Homeless families in SF hits record high

The number of homeless families is on the rise in San Francisco and across the country.

The number of homeless families awaiting shelter space in San Francisco has reached an all-time high, and homeless advocates say city officials are ignoring the problem, which can have disastrous consequences when parents are forced to choose among bad options out of desperation.

Compass Connecting Point, a nonprofit agency with a city contract to provide homeless services and outreach, reports that 227 families – including 342 children – are now on a waiting list for temporary housing, with waits of at least six months. That's 13 more families than the previous peak during the height of the recession in 2009.

“We're seeing an increase in families coming in for the first time,” Elizabeth Ancker, an assistant program manager for the agency, told us. “There is definitely not enough shelter space.”

That's been a complaint from a variety of homeless individuals and advocates who note that the city has reduced the number of shelter beds due to budget cuts at a time when they are needed more than ever. And a fall ballot measure that would have freed up shelter beds that have been set aside for Care Not Cash recipients and other mayoral pet projects was removed from the November ballot under pressure from Mayor Ed Lee.

“A couple weeks ago, it was the largest number [of homeless families on shelter waiting lists] since the recession first hit, and now it's just the largest number overall,” Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, told us. “We're really concerned and we're particularly concerned that there has not been any kind of response from the city...The most eerie part is the absolute silence from Room 200.”

Indeed, even the Guardian's repeated requests for comment from the office of Mayor Ed Lee (aka Room 200) have not yielded any answers or explanations. Friedenbach said Lee's promise to release more shelter beds from mayoral programs like CNC and the Community Justice Court – where they often go unused despite long shelter waiting lists – have only freed up a few beds, nowhere near the actual demand.

“They're ignoring the problem,” she said. “What's happening in San Francisco is a mirror of what's happening nationally to poor families.”

Some studies place the number of homeless children in the U.S. at 1.5 million, although most advocates believe that number has actually risen in the last two years. Meanwhile, the budgets of nonprofits and government agencies who provide homeless services have been shrinking.

Ancker said her agency – which provides a variety of homeless services and gets partial funding from the city and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development – has actually avoided deep budget cuts in the last two years. “But we have the budget we had when we had 79 families on the waiting list,” she said.

Both she and Friedenbach say homeless families present particular challenges for social service agencies. “What happens with families is they end up being in really unsafe situations,” Friedenbach said. “They've forced to stay with people they otherwise wouldn't, or they end up in their cars, or with children being separated from their parents.”

Ancker agreed: “Right now, the wait for a shelter is six months and increasing, and people can't wait for six months.”


Concord and Modesto too. Livermore is full of empty, foreclosed homes.

Perhaps instead of demanding a government-supplied or subsidized residence in the most densely-packed city in North America these unfortunate people could head out to the suburbs, where there are plenty of empty homes, many quite large and quite cheaply too. Some of them even come with pools!

Posted by Guest on Oct. 13, 2011 @ 2:34 pm

If the banks offered to house the homeless in some of their foreclosed homes, I'm sure many would take them up on the offer, even if the homes were in Stockton.

So far, however, the banks aren't offering. In fact, in some places there are organized groups trying to use those homes for homeless housing. The banks have been using the full force of the law to evict anyone trying to occupy empty homes. They'd rather have the homes sit empty.

Posted by Greg on Oct. 13, 2011 @ 2:55 pm

Echoing Greg's point, Guest, rather than condemning poor people, as you seem to be doing, perhaps your should join the OccupySF movement and start putting pressure on banks to let homeless families live in the suburban houses they've foreclosed on. What do you say? Maybe they'd be so appreciative of your efforts they'd let you come swim in their pools. 

Posted by steven on Oct. 13, 2011 @ 3:16 pm

Or for the federal government to apply a far more lenient solution (from the homeowners perspective) to solving the foreclosure problem. Krugman has had some great ideas on this and I support those 100%.

It is not "condemning poor people" to suggest a positive alternative to the very complicated problem of attempting to find proper housing for families in an incredibly dense and expensive metropolitan area. The fact is that Non Profit Inc. would be diametrically opposed to anything like what I suggested because doing so would threaten their guaranteed contracts from the city for "managing homeless families." They're interested in putting families into the system where they can keep making a buck of them using the city's web of providers, where they can control them and use them to justify their contracts - not in "solving" the issue of homeless families and youth.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 13, 2011 @ 3:55 pm

You are right on. In NYC, for example, landlords refuse to maintain their stock of affordable housing (i.e. rent control) and instead contract out with the city at the more lucrative $3k pp/pm. These landlords put 2 people in a room and get $6k a month from the city of NY. Non-profits doing the same thing, huge money in housing the homeless through govt contracts.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 13, 2011 @ 4:36 pm

And you hit the nail on the head with your synopsis. The poor are really screwed in this situation - stuck between rapacious banks on one side and equally rapacious Non Profit Inc on the other. One sees them as useless while the other looks at them with dollar signs in its eyes. No one sees them as suffering human beings who need help - they're just a commodity for someone to take advantage of.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 13, 2011 @ 4:52 pm

Well said.

Posted by Sambo on Oct. 13, 2011 @ 4:38 pm

While I wholeheartedly agree with the idea and practice of moving out of SF when you can no longer afford to live in the most expensive city in the country - I think it's also important to remember that by the time people become homeless, they have no resources with which to relocate to less expensive places.

Posted by Yodlay Rock on Oct. 13, 2011 @ 4:36 pm

While I wholeheartedly agree with the idea and practice of moving out of SF when you can no longer afford to live in the most expensive city in the country - I think it's also important to remember that by the time people become homeless, they have no resources with which to relocate to less expensive places.

Posted by Yodlay Rock on Oct. 13, 2011 @ 4:37 pm

Mayoral Press Secretary Christine Falvey finally responded to our questions with the following prepared statement: "The Mayor was briefed by the Human Services Agency on Friday on the status of Families on the shelter list. He asked that a more robust and comprehensive outreach to homeless families so they are aware of the next two Project Homeless Connect Events in November and December where a Family Connect Service Center will be in operation. He is directing more of the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program resources (ARRA funded) to homeless families so more families can access eviction prevention services (paying back rent, late bills, etc.) and short term rent subsidies to house families who are homeless and he plans on reaching out to the SF Apartment Association so that they understand how they can utilize HSA's eviction prevention services and redirecting current supportive services in the family shelters to provide more housing counseling assistance in order to expedite the movement of families into permanent housing and simultaneously open up slots in the shelter for families who are waiting for assistance."

I responded with a follow-up noting that his actions don't address the immediate needs of these 227 families and asking why the Mayor's Office doesn't simply try to open up more emergency shelter space. I'll post the response when and if it arrives.

Posted by steven on Oct. 17, 2011 @ 11:36 am