The System Is a ‘Revolving Door’ Says Homeless Study

Tents are spaced for social distancing at Bay View Park K.C. Jones Playground on May 5, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Unhoused people in San Francisco say the city's system for helping them creates a "revolving door," shuffling homeless people into shelters and right back out again.

The entire homeless system needs to change, they say. Throw it out. Reinvent it.

Make something new that centers the needs of those suffering addiction, those who are undocumented, transgender people and other key demographics in San Francisco's population of unhoused people.

Take police out of the homelessness response entirely, replace overcrowded shelters with service-oriented tent encampments and provide rental subsidies to tenants on the verge of eviction.

Those are the top-level findings of "Stop the Revolving Door," a study conducted of homeless people, by homeless people, who were trained by academics from universities across the Bay Area, including UC Berkeley, Santa Clara University and San Francisco State University. The report was organized by the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness.

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The report comes as San Francisco's homeless response system, long-overstretched, could be on the precipice of a major cash infusion. A legal battle over a tax to fund homeless services may be resolved in the next two years, which could free up roughly $300 million in tax revenue to help those on the streets.

Tracey Mixon is one of the peer researchers. She was unhoused when she began working on the survey, she said at a Thursday press briefing. That helped her better connect to the people she was surveying.

"When a person knows I've been in this struggle, and I'm going through this struggle right along with you, you can always find common ground," Mixon said. "Some of the stories I heard are touching me now."

Roughly 580 people living on the streets, in shelters and other precarious places were surveyed in a study conducted between June 3 and Aug. 30 this year.

"If all these recommendations were put together as a whole, we’d see an incredibly transformative effect on the system," said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness. "We probably wouldn’t get to zero homelessness, but we’d get to a point where homelessness is much more brief and rare. "

San Francisco's Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing did not immediately respond for comment.

Stop Homelessness Before It Happens

While much of the report concentrates on flipping the script in San Francisco's homeless efforts, a series of questions also focused on prevention.

How did people fall into homelessness? For most of those surveyed, it was a job loss or reduced income that led to an eviction.

A quarter of respondents had only become homeless in the past year, and 9% had become homeless only within three months prior to the survey.

Of those who lost housing, 43% said it was because they were unable to pay rent. And of those who could not pay rent, 37% said it was due to a job loss, with 36% saying they were still working, but their income was too low.

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"The crucial transformation our research and report is pointing to is we need to shift from this churning in and out of large congregate shelters to preventing homelessness in the first place," said Dilara Yarbrough, an assistant professor from San Francisco State University who worked as a researcher on the effort.

When, in a multiple-choice question, surveyors asked what would've kept people housed, people overwhelmingly said rental assistance could have helped while they stabilized their income. Four in five study participants said they would have needed rental assistance for one year or less to stay housed.

Some of those who lived on the street were evicted from some form of housing meant to help the poor or homeless. About 6% lived in public housing, 10% in a below-market-rate unit and 13% in city-supportive housing.

Proposition C's New Investment

Proposition C, a gross receipts tax measure on wealthy San Francisco businesses, passed in 2018 and was expected to infuse $300 million into the city's coffers, marked for homeless services. But a lawsuit by the Howard Jarvis Tax Association and the California Association of Realtors tied that funding up in court.

The Coalition on Homelessness said their report is in anticipation of a decision to allow, or not, the appeal of the case by the Supreme Court, at which point the funds may become available.

Improvements to shelters are needed, the report's authors concluded, because 81% of those they surveyed had used, or tried to access, shelters in the past. The survey's authors said this shows the shelter wasn't a pathway to housing in the first place, returning those survey respondents largely to the street.

Some new investments recommended by the report include:

  • Expanding permanent supportive housing
  • Providing new kinds of shelter, including "wet" shelters where alcohol is permitted, and safe consumption spaces for drug users trying to ditch their habits
  • Providing separate "clean and sober" shelters for those who are successful in recovery
  • Increasing the maintenance budget of shelters
  • Increasing the number of drop-in shelters, which have decreased by 50% in the last 15 years
  • Increasing individualized intensive-care management for drug users in recovery
  • Providing trauma-informed care that acknowledges people's experiences with childhood sexual and physical traumas that exacerbate homelessness
  • Expanding the availability of voluntary mental health services instead of only offering such help when people are in crisis
  • Creating more neighborhood-based services instead of concentrating services only in the downtown/Tenderloin/South of Market areas

Perhaps one positive nod to San Francisco's current efforts were favorable views of organized outdoor tent encampments, called "Safe Sleep Sites," which the city piloted in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic in a few locations, including the Haight-Ashbury.

Roughly 44% of those staying in shelters said they preferred an organized, outdoor camp. Friedenbach, executive director of the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness, said, "I think it doesn't speak well of our shelters. People really value their privacy."

Chris Herring, a Harvard fellow who worked as a researcher on the project, said the favorable feeling toward tent encampments stood out to him, too.

"This is not people wanting to stay outside on the streets. This is in an organized setting, with some sort of security and amenities such as showers, bathrooms," he said. "I think with the opening of some 'safe sleep sites' there was a real opportunity there. I’d think we should learn to expand that."

Herring also said the high level of people researchers talked to who were now on the streets, but had actually been in shelters previously, "goes against this thing we hear often of people ‘resisting services.’ "

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Service resistance, he said, is a myth.