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What's Driving the Spike in Homelessness for Latinos in San Francisco?

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A woman wearing glasses holds a baby while sitting down next to a girl wearing a black hoodie in a room.
Miriam Mora sits for a portrait with her daughters Miriam (5 months) and Julissa (9) at her brother's apartment in the Tenderloin neighborhood in San Francisco on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022. Mora lost her job during the pandemic and has been struggling to find affordable housing. Right now, Mora and her three children are staying with her brother, who already has several roommates, in his studio apartment. Latinos now make up 30% of the unhoused people in San Francisco, though they're only 16% of the overall population, according to the city's most recent count. (Marlena Sloss/KQED)

Every Tuesday as the sun comes up, dozens of RV residents who call Winston Drive home prepare for a weekly ritual — avoiding the street sweeper. They dislodge their wheel chocks and rumble into the parking lot of a nearby shopping mall to wait out the parking control officer.

As the sweeper descends the sloped street, along the northern edge of the San Francisco State University campus, a line of RVs trails behind. One at a time, they lurch back into their designated spots.

“See, everyone has their place. We’re a community,” said resident Jose Luis Diaz, 40, in Spanish. With the weekly move done, he stands outside his RV, waiting for his kids to finish getting ready for school.

He’s got the spot with the tree because he was the first one out here, he says, about a month into the pandemic.

Diaz lost his job as a sous-chef in March of 2020. Within a few weeks, he’d moved into the RV with his wife and kids, who are 17 and 12. Later, he says, other families from the apartment building where they were living in Daly City came to scope out their new living arrangement.

Now they’re neighbors again out here. They’re among the growing ranks of Latinos living on San Francisco’s streets, or in RVs, cars or city shelters.

“There’s just a lot of ways that our community is very vulnerable,” said Laura Valdéz, executive director of Dolores Street Community Services, an organization that works with the Latino community in the Mission.

It was clear from the early days of the pandemic that its economic costs weren’t being felt equally, with Latinos being especially hit hard. The service industry jobs available to many Latinos — in the hotel industry, housekeeping or restaurants — were gutted, Valdez says.

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“So when COVID happened and every single person in the household is losing their job, that really created a very dire situation,” she said.

Now the ripple effects are showing up as more people are becoming homeless. Despite measures meant to protect renters, homelessness among Latino residents has spiked around California.

In San Francisco, homelessness among Latino residents is up 55% since 2019, according to the latest point-in-time count, despite an overall drop in the homeless population. In Alameda County, Latino homelessness rose 73% during the same time period, according to the nonprofit EveryOneHome, which conducts the county’s tally. It jumped by 26% in Los Angeles County and by 19% in Kern County, since they did their last counts in 2020.

The recent counts also show that Black people continue to be overrepresented on California’s streets.

Surveying his RV neighborhood, Jose Diaz offers one explanation for why more Latinos are becoming homeless.

“Remember, Americans get unemployment,” he said. “Most people here, they might be immigrants, they might not have papers, so there’s no help.”

It’s not just undocumented Latinos, though. Diaz has a U visa (for victims of crime who work with law enforcement on investigations) that allows him to work legally. But he didn’t apply for rent relief or unemployment because he worried it could hurt his pending application for permanent residency.

Earlier this year, UCLA researchers found Latinos in California were about half as likely as whites to have applied for and received rent relief.

“Our community is not accessing the homelessness response system,” Valdez said, including rent relief and legal aid. She attributes that in part to fears like Diaz’s, to language and cultural barriers and to the silencing effect of xenophobic political rhetoric.

Diaz is now working as a truck driver. He plans to stay in the RV, save money and move away from the city, because he doesn’t see a future here.

Before the pandemic, with Diaz and his wife working, he says they’d be left with $150 at the end of the month.

“Who can survive on that? Nobody,” he said. “Everyone who ended up out here is just trying to survive.”

Latinos now make up 30% of the unhoused people in San Francisco, though they’re only 16% of the overall population, according to the city’s most recent count.

As bad as those new numbers are, they don’t account for the homelessness that’s harder to see — the kind Miriam Mora is living.

The 32-year-old has been moving place to place for the past few weeks with her three kids, who are 14, 9 and 6 months old. After staying in her car for a stint, they moved into her sister’s living room. Now they’re living at her brother’s Tenderloin studio.

A woman standing next to a girl pushes a stroller with a baby wrapped in a yellow blanket past a person lying down on the sidewalk.
Miriam Mora walks to visit her sister with her daughters Miriam (then 5 months) and Julissa (9), in the Tenderloin neighborhood in San Francisco on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022. Mora lost her job during the pandemic and has been struggling to find affordable housing. Right now she is staying with her brother, who already has several roommates in his studio apartment. Latinos now make up 30% of the unhoused people in San Francisco, though they’re only 16% of the overall population, according to the city’s most recent count. Mora said she would prefer to live in a different neighborhood where there are fewer people on the street and less drug use. (Marlena Sloss/KQED)

He already had five roommates, so it’s 10 of them in one room, sharing bunk beds. Mora says she left her last home, which she shared with roommates in the Excelsior, after her landlord raised the rent, intimidated her and threatened to evict her.

