From New York to Helsinki: What the Bay Area Can Learn in Addressing Homelessness

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Tents line Fulton Street near City Hall on April 5, 2020.
Tents line Fulton Street near San Francisco City Hall on April 5, 2020. (Beth LeBarge/KQED)

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omeless encampments are so ubiquitous in the Bay Area, they’ve become a part of the landscape as people seek shelter in tents and RVs, along residential streets and under highway overpasses.

Bay Curious listener Matthew Schmitz lives in San Francisco's Mission District and was shocked to see this kind of extreme poverty in a region as wealthy as the Bay Area.

"It doesn't seem to make sense," he said. "It feels dystopian."

It made him wonder: How does homelessness in San Francisco — and by extension, the Bay Area — compare to other major cities across the globe? Are more people experiencing homelessness in the Bay Area, or is it just more visible?

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When you look at just the numbers, the rate of homelessness in San Francisco and elsewhere in the Bay Area is really high. A San Francisco Chronicle analysis found that Oakland and San Francisco had the highest rates of homelessness per capita, compared to other large cities in California.

In 2020, more than 8,000 people experienced homelessness in San Francisco on any given night, and the vast majority — more than 5,100 — were unsheltered. That is, they spent the night either sleeping on the street or in cars, tents and RVs. And if we count the entire nine-county Bay Area, there were more than 35,000 homeless people in 2020. Nearly three-quarters of them lived outdoors.

But comparing San Francisco and the greater Bay Area to other cities around the world is not as simple as comparing numbers on a chart. That’s because there’s no international definition for what it means to be homeless.

Not apples to apples

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hen it comes to defining who is homeless, countries stick to three broad categories, according to Marissa Plouin, a housing researcher at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international policy group. The first category is for “rough sleepers,” or people who sleep in tents, on sidewalks or park benches. The second category covers people who are living in temporary institutional settings, like emergency shelters, mental health facilities or jails, but don’t have a home to return to when they leave. And finally, the third category includes people who are couch surfing with family or friends, or are otherwise living in crowded, unstable housing.

Encampments and motor homes in West Oakland
Encampments and motor homes near 24th and Wood streets in West Oakland on March 25, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Some countries — like Australia and New Zealand — use the broadest definition, counting all three categories, Plouin said. Others, like Japan, count only rough sleepers and people in certain types of institutions. Plouin said the United States is somewhere in between.

"We're not really comparing, in all cases, apples to apples and oranges to oranges," Plouin said.

Here in the U.S., it is easier to make comparisons between big cities. That’s because the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development requires a more uniform process for getting a snapshot of the number of people who are homeless. It’s called the point-in-time count, and it involves an inventory of who is living in shelters, as well as sending out volunteers to manually count people on the street on a given night.

When you look at those numbers, there are some startling differences between cities in California and other big cities across the country. Take New York City, where housing costs are as high — or sometimes higher — than in the Bay Area. But unlike in San Francisco, you won’t see sprawling homeless encampments in New York City.

According to the latest count, there were nearly 78,000 people experiencing homelessness in New York City in 2020, but the vast majority — nearly 71,000 — slept in shelters. Giselle Routhier, the policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless in New York City, said a big reason for that stark contrast is a policy called the "right to shelter."

Right to shelter

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n the late 1970s, mass homelessness as we know it today was just beginning to emerge across the country. A young lawyer in New York City, Robert Hayes, befriended a man experiencing homelessness who told him that he would have liked to get into the city’s shelters, but that he kept getting turned away.

“There were no beds for him,” Routhier said.

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So, Hayes sued the state and the city, arguing that the state constitution required the city to provide shelter for its residents. And, he won.

It was a huge victory, Routhier said.

“The point of the shelter system is to provide a basic safety net,” she said, “so that people actually have a roof over their head, have access to food and bathrooms and space to be while they are homeless."

When the shelters first opened, they were massive, said Dr. Deborah Padgett, a professor of social work at New York University's Silver School of Social Work.

“They would take over a whole armory and then fill it with up to 900 men and beds and a huge open floor,” she said. “And that became sort of intolerable — just the size and the scale of it."

Over time, Padgett said the shelters evolved and became smaller. The city introduced cluster apartments, where families would share a kitchen and bathrooms.

But it hasn’t solved homelessness in New York City, where one in 10 public school children experience homlessness. Instead, Padgett says it’s created an intensely bureaucratic shelter industry.

Families who are homeless wait to get into an emergency shelter in New York City.
Homeless families try to keep their belongings dry while waiting for housing placement outside of the emergency overnight shelter intake center Oct. 11, 2007 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

"I call it an industry because there are dozens and dozens of nonprofits that get millions of dollars a year in contracts to run shelters,” she said. “And so you have thousands and thousands of people whose jobs depend on homelessness."

New York City spends more than $3 billion a year on homelessness, but Padgett said moving from the shelter system into permanent, affordable housing is “almost a dream that never comes true.”

“People spend years in shelters,” she said. “There’s this huge bottleneck.”

