Homeless families still waiting for a meeting ... and housing

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Not a good situation for kids, or anyone for that matter, to be in.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee still has not met with homeless parents organized by the Coalition on Homelessness to discuss their proposed solutions to combat the growing problem of youth homelessness. Nor has the mayor’s office responded to multiple Guardian phone calls inquiring why a meeting hasn’t been scheduled.

Homeless parents organized by the Coalition entered City Hall last Wednesday to raise awareness about a growing problem of San Francisco families lacking a permanent home, and to request a meeting with mayor, whom advocates first contacted Oct. 26.

Coalition on Homeless executive director Jennifer Friedenbach said the mayor’s office had offered to schedule a meeting with a mayoral representative, but not with Lee. “Why would we meet with a representative?” she asked. “We want a meeting with the mayor himself. It should be important for the mayor to meet with parents in a crisis.”

As the Guardian reported last week, the number of homeless families on shelter waitlists citywide has risen to an unprecedented high of 267, while the number of homeless students in public schools identified by San Francisco Unified School District stands at a high of 2,167. Both figures suggest homelessness is on the rise in a city where rents are well above average and the recession has given rise to job loss, evictions, and foreclosures. A nationwide Occupy Our Homes day of action scheduled for today, Dec. 6, is meant to draw attention to tenant evictions and homeowners losing their properties to bank foreclosure.

Part of the problem facing newly homeless families in San Francisco is the lack of availability in public housing and other housing assistance programs such as Section 8 rental assistance vouchers. The waitlist for public housing units in San Francisco stands at between 24,000 and 25,000 -- enough would-be tenants to fill the roughly 6,500 units in the city’s public housing system nearly four times over. The San Francisco Housing Authority closed its waitlist for public housing several years ago. The waitlist for Section 8, a separate program administered by the federal government, is also closed.

“Why do waiting lists close? The demand for low-income housing so far outweighs the available vacancy,” said San Francisco Housing Authority (SFHA) spokesperson Rose Dennis. “A number of housing authorities have had to close their waitlists, because we cannot serve the people who are not on the waitlist right now. This is not unique to San Francisco.”

Nevertheless, advocates with the Coalition on Homelessness say part of their strategy is to pressure the mayor to revamp units sitting empty in housing authority properties so they can be used for housing.

Asked about this, Dennis responded that there are relatively few vacancies, and that all vacant units are already in the process of being prepared for new tenants -- some of whom have already been identified and promised a unit, and others who are part of a pool of applicants undergoing a screening and selection process.

Housing Rights Committee executive director Sara Shortt, however, told the Guardian public housing tenants she’s worked with have long observed boarded-up units on SFHA properties. She added that they’ve raised concerns about the tendency for empty units to attract rodents, graffiti, or squatters engaged in drug sales or use, which can lead to violence.

Friedenbach said she’d heard from multiple people seeking public housing units who said they’d been promised a unit only to experience delay after delay, for weeks on end. Dennis said it takes SFHA between one and 45 days to move a tenant into a unit once the housing has become available, depending on the status of the tenant.

In addition to the conflicting accounts, another complicating factor is that the actual number of vacancies in housing authority property seems difficult to pin down. Dennis told the Guardian that the occupancy rate in SFHA property typically stands at around 93 percent. Since there are roughly 6,500 units total, this would imply that there are about 450 vacant units. Yet Dennis also stressed that the number of vacant units is always around 225, give or take, and has hovered consistently around that level without any dramatic spikes in vacancy.

A SFHA report to its federal parent agency, the Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which housing advocates received as part of a Freedom of Information request, listed a total of 847 vacant public housing units as of May 2011. That's nearly twice as high as a 7 percent vacancy rate, and almost four times as high as the 225 vacant units Dennis said the authority consistently has in its system.

“That’s not a vacancy rate,” Dennis explained after we sent her a copy of the document. “That’s a cumulative, historic count that HUD has that is different from day-to-day management. These are not numbers that accurately represent what you would go out and see on a site. These numbers have a lot of other aspects to them.” She added, “The numbers that I gave you are accurate and true.”

The Guardian has placed a call to the Human Services Agency, as well, in hopes of sorting out some of these issues. We’ll update this post if we hear back.