On any given night, more than 23,000 people are homeless across the Bay Area. Two-thirds of them are unsheltered, sleeping on the street, in parks or in tent encampments. Homelessness is an issue that has many residents deeply concerned, consistently ranking as the top issue in city-wide polls.

On November 15, Tipping Point CEO + Founder Daniel Lurie led a conversation with leaders on the homelessness crisis and the promising solutions underway.

Del Seymour, Founder of Code Tenderloin; Tomiquia Moss, CEO of Hamilton Families; Dr. Margot Kushel, Director of
UCSF Center for Vulnerable Populations; Amber Twitchell, Associate Director of On the Move; and Brian Blalock, Director of Law + Policy at Tipping Point, contributed to the discussion.

Click here to see the full conversation.

The following questions were the most commonly asked to the panel of experts:

Q: We don’t see homelessness to this scale in other big cities, especially internationally. Why not and have you seen other cities combat this issue in a successful way?
A: Cities around the world struggle with homelessness on a varying degree. For example, Manila is widely considered to have the most homeless in the world with estimates from 3 to 4.5 million. On a country-wide level, France has more homeless per capita than the U.S., and the U.K. has a higher percentage of people who experienced homelessness at some point in their lives.

There are a few reasons, though, that this issue is particularly challenging in San Francisco:

  • Homelessness in the Bay Area and California overall tends to be more visible than other places in the U.S. because of our high unsheltered rates – which hover around 68%. In contrast, New York’s unsheltered rate is below 5%. Why the big difference? For the most part, California – and especially the Bay Area – have focused on long-term solutions like permanent supportive housing instead of shelters, which are important, but a short-term solution.
  • California is in the middle of a safety net and housing crisis. The safety net crisis has been decades in the making. Simply put, policy and federal funding decisions of the last few decades have left vulnerable communities more vulnerable and our local jurisdictions without the necessary supports they would need to appropriately respond to the crisis. The dis-investment by the federal government has directly contributed to both the creation and the persistence of our current homelessness emergency.
  • In San Francisco, we have a lack of housing across all levels, which has downstream impacts on the housing market. “Housing First,” which prioritizes permanent housing as a first-step solution for people experiencing homelessness, has been a successful approach used by hundreds of cities to house people with extremely high success rates.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in working with the public sector on homelessness?
A: The biggest challenge is that our safety net is strained, and striving to meet a demand much greater than it was designed to serve. San Francisco is fortunate to have incredible service providers, but they all too often bump up against the limited capacity of our systems to help people reach stability. Determining the best ways to build capacity for the long term, while also meeting the immediate needs before us is a challenge that we are grateful to be partnering with the City on to address.

Q: How are you accessing the voices of the homeless in designing these solutions?
A: Tipping Point’s Chronic Homelessness Initiative strives to put the voices of people with lived experience at the center of our solutions. This summer, we conducted a survey with over 300 people experiencing homelessness to ask them about their housing needs, priorities, and preferences. We worked with a team of people who have lived experience and expertise, and visited shelters, drop-in centers, and streets across the City to gather input. The findings of the surveys will be published in a report in early 2019. Sign up for our CHI Spotlight to read it! We are also teaming with On the Move on our youth homelessness strategies. On the Move put together a team of seven youth with lived experience who are our advisors and co-creators for our youth homelessness work. We meet with them to share ideas, pressure test strategies, and get feedback on existing work to be sure we are building projects for youth with youth.

Q: I’d like to hear an analysis of the efficacy of Navigation Centers and on other plans, measures, and ideas that have been put forward.
A: Navigation Centers are intended to reduce the barriers that prevent many people from accessing traditional shelters (eg: excluding partners and pets), and from that perspective, they have been highly effective for some individuals on the street. Navigation Centers also help connect people to other services to help them stabilize and self-resolve. However, like all emergency responses to homelessness in the City, the efficacy of Navigation Centers are inherently constrained by the shortage of appropriate housing opportunities. For Navigation Centers to be truly effective, we have to expand our available housing stock, including types of housing appropriate for people who have experienced long-term homelessness. The expansion of permanent supportive housing (subsidized housing with support services) is a critical solution with an extremely high success rate — close to 90% of people living in permanent supportive housing remain housed a year later. (SOURCE: National Coalition for the Homelessness)

Q: How do we get past the NIMBYism to build more housing?
A: NIMBYism (“Not In My Back Yard”) is shorthand for localized opposition to projects that bring social services or housing into a given neighborhood or block. We know that in order to meaningfully address the homelessness crisis we need to be able to house people across the City. It will take all of us welcoming services and solutions in our neighborhoods. The single best thing that can be done to help counter NIMBYism is to express support for projects when they come to your district. If affordable housing is proposed in your district, call your Supervisor, turn out to neighborhood meetings, or show up to hearings in support. It will take all of us welcoming services and solutions in our neighborhoods.

Q: Where does homelessness, affordable housing, and market rate housing intersect? Are they distinct issues or can they be addressed together. Can we make policies and developments that address all three at once?
A: Yes! Housing and homelessness are inextricably linked. The only way to prevent or cure homelessness is with housing. When a City’s housing becomes unaffordable to the people who live there, homelessness increases, and becomes harder to resolve. Preserving existing affordable housing stock, developing more subsidized and affordable housing, and making sure that market rate housing is developed at a rate that is reasonable and proportional to the needs of the neighborhood are all integral and necessary steps to preventing and ending homelessness.

Q: To what extent is the magnet effect (people coming to SF) myth or reality?
A: The idea that the people who are experiencing homelessness in San Francisco came here to be homeless in San Francisco is largely a myth. In fact, 70% of the people on our streets were housed in San Francisco before they lost their housing and became homeless. When Tipping Point surveyed 300 people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco about why they wanted to be in San Francisco, the most common answer was “my family is here.”

Q: What are in some universal small things that can be done to make people more comfortable while bigger “fixes” are being put in place?
A: There are so many small things we can do to be better neighbors to people living on the streets. The simple act of making eye contact, saying hello, and acknowledging a person’s humanity can make a huge difference in both people’s days. Socks, water, and snacks are frequently requested items from people living on the streets. And, if you see a person selling a Street Sheet – a newspaper that features stories, artwork and news from the street – buy one for $2. It helps that person earn a much-needed income, and helps you stay informed about the issues facing San Francisco’s homeless community.

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