sleeping cot in one of the group rooms at the Navigation Center, a pilot program in San Francisco’s Mission District designed to help people like him.
Martin Ross, 63, who has been homeless for the past 10 years, sits in his sleeping cot in one of the group rooms at the Navigation Center, a pilot program in San Francisco’s Mission District designed to help people like him.

Matthew Teague and his girlfriend had been sleeping on the streets most of the past three years, part of an increasingly visible homeless population in the city by the bay.

It wasn’t until they got spots at the city’s Navigation Center that they began to think they might find housing. The center, a new model of homeless support that’s drawing interest from around the country, abandons the old approach of strict rules, schedules and metal detector-equipped entrances.

It is open 24 hours a day, uses on-site caseworkers and has taken in entire tent encampments, allowing people to stay with their partners, animals and possessions. Residents can eat, sleep or come and go to appointments as needed.

“A shelter is just a place to sleep,” said Teague, 31, sitting on a bench at the center in the city’s Mission District. “Here they bring the services to us. They give us a ride, help us with food stamps and General Assistance. The shelter was more like a jail.”

More than 200 people have moved into the center since it opened in the spring, but that’s a fraction of those who need help. A biannual count released in the summer found 6,686 homeless, an increase of more than 3 percent from the last count. Advocates say the true number is higher because counters miss those who don’t appear homeless.

Other cities are struggling with surging homelessness. The Los Angeles City Council and the governor of Hawaii have recently declared states of emergency. Last year the number of people in shelters in New York City was reportedly the largest since the Great Depression.

But in San Francisco, a city long known for its social tolerance and spirit of innovation, the response to homelessness has grown both more contentious and more creative. Everyone appears to agree on one central problem: The city is mired in a serious housing shortage that makes it hard for anyone without a six-figure income to find a place to live. While construction cranes fill the skyline, median rent for one-bedroom apartments is close to $3,300.

“This city seems to be coming apart at the seams because of the explosive growth of the technology boom,” said Bevan Dufty, the mayor’s point man on homelessness and the head of Housing Opportunity, Partnerships, and Engagement in the mayor’s office. “What’s amazing is that people all over feel less secure. What will happen if they lose their apartment? What surprises me is how many people see homelessness as unconnected with what’s happening. Why wouldn’t we be in a crisis?”

Mayor Edwin Lee recently announced a plan to create and rehab 10,000 affordable housing units by 2020, a proposal tied to a $310 million bond measure on Tuesday’s ballot. The measure needs a two-thirds vote to pass. The city also has been the first to use a federal Housing and Urban Development program to refurbish public housing and make units available to the homeless.

But critics charge those efforts won’t solve the problem. Lee told a local TV station this summer that the homeless were “going to have to leave” before the start of the Super Bowl. “We’ll give you an alternative,” he said to station KPIX. “We are always going to be supportive.”

Homeless advocates criticized the mayor, saying he is more concerned with tourism and tech business than solving the problems of those at risk of losing housing or those who already have. He has responded that he wants more programs and more housing for the homeless.

Others – including in liberal Haight Ashbury – are demanding more policing. The debate over whether the city should be more compassionate, stricter, or both, continues.

Meanwhile, Dufty’s office is fielding calls from other cities about the Navigation Center. The director of HUD visited recently.

With 70 residents at a time, the center has a waiting list, and the city plans to open a second one.

For those who get there – through designated shelters or the city’s Homeless Outreach Team – it can mean a route to housing. So far, 63 people have been housed and 45 reunited with family or friends through a program called Homeward Bound.

Almost half of the residents have lived in encampments, close to a third arrived with partners, and 16 percent have pets. Many have been homeless for a long time – almost half of the current residents for 13 or more years, qualifying them to get priority placement on the housing waitlist. Most lived in the city before they became homeless, contradicting a perception that people come here to be on the streets, Dufty said.

“I wake up and I still feel like it’s a dream,” said Martin Ross, 63, who spent 10 years on the streets, most recently in an alley in the upscale Marina District. “I have a blanket and a bed. I can take a shower anytime I want.”

I wake up and I still feel like it’s a dream. I have a blanket and a bed. I can take a shower anytime I want.

Martin Ross, 63, who spent 10 years on the streets

He is staying in one of the bungalows that ring a courtyard filled with tables, chairs and elevated planters. As he talked, several of his roommates rested, one with his three dogs gathered around the bed.

Ross, who became homeless after he quit his job as a clerk for the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency because of personal problems and depression, said he was surprised when outreach workers found him on the street and said they could take him in immediately and get him help.

“And I’m not on the street while they’re doing it,” Ross said.

Teague, originally from Tennessee, said he couldn’t get a job or go to school without a place to live. He kept missing appointments. He had possessions, including his Social Security card, stolen at a shelter and had trouble sleeping there. After weeks of waiting, he finally got into the Navigation Center in July and this fall will move into an apartment.

Other innovations are getting noticed as well. As a stopgap measure to alleviate quality of life concerns – which advocates point out are not merely due to the homeless – the city is spending about a million dollars on monitored “pit stops,” where staff is paid to clean up and make sure nature’s call is the only business conducted inside. City workers have also covered nine walls with urine resistant paint. Public works crews who steam-clean trouble spots regularly report – via the old-fashioned smell test – that the program has been effective.

And a nonprofit, Lave Mae, has retrofitted two city buses with showers and bathrooms for the homeless.

“We all know it’s housing first that’s needed, but they can’t build that fast enough,” said Lava Mae founder Doniece Sandoval, who’s received calls about the buses from as far away as South Korea and Mongolia. “The level of gratitude is humbling. It’s heartbreaking to us, but we’re happy to be able to deliver the service.”

Dufty says he hopes that tech companies – some of which have already donated money for projects – will step in and help buy buildings for supportive and long-term housing. Tech growth helped fuel the housing crisis, he said, and maybe it can be part of the solution.

“How great would it be if they bought some (buildings with single rooms for multiple tenants)?” he said. “The jobs that have come into this city have not really touched my population.”

Katherine Seligman is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.