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.”