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When San Francisco Mayor London Breed issued the nation’s first shelter-in-place order in mid-March, some San Francisco families were panic-shopping and wondering how on earth they would stay inside their homes for several weeks. Other families were grasping at straws to get inside at all.
They were making unthinkable choices. One single mom told my coworker that she would rather engage in survival sex—i.e., trade sex for a place to sleep—than go to a congregate shelter where she would risk exposing herself and her child to the virus. She had reached a point of desperation where sleeping in a room with one stranger felt safer than sleeping in a roomful of strangers.
At Compass Family Services, we often hear the reasons homeless parents don’t feel safe exposing their families to large, open-plan shelters—reasons that have only become more acute since the pandemic hit. We operate San Francisco’s central city access point, a gateway program that matches homeless families with available shelter and housing from the city’s portfolio.
Homeless families like that single mom come through our doors in desperate moments of their lives. We have short windows of opportunity, sitting across from them or physically distanced on the phone, to offer better options than the ones they have in front of them. The clock is always ticking, and in a pandemic especially, time is not on our side.
And sometimes, neither is money. The public dollars that pay for the bulk of our work are limited and therefore highly restrictive, with rules and regulations that determine who we can help and how. Our homeless response system has problem-solving funds, but they can only solve problems for the highest-need families on the housing queue because there are not enough funds to go around. Similarly, homelessness prevention funds can only go so far to prevent homelessness: families can access them only once every three years, regardless of need; income limits can disqualify gig workers and others with irregular incomes; and certain rules exclude undocumented families and others living in the margins.
Human services providers have always grappled with systems designed to manage limited resources as much as respond to social problems like poverty and homelessness. But the pandemic upended the system by flooding it not just with extremely low-income families, but with low- and middle-income families whose incomes also plummeted overnight. In California, 2.3 million payroll jobs have evaporated; at Compass, the incomes of the families we are serving have dropped on average about $450 per month; and there are fewer shelter beds in the system than there used to be because of the need to physically distance the beds. The rules have been slow to adapt if they have adapted at all, with the ironic result that funding streams have slowed as community needs have exploded.
As good stewards of public funds, nonprofits like ours operate within a tightly controlled chain of accountability: we answer to our funders; our funders answer to officials; and officials answer to entrenched constituencies within the voting public. Real and perceived political pressures—in recent years, voters have issued cruel and conflicting mandates to “get people off the streets” without wanting to pay for it—result in incomplete and underfunded service systems. When San Francisco voters finally chose to double the city’s investment in housing and mental health for homeless people, powerful groups thwarted them in the courts.
Which forces uncomfortable choices on front-line service providers: Do we say “yes” to homeless families and bend the rules that make us accountable for the public funds that shore up our shelter and housing programs? Or do we say “no” and lose sleep at night knowing that families are losing far more sleep living in cars and tents? Should we do what we know is right, or should we do what will look right on paper when the immediate crisis is over and our programs are audited?
Joe Wilson, executive director at Hospitality House and my cochair in our local Homeless Emergency Service Providers Association, explains it this way: “Choices have consequences. Consequences have faces and names.”
Providers of homeless services have struggled during the pandemic to make the right choices without damaging our relationships with public funders. We asked for permissions—to use problem-solving funds for short-term hotel stays, for example—and we lost precious time when permissions came too late or not at all. We asked for mass testing to prevent outbreaks in open-plan and shared facilities; we asked for hotel rooms so that unhoused people could shelter in place like everybody else. When we got a few rooms, we were asked to keep them vacant: They were quarantine rooms for people expected to test positive.
We need to prevent community spread, not simply react to positive tests, among homeless people. Ultimately, philanthropy made a preventive strategy possible, enabling two shelter operations—one at Wilson’s Hospitality House in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, and the other at Providence Foundation’s First Friendship Family Shelter in the Western Addition—to relocate to nearby hotels where shelter residents could isolate. It worked.
Compass and other family providers joined forces on a similar project: Within days we secured a hotel site and negotiated terms to fill 30 rooms with families coming to us unsheltered, either from the streets or dangerously close to it. We pooled ideas, donations, and relationships, and some of our strategies, like relying on take-out meals, even helped local businesses stay afloat. Our philanthropic hotel is operating outside of the official system, but definitely alongside it: We are catching the families that official criteria have left behind.
