9 Things You Didn’t Know about Homelessness in San Francisco

Photo by Ken Fisher

“Why are so many people homeless in San Francisco?”

That’s a question we hear a lot, even from San Francisco locals. Below, we’ve rounded up 9 of the most common myths about homelessness in San Francisco, the reality of which might surprise you and change how you think about homelessness in your community.

1. MYTH: SF has the most homeless people per capita in the US.

FACT: While it does seem like SF gets more attention about this issue than other cities, the rate of homelessness in San Francisco has actually remained relatively flat over the last 10 years, between 6,200 and 6,800 people on any given night.

San Francisco is 8th out of the top 10 cities with the highest homeless population. With regards to percentage of the general population, it’s equivalent to other major cities across the U.S.

2. MYTH: Homeless people come to San Francisco because it’s sunny and has great services.

FACT: 71% of people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco were actually living and working here before they became homeless, and almost half lived in SF for more than 10 years. This myth isn’t just prevalent in San Francisco, data show that across the US homelessness is a homegrown issue for every community.

While it’s true that San Francisco has a very strong array of services, many programs, including shelters, are at their limit. Which leads to the next myth below.

3. MYTH: Homeless people want to live on the street.

FACT: Living on the street is a traumatic experience that can have serious implications to someone’s health and well-being. It’s no secret that housing in San Francisco is limited and expensive. In fact, not being able to afford rent is listed as the number one obstacle to obtaining permanent housing in the SF Point in Time Count. Average monthly rent prices in San Francisco have skyrocketed to over $4,000 a month for a one-bedroom. Affordable housing is so limited in San Francisco, the Section 8 waiting list can extend up to a year and sometimes isn’t even accepting applications.

4. MYTH: There is plenty of emergency shelter available, people just don’t use it.

FACT: Unfortunately emergency shelters in SF are consistently full, with almost 800 people on the 90 day shelter waitlist. Evening shelters throughout the city have lines around the block every day, and many people are turned away. For some, shelters can be dangerous — personal belongings go missing, and strict rules sometimes separate partners and pets. Even more, many shelters have lost funding and/or available beds over the years, forcing more people on the street.

A new solution, the Navigation Center, launched last year with the goal of moving entire encampments into short-term shelter and then into long-term housing. It was such a success, the city is now working on opening 5 new locations, though lack of available space in San Francisco continues to be a challenge.

Photo by Daryl Peveto

5. MYTH: Homelessness only affects single males.

FACT: Often when people imagine what homelessness looks like, they picture an individual who is “sleeping rough” — meaning on the street without any shelter. In reality, that idea of homelessness actually only represents about 10% of the population. In San Francisco, families make up 9% of the homeless population. Youth under 25 and children outside families make up 21% of the population.

Homelessness isn’t just going without shelter, but includes all who lack a permanent home. People who live in their vehicles or stay in hotels or SROs, families who ‘double up’, even people who couchsurf — these individuals lack a stable living situation and are considered to be experiencing homelessness.

6. MYTH: It’s easy to find a job and get off the street.

FACT: Finding a good job is already a challenging process for many of us. Imagine if you didn’t have a home — meaning you don’t have a shower, a bed, breakfast in the morning, or the chance of getting a full night’s rest. Without the ability to meet these basic needs, getting to a job interview is pretty unlikely.

Aside from these basic needs, many jobs now require online applications and digital communications. Technology, like a laptop and a cell phone, becomes a necessity. In an interview with Eric Sheptock, who is currently experiencing homelessness, he explains, “a homeless person can’t get by without having a cellphone. If they’re looking for a job and give the shelter number as their contact, the employer will call and realize this person is homeless. And after that, I’ve seen the job offer be rescinded.” Which leads us to our next myth.

7. MYTH: A homeless person with a cell phone probably isn’t really homeless.

FACT: If you became homeless tomorrow, what is the one thing you would go out of your way to keep? A good guess would be your cell phone. It’s a lifeline to family and friends, plus a critical tool to accessing services, housing, and a new job. Local San Francisco shelter and homelessness nonprofit St. Anthony’s estimates that more than 40% of people living on the streets have cell phones.

On HandUp, technology is the third highest need fundraised for by our homeless members. Today’s reality is a digitally connected one and a cell phone is key to helping someone escape homelessness. (Read more about why technology is a basic need here.)

8. MYTH: Government benefits are enough to keep people from becoming homeless.

Occasionally you’ll hear stories of people who take advantage of government assistance, but the reality is that government assistance is very limited. Let’s take a look at what’s available for people living under the poverty line in San Francisco:

  • If you are a family eligible for California welfare (CALWorks), the maximum for a family of four is $936 a month. This is only available if your income is less than $1,100 a month. The CalFresh food assistance program provides a family of four $649 a month.
  • If you are elderly or disabled and qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) from Social Security, the maximum amount you can receive each month is between $667 and $1,145. If you receive SSI, you are not eligible for SNAP food assistance.
  • If you earn an income between $1,200 — $2,000 (depending on your household size), you are not eligible for any of these benefits. If you or a family member is eligible for one assistance, it will reduce other available assistance.

In contrast, in San Francisco, the cost of living including rent required for a family of four adds up to about $7,649 per month.

Photo by Ken Fisher

9. MYTH: There is nothing I can do to make a difference about homelessness

FACT: There are many things you can do to help end homelessness. An easy first step is to learn about your local homelessness organizations, and get involved through volunteering or financially supporting their efforts. If you want to support a specific individual in San Francisco you can donate at HandUp.org or give someone a HandUp Gift Card in the street.

Do your One Thing to help and share it with your community with the #OneThing tag to help inspire others to do the same. Together, we can make a difference!