Homeless families face new challenges as access to necessities decrease

It is difficult enough as it is to find stable housing as a single person experiencing homelessness in San Francisco; to be a family in a housing crisis can mean facing a different set of challenges on top of everything else. According to the San Francisco Department of Human Services only six short-term shelters and three extended housing programs exist as a resource for the over 1,000 homeless families with more than 3,000 children within the city. The total number of beds available for short and long term shelter is around 500, not even able to serve 15% of the family members potentially in need.

“Families face multiple severe struggles when seeking housing,” says Lenine Umali, the Director of Communications at Compass Family Services, a large homeless service provider in the city. In order to search for housing, families need time and focus, and therefore require childcare as they pursue leads and apply for housing. “Families also struggle to search for housing while at the same time searching for employment that would help them qualify for housing on the market,” said Umali. Families may also be in need of mental or physical health assistance to fully address their well-being, depending on the situations they come from.

Once they are entered into a shelter, families should ideally be able to work with a case manager to create a plan for stability. Julia D’Antonio, a shelter client advocate with the Eviction Defense Collaborative, says it is not that simple.

“Right now case management is a huge issue,” said D’Antonio. “There’s a high turnover rate for case managers. Once a case manager is great at what they do, they move up into higher positions which is great for them, but hard on families.”

D’Antonio also points out that while short-term, 60-day shelters require a case manager to be assigned to each family, once those 60 days are up, families are once again left without assistance and often fall back into the cycle of homelessness. Continual access to quality, personal case management has proven to be a necessity in re-housing homeless families. One family service in particular has seen a major change recently regarding case managers.

The City, because of contract changes, forced Compass Family Services to let go of  case managers and discontinued their walk-in/drop off pantry services where families could easily access food, diapers and other items that they could otherwise not always afford. “The location of Compass has been central. It’s easy for families to get to,” said D’Antonio.

Families rely on Compass for providing both short-term and long-term support, particularly because the organization is often the entry point for homeless services for many families. Part of the services that Compass provides are mental health services as well as childcare.

One of their most notable programs has been their drop-off/walk-in goods pantry where families are able to pick up necessities for the week. With these new changes, many will no longer have access to this important service. Families already going through housing problem-solving programs with Compass will still have full access to the pantry and families on CalWORKs will be able to receive diapers and bus tokens from Compass for free, but beyond that, people relying on Compass solely for these walk-in goods who have not yet been entered into the system, either due to their own choice or long waitlists, will have to turn to other resources. “It is to ensure that all families who are seeking goods and resources from the Access Point are also being tracked by the system and assisted by our housing problem solvers with their situation,” said Umali.

Some believe these cuts are due to the way San Francisco has implemented a Coordinated Entry System for homeless families. As Compass has been defined by the city of San Francisco as an access point for homeless families, ideally families who register with them will be able to be quickly transitioned into stabilized housing, but in reality this is not the case. The Department of Homelessness and Supporting Housing has found that, on average, homeless families do not receive long term shelter until an average of 111 days.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) developed the idea of Coordinated Entry as a way to grant people experiencing long-term homelessness rapid re-housing, but it has been up to counties to implement the coordinated entry program, and San Francisco has not been very successful in its own implementation. With the closing of the walk-in pantry, families are forced to turn to other, less convenient places for their goods.  Homeless Prenatal has a similar walk-in type pantry but it is located in Potrero Hill — a commute that’s often far too onerous for working families.

“I think (the homelessness department) don’t think those goods and needs aren’t necessary,” said D’Antonio, “If they followed a family around for a day they’d see that they are necessities.”

Compass understands that new compliances with Coordinated Entry are a shock. “We expected these changes to be a shock to the families that relied on the previous system, but we all believe that this will lead to better, more efficient practices that will actually lead people to exit homelessness,” said Umali.

While Coordinated Entry itself is not the problem, not everyone agrees with the way Coordinated Entry has been implemented because it has created more complications, without focusing on the root of the problems causing family homelessness. “It’s a numbers game,” said D’Antonio. “They just want to say how many families they house.” The City does have a five-year plan to reduce homelessness but their focus remains mostly on the success of the Coordinated Entry system, and fail to recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all road to housing. What the city considers affordable housing is too expensive for most families struggling to get back on their feet after periods of homelessness and long-term shelters are still only semi-permanent.

Umali and those at Compass believe Coordinated Entry will be able to succeed if the voices of homeless families and their needs are clearly communicated to the city. “Though these changes may lead to better things in the future, the reality is that the changes are impacting families who are struggling to survive on a day-to-day basis – many of whom can’t afford to wait for certain types of services and whom undergo even more trauma as they are informed of the changing situation.” ≠