Solving Homelessness in San Francisco


Last year I wrote a rant on Facebook voicing my displeasure with San Francisco’s homeless community. It went viral. People thought I was a monster. And in turn, I spent the last year learning about homelessness and what could be done to make things better.

When I started this journey, it was obvious there was something I was missing. Where others devoted their lives to helping the homeless, I didn’t care at all. They were by all means, not my problem.

But over time, and with a lot of help from friends, research and volunteering, I came to see the many reasons why people become homeless, and the near impossible road to recovery they all share. That they’re a group of people suffering, depressed and lost in a system that they can’t find their way out of. And that it’s everyone’s responsibility to figure out a way to help.

So now I’m back, asking for a second chance and hoping to help start a civic conversation about what we can all do to help the homeless.

We can do better

So let’s start with something we should all agree upon: Despite a lot of good peoples’ best efforts, San Francisco is failing at helping our homeless.

Over the last 10 years, we spent $1.5 billion dollars to “abolish homelessness” only to see our homeless population increase by 3 percent. That’s because homelessness is a never-ending revolving door, we help one person and another takes their place. There will always be unfortunate circumstances that cause people to be homeless. And while we can’t stop these things from happening, we can be prepared to help them whenever it occurs.

SF Homelessness by the numbers

7,000–14,000 — The estimated size of our homeless population.

$167 million — Yearly homeless budget, the largest per capita in the US.

90% — Rough estimate of those suffering from mental illness, disability, substance abuse, and/or chronic depression. Chronic depression is by far and away the biggest psychological ailment of the homeless. It’s the lack of hope in themselves and their future.

6355 — The number of previously homeless people we buy permanent housing for in the city, mostly in the Tenderloin, where they are surrounded by liquor stores, drug dealers, and other bad influences.

95 % — Rough estimate of those who never grow out of San Francisco’s homeless housing in the Tenderloin. Most will spend their days hanging out on the street and living on government programs, because rent elsewhere is too expensive and we gave up on them the moment we housed them in a ghetto.

The Case for Housing the Homeless

San Francisco has between 7,000–14,000 homeless people. And to support them, we have roughly 1,145 shelter beds. Leaving the majority of our homeless to figure out “where to sleep” and “how to survive” on a daily basis.

Now here’s the kicker!

It costs the city $61,000/yr between ER’s, jail, and support services per homeless person living on the streets. And only $12,000/yr to provide a homeless person with permanent housing, giving them free safe housing, instead of suffering on the street. So buying the homeless housing is not only the right thing to do, it’s also saves the government a lot of money. Over $40,000/yr per person!

Los Angeles study showing their monthly cost benefits of giving free housing to their homeless
If you take one thing away from this post, remember that the very best way to help the homeless, and how we can turn things around, is to provide them housing in safe areas surrounded by supportive services.
US Treasury analysis of cost savings across the country when giving free housing to the homeless

But, the solution requires more housing than our small city has to offer. Our government knows this, but continues to make plans that don’t address the issue. Furthermore, we leave 80% of our homeless without shelter options, causing their situation to deteriorate as they are forced to do whatever it takes to survive. This is the current face of homelessness in San Francisco.

The effects housing the homeless has had on Seattle, both before and after

Instead, what we should be doing is planning for 1 percent of our population to be homeless at any time and creating housing options accordingly. The good news is San Francisco has enough money to do this and an incredible amount of good people who want to help. The bad news is, it will take everyone in the city to agree on solutions for our policy makers to see things through. Helping the homeless is a taboo subject and it’s political suicide to make a bad step in this space. It’s up to everyone to get behind solutions that can help our entire homeless population, now and in the future.

An Affordable Housing Plan

We need to create an affordable and scalable homeless housing plan, which ensures no one is ever left to fend for themselves on the streets. The system breaks the moment people have nowhere safe to sleep. Depression sets in, substance abuse rises, crime rises, and the costs to the rest of us rise dramatically.

Living on the street should never be an option; instead it should be a red flag that our policies aren’t working.

While it would be nice to buy everyone free housing in San Francisco, it’s not realistic. For now, we’ll have to settle on a plan that incorporates our current housing and shelters alongside creative solutions that fit in our budget, like low-cost supportive tent cities, housing more people outside the city (we’re already doing this), and re-allocating our city budget away from ineffective programs and into programs with the biggest potential for positive impact, such as 100k homes, which housed 105,000 people from 2010 to 2014. 181 cities participated in this program. San Francisco did not.

100k Homes found housing for 105,000 homeless people nationwide from 2010–2014.

To be clear, we’re not only housing people, we’re housing them nearby support services like case workers and workforce empowerment programs. We’re also not talking about shipping our homeless off to be someone else’s problem. We’re talking about responsibly buying our homeless housing in a safe place, where they can have a chance to get their lives back together.

The alternative is our current system, which has thousands suffering in unimaginable conditions on our streets, while we all watch helplessly, wondering why our city doesn’t do anything. The reason is because talking about homelessness is controversial and the solutions to homelessness aren’t the perfect answers anyone wants to hear.

Pushing for Policy Reform

If you want to be part of the solution, then join me in organizing San Francisco’s first homeless town hall, where we’ll discuss creative housing solutions alongside community leaders who can create the change we need. If 1,000 people sign up at SFhomelesshelpers.com, then I’ll organize the event and catalyze the events that will lead to reforming our broken sytem.

If nothing changes from here on out, then we are all to blame because we sat by and accepted the status quo instead of seizing the opportunity before us. Change does happen, but only with a strong kick in the ass to get things going.

So sign up for the homeless town hall. Make “how we can help the homeless” a talking point amongst your friends. Share this post on social media #SFCares. Learn about progressive solutions like the Downtown Streets Team, 100k homes, supportive tent communities (Pinellas Hope and Share/Wheel) and creative affordable housing (Dignity Village, Opportunity Village, and Community First).

It’s rare to have the opportunity to impact social change like this. And we’re fortunate to live in a city where politicians listen and people value big disruptive ideas. I don’t know where things go from here, but I know this is how they start. If you’re ready, let’s come together and figure out a way to help make things better. Sign here.

Tl;Dr — We can solve San Francisco’s homeless problem and save cash by creating free housing solutions for the homeless. Sign up here for San Francisco’s Homeless Town Hall #SFCares

Special thanks to Kim Vo, Amy, Arun, Troy, Alex, and everyone else who helped me edit this down from the 3,000 word behemoth I started with.

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