Part of the problem is that New York is legally obligated to spend all of this money on shelters to comply with the right to shelter mandate. That leaves them with fewer resources to spend on housing, and like in the Bay Area, it’s incredibly expensive to build.

Solving homelessness by giving people a home

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here is a place an ocean away that has done the opposite of New York City and is now considered a model for reducing homelessness. In Finland, housing authorities tore down the country’s once vast shelter system and replaced it with affordable apartments.

“You could say that we stole the idea from the U.S.,” said Freek Spinnewijn, director of the European Federation of National Organizations Working With the Homeless, or FEANTSA.

In the early 1990s, Sam Tsemberis, a homeless services provider in New York City, came up with a radically new concept when it came to addressing homelessness. He called it "Housing First."

The idea was really simple: The solution to homelessness is housing. And in order for people to address the root causes of their homelessness — whether that's getting sober, accessing mental health treatment, getting medical care or getting a job — they had to have a place to live.

In the 1980s, Finland looked a lot like New York City: The shelter system was a revolving door for the country’s 20,000 homeless people.

So in 2008, a four-person working group — a politician, an activist, a sociologist and a bishop — got in a room together and devised a new plan to tackle homelessness. They also called it Housing First, and policymakers adopted it as Finland’s national policy.

“It’s not rocket science at all,” said Juha Kaakinen, CEO of the nonprofit Y-Foundation and one of the original architects of Finland’s Housing First approach. “In Finnish society, we have this thinking that housing should be a basic human right, that society has to take care of its members.”

Juha Kaakinen
Juha Kaakinen speaking at 2019 OECD Housing Forum: Your Investment, My Home (Andrew Wheeler / OECD/Flickr)

Today, Finland has 5,400 homeless people, a 40% reduction in homelessness since the Housing First policy was adopted. Street homelessness is almost nonexistent and only one 50-bed emergency shelter in the country remains. Finnish officials say the country is on track to end homelessness by 2027.

Spinnewijn attributed the country's success to long-term commitment from political leaders.

"In Finland, there is a consensus that Housing First is the way to go," Spinnewijn said. "So they're not afraid of the elections. Whatever political coalition comes into power, Housing First will continue. And so it allowed them to have a longer-term perspective."

Finland has invested heavily in supportive housing and permanently affordable apartments, also called social housing. Kaakinen's Y-Foundation is the fourth-largest landlord in Finland, with 17,300 social housing units meant for low-income families.

"They are very good quality. That's the special thing with social housing. If you go around in the housing area in Helsinki, you can't make the difference which one is private housing and which one is social housing,” Kaakinen said.

But building new, permanently affordable housing isn’t cheap. Finland has spent about 350 million euros on Housing First since the policy began more than a decade ago. The bulk of that money is spent on building new affordable housing and buying rental units.

At the same time, Finnish officials argue the policy saves taxpayers around 15,000 euros a year, from fewer emergency room visits, encounters with police and other social services.

By comparison, San Francisco’s proposed budget for its Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing for the upcoming year is a little more than $567 million. More than half, or about 54%, is dedicated to providing rent subsidies, operating permanent, supportive housing and building new housing. About 12% funds the city’s shelters.

Could San Francisco Follow Finland's Lead?

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here is a movement in San Francisco to build more permanently affordable housing as a long-term solution to homelessness. In 2018, voters approved Proposition C, a new tax that has so far raised nearly $600 million, with another $300 million expected to come in this year, and is primarily dedicated to creating new, affordable housing.

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

Proposition C nearly doubles the amount of money available annually to address homelessness, and represents a sea change in the city’s approach to solving homelessness, said Christin Evans.

“The Prop. C funds are a game changer for the city,” said Evans, a local book store owner and one of the proponents of Proposition C. “It’s giving a significant amount of resources to service providers who have a proven track record in helping people exit homelessness."

But San Francisco is only one of 101 cities across the Bay Area. And, it won’t be able to solve homelessness on its own. Many of the most impactful financial resources for housing programs come from state and federal governments.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom allocated over $800 million in funding last year to create some 6,000 new units of permanent housing through a program called Project Homekey. And, he’s proposing doubling down on that program this year, with another $750 million. The 6,000 new units won’t be nearly enough to house everyone experiencing homelessness in California, but even so, it represents one of the largest expansions of affordable housing for formerly homeless residents in the state’s recent history.

At the federal level, President Biden has declared housing a human right — becoming the first president to do so since
Franklin D. Roosevelt. And, he has proposed vastly expanding the federal rental voucher program to prevent more people from becoming homeless, as well as doubling the amount of new funding for affordable housing.

But in order for these policies to be truly effective — and to put a significant dent in the Bay Area's homeless population — they will need to outlive Newsom's and Biden's terms in office. The U.S. will have to learn from Finland's example and commit to a policy that doesn't change course with every election.

"Too many countries try to solve homelessness or radically reduce it within one political mandate," said FEANSTA's Freek Spinnewijn. “And that's not possible.”

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