“We paid the rent, but the landlord still harassed us,” she said in Spanish.

These kinds of self-evictions aren’t officially tracked, but tenant advocates say they have been on the rise since the start of the pandemic, especially among Latino renters.

“We’ve got people who tell us their landlords tell them verbally to leave their units every day,” said Lucia Leal, a tenant counselor with Causa Justa/Just Cause. “They don’t want to deal with the harassment,” so they leave, even if they have the right to stay.

Latinos are also overrepresented in formal eviction data in San Francisco, even with eviction moratoriums in place during the pandemic. According to data collected by the Eviction Defense Collaborative, 20% of eviction filings between March of 2020 and March of 2022 were against Latino tenants.

When tenants don’t know their rights, don’t speak English, have an informal living arrangement without a lease or don’t have legal status, it gives landlords a lot of power, Leal says.

Mora lost her job doing hourly gig work at the start of the pandemic, but says her landlord demanded the rent no matter what. “He said, ‘Come rain or thunder, whatever happens, I want my rent on the first of the month,’” Mora said.

A woman wearing a black t-shirt with the Playstation logo descends the stairs holding a stroller.
Miriam Mora walks down the stairs with her daughter, Miriam (then 5 months) at her brother’s apartment in the Tenderloin neighborhood in San Francisco on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022. (Marlena Sloss/KQED)

Mora applied for COVID rent relief, but got denied. She says her landlord wouldn’t cooperate with the application process. So she used her savings and borrowed money from a family member to cover her rent. She’s $21,000 in debt now.

After she moved out, Mora says, she tried to get into a family shelter, but was put on a waiting list. She went to Compass Family Services, one of the access points for the city’s coordinated entry system. 

Under the coordinated entry system, which is required by the federal government, people who are unhoused must go to an access point, meet with a case manager and answer a series of questions about their experiences. They are then ranked according to their level of need, and may or may not get placed in a shelter or other housing.

But that system creates its own barriers for Latinos, says Valdez. “If you just look at coordinated entry systems anywhere, not just here in San Francisco, they create structural disparities,” she said.

A 2022 city-commissioned report on the coordinated entry system found that Latinos were less likely to be prioritized for housing than other groups and were underrepresented in the system.

Meanwhile, the Latino Task Force’s Street Needs Assessment Committee surveyed more than 100 unhoused residents in the Mission earlier this year and found that almost a quarter became homeless during the pandemic, and 83% were not in the coordinated entry system.

Larisa Pedroncelli, co-chair of the committee, attributes this to a number of factors: distrust, especially among undocumented immigrants, the lack of access points in the Mission, and a dearth of linguistically and culturally competent service providers.

“You are being assessed by somebody you’ve never met and you’re asked to share some of your deepest traumas,” she said, noting that many people feel uncomfortable sharing those experiences, and that’s why they don’t get connected with the housing and services they need.

The committee’s report calls for empowering Mission-based organizations to facilitate coordinated entry access. “Because the relationships are there, they know the folks on the street, so it’s much easier for them to share their traumas and to be able to be properly assessed,” Pedroncelli said.

Emily Cohen, spokesperson for the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, says the department is ramping up work in the Mission, in part by increasing partnerships with nonprofits that serve the Latino community and opening a new coordinated entry access point in the neighborhood.

Mora is also looking for more permanent housing. Every week, she goes to the Mission Economic Development Agency to apply for one of the city’s few open affordable apartments, but her chances of landing a spot are slim. On a visit in September, she’s one of 814 people who’ve applied for a single apartment.

A woman wearing a black t-shirt holding on to a stroller is next to a girl wearing a black hoodie. To the left of them is a man wearing a colorful tshirt and gray hat. To the right isa man wearing a black jacket and pants.
Miriam Mora leaves her brother’s apartment building with her daughters Miriam (then 5 months) and Julissa (9) as two men who were sitting on the steps move aside in the Tenderloin neighborhood in San Francisco on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022. (Marlena Sloss/KQED)

Ultimately, the Latino Task Force says the city needs to focus more on building affordable housing,

They are calling for policy changes, like curbing market rate housing development in neighborhoods where residents are most vulnerable to displacement.

Valdez, who works with the task force, wants to see more efforts to prevent evictions and greater investments in affordable housing. Without them, she says, as the Latino population in the city continues to grow, “We’re just going to see larger and larger numbers of unhoused community members.”

Mora has worked service industry jobs since she came to this country alone as a teenager. She was doing gig work when the pandemic started, and when that dried up the state denied her unemployment claim. She says she feels exploited because she’s worked hard and paid taxes and she can’t afford to live here.

“If we can contribute to the economy but we can’t have a safe place to live, it’s not a fair trade,” she said.

Now, after 15 years in San Francisco, she’s considering going back to her hometown of Puebla in Mexico.

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