The City has opened its own shelter-in-place hotels, but mostly for those who meet strict medical vulnerability criteria. As homeless service providers, it is our belief that with a public health directive to shelter in place, anyone who cannot do so because of their living situation is also medically vulnerable. To be sure, some people are more medically vulnerable than others, and public officials can and should prioritize those with underlying health conditions. But to prevent what is preventable—namely, spread and death among people without safe housing—we must also respond to structural conditions of poverty and homelessness.
Some officials have indicated in conversation that they agree with us in theory, but practically, they see their hands as being tied. They need a small army to staff the official hotels, which represent an expansion in a contracting fiscal environment. State and local revenue streams are collapsing; accountants project towering deficits; and while some billionaires have poured resources and supply-chain expertise into problem-solving for the public health, others seem to be sitting by while three- and four-figure donations trickle into the City’s relief fund. In refusing to open thousands of hotel rooms to those sheltering in tents, City officials may be limiting their exposure in case federal agencies do not come through with promised reimbursements and other support.
These fiscal pressures are real, but fiscal pressures are usually cited to rationalize the status quo rather than reframe the conversation about what it would take to end homelessness. The director of San Francisco’s Human Services Agency said in an e-mail that it would not be “fiscally prudent” to open several thousand hotel rooms to unhoused people during the pandemic, though public health experts countered that sheltering everyone equitably would both flatten the curve and help reopen the economy, saving people’s livelihoods.
Without such big-picture, holistic problem-solving, homelessness simply grows as wealth concentrates alongside it. San Francisco is an extreme example: We have more billionaires per capita than any other city in the world, as well as one of the nation’s highest rates of unsheltered homelessness.
The problem is not that there is no money—as even homeless service providers are guilty of telling ourselves when we reflect on how difficult the work has become—but rather that the decisions have already been made not to spend it on homelessness and the racial, gender, and economic injustices that create and perpetuate it. As a society, we have financialized housing instead of produced it as a public good; we have let housing and land use policies be driven by rather than protected from capitalism and racism; and we have underfunded our human services sector by tens of billions of dollars, bloating budgets for police and other public services at the expense of human services. We have paid human services providers 70 cents to do a dollar’s worth of work; we have refused fair wages for work we have called “essential” throughout this pandemic; and we have developed rules to cope with these structural funding gaps rather than close them for good. And we have put service providers—who went into this work to make a difference, to say “yes”—in the impossible position of saying “no” to people making desperate personal choices as a result of our collective inaction.
There is something insidious that happens when we restrict access to resources that should be accessible by right. Rules rationalize our choices about who deserves help and with what; they prime us to accept the economic and social inequities that underlie our choices; and they help us think a little bit less about the consequences—their faces and names. As Virginia Eubanks put it in her book Automating Inequality, the rules in homeless service systems allow us “to distance ourselves from the human impacts of our choice not to act decisively.”
When I think as a service provider and policy person about how we should catalyze a response to homelessness as a result of this pandemic, it strikes me that as a society, we lack vision more than resources, values more than data, and decisiveness above all. We can restructure federal tax policies to free up the resources to produce deeply affordable housing, create permanent housing subsidies, and deploy flexible financial assistance to prevent homelessness. We can shift the State of California’s one-time, block-grant approach to homelessness in the direction of deep, ongoing investments. We can redouble housing preservation efforts at the local level and help service providers acquire and operate sites, including hotels. We can build workforce programs that connect homeless people to a range of real career opportunities in fields like public health and green energy. We can raise the minimum wage and fully fund a fair wage for human services staff, including and especially the case managers, janitors, and desk clerks on the front lines of the pandemic in our homeless response systems. We can ask philanthropy to keep doing what it’s good at: moving money fast, piloting new ideas, and institutionalizing partnerships and learning.
There is a lot we can do, but how we do it matters. We not only have to change the rules; we also have to reimagine their role in the movement to end homelessness. If we move forward without real leadership from homeless people—and real partnership from service providers—then we will write rules that manage scarcity rather than expand access to resources and promote racial equity and human dignity in service delivery. If we use arbitrary or overly broad factors to regulate who we can help with what and how often, then we will write rules that prioritize consistency and bureaucracy over the natural rhythms of life and the discretion we need to respond to problems creatively. If we use multipart criteria to restrict who can get a foot in the door, then we’ll be paying for the door but writing the rules to keep it shut.
The streets of San Francisco are filled with people who have been kept out all their lives. It is time to let them in.