Nate and his mother, Martha, watch the news. Most homeless families are headed by a single mother.

Moving Out

One in 23 children in the San Francisco public school district is homeless. Should the city help families leave?

Photographs by Taylor Johnson
Text by Lauren Smiley
Audio by Meradith Hoddinott

Soon after Martha Hurtado moved into her Oakland apartment, in the heart of Raiders country, she installed a “49ers corner.” She hung six Niners logo banners, dragged in two stadium seats from defunct Candlestick Park, spread a Niners comforter on the bed, tacked a pennant in the bathroom. Martha wasn’t this showy about her pride when she lived in San Francisco, where she was born and raised and worked for years as an usher at Candlestick Park. But the need to signal that she was San Franciscan surged three years ago, after she was evicted, “forced out,” as she says.

Martha sits behind her Oakland apartment complex, which is subsidized by Hamilton Family Center.

Evicted along with her was her elementary-school-age son, Nate, who became a part of San Francisco’s youngest cohort of homeless when they moved into a shelter. One out of 23 kids in the San Francisco public school district is living either in a shelter or doubled up in someone else’s home. That’s 2,400 students this past school year, enough to fill Mission High School two times over. Homelessness has a negative effect on focus and student achievement: A vast majority of homeless students surveyed nationally said it took a toll on their emotional and mental health.

“I tried to keep it like an adventure,” Martha says. “In our room [in the shelter], I had our laptops so we could watch movies.” Nate got counseling twice a week, made friends at the shelter, and was able to keep up his grades.

Hear Martha talk about parenting while homeless

But that was a temporary fix. Nationally, the aim has been “rapid rehousing” — moving families as quickly as possible from a shelter into a new place of their own and then providing them with rental assistance to stay there. The Obama administration has requested $6 billion for rapid rehousing in this upcoming fiscal year’s budget, with the hope of solving family homelessness by 2020. San Francisco combined resources from its general fund with state and federal money and funding from Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff to pump up the city’s program.

But when it comes to finding a place to use the subsidy, averaging $800 a month depending on income, a majority of families are making the same decision as many a San Franciscan teacher, line cook, and journalist before them: to leave. The most expedient housing solution for poor San Franciscan kids is not in San Francisco.

Photographs on the wall of Nate and Martha’s apartment

At Hamilton Family Center — the largest family shelter in the city — 60 percent of the San Franciscan clients receiving these rent subsidies have left for places as far as Sacramento, Vallejo, and Antioch. Hamilton’s former executive director, Jeff Kositsky (now director of the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing), says allowing families to use subsidies elsewhere just makes pragmatic sense. He was aiming for an immediate way to reduce the months-long waitlist for a family shelter in the city, a list on which one day Kositsky spotted his daughter’s classmate.

Schools are often the first to learn of a child who is either at risk of losing housing or already living homeless, so Hamilton also created a response team of case workers who, within three days of getting a referral from the school district, will visit the student’s house. The program is funded by a $1 million grant from Google; Kositsky says Google found the early detection shortcut “Googley.”

Martha still drives Nate into San Francisco most days.

The subsidies end up being more cost effective than shelters. In San Francisco, it costs $120 a night to host a family in a shelter, or $43,800 a year. Meanwhile, the average rent subsidy costs around $9,500 a year, or $20,000 if you include staff time for case management. Staving off an eviction is the cheapest solution of all: $4,000. That’s one specific way the school team has been effective: Whereas many shelters only see families once they’ve been evicted, the Google-funded program has identified families at risk of getting thrown out of housing when it can still be averted.

Critics have objected to San Francisco’s subsidies being spent in other places. Many nonprofits are focused on pushing the city to build more affordable housing here, not sending its resources elsewhere. “It was something that we want to mitigate as much as possible,” says Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness. “Moving out of town can further destabilize kids in the schools since they’ve had so much instability. Switching schools creates a lot more trauma and behavioral problems.”

The table where Nate eats his meals

For that reason, the federal government allows students to stay in their home school until the end of the school year and to apply for a district transfer after that. Nate stayed in his Bernal Heights elementary after they moved to Oakland. Martha was driving back to the city anyway, for work at City College (advising their homeless students) and keeping him there made sense for other reasons, too: Her mom, who still lives in the city, could pitch in with child care.

Martha’s case exemplifies many of the city’s statistics for homeless families: 14 percent list eviction as the primary reason for their homelessness. The most common cause was domestic violence, at 27 percent.

For now, Martha and Nate are living in a tidy complex with an aquamarine pool, hugging leafy MacArthur Boulevard. Martha is looking for work locally. This upcoming school year, however, will be a difficult one; they have to transfer Nate to an Oakland elementary for fourth grade, and he’s rebelling. “He’s thinking he’ll live with his dad and just not go to school anymore,” Martha says.

Nate at his summer camp in San Francisco

The biggest test for the family will come when Martha graduates from Hamilton’s subsidy program, as she nears the end of its two-year expiration. Nationally, families often fall back into homelessness within one year after a subsidy ends — which is why some criticize rapid rehousing as putting families into houses without a plan for how they’ll eventually cover the rent. Hamilton, which has an income-planning program and monthly check-ins, says 90 percent of its families have stayed housed at least one year after leaving the program. Hamilton will also help connect them to social services in their new city. But if they want San Francisco’s help after that, they’ll need to move back.

Taylor Johnson is a photographer based in Oakland. She is currently working toward her BFA in photography at the California College of the Arts.

Lauren Smiley is a San Francisco journalist covering how the tech boom has changed the city.

Meradith Hoddinott is a radio producer based in Oakland. She has written and produced audio stories for Heritage Radio Network, 99% Invisible, and KALW’s Crosscurrents. In 2015, she founded the podcast Nordic Food Lab Radio in Copenhagen, Denmark.