San Francisco just released its first point in time (PIT) count of homeless and unsheltered people in the City since before the COVID-19 pandemic. A group of city workers and volunteers scoured the city on February 23, 2022, tallying those most vulnerable members of our community who live without adequate shelter in this prosperous City by the Bay. The findings of the PIT count make for sobering reading.
We are all aware that in 2020 there was an immediate and concerted effort to get unhoused people inside—or at least into ‘safe sleeping’ programs that connected them with services and provided them with a stable place to pitch their tents. It became apparent that the missing ingredient in change was simply the appetite for it to happen.
Shelter-in-Place (SIP) hotel programs were put in place in early 2020 after community members pushed for a solution that would allow vulnerable people to stay safe from the pandemic. The Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a plan to house people in hotels, leaving the mayor no choice but to open rooms to unsheltered San Franciscans. No one wanted people on the streets without adequate sanitary provisions, possibly spreading disease. When the issue of homelessness had to be solved to benefit rich people who could not buy their way out of risk from COVID, things became better fast. The slight but meaningful improvements shown in the new PIT report are a direct consequence of that year of compassion and increased resources being applied to the problems faced by those who live here but do so on streets and in parking lots and open spaces.
There was a 15% decrease in unsheltered homelessness in the period between the PIT counts in 2019 and 2022. This decrease directly corresponds to the significant increase in housing and shelter resources that was triggered in response to COVID in 2020, as well as housing opportunities funded by Prop. C. It proves that real change can be affected by putting resources into the kind of shelter that really helps people.
Total homelessness, both unsheltered and sheltered, decreased by 3.5% between 2019 and 2022, with a 9% reduction in homeless households with more than one person. These figures represent meaningful positive change in the lives of the people who were served by the SIP hotel program and Prop. C investments that came into play in 2020. But the numbers on the page can never tell the full story of the lives saved, the futures secured, and the dignity and hope restored to those who were assisted by these programs—including me and my child, who came inside in November 2020 after over five years unhoused, and entered the SIP hotel program.
San Francisco’s shelter system capacity increased by 829 beds—a 24% increase between 2019 and 2022. This expanded capacity is reflected in the 15% decrease in unsheltered homelessness. Seniors, veterans and families saw some positive change. Senior people were targeted by the SIP program due to being particularly at risk of severe COVID infection and complications. Youth homelessness dropped by 6%.
I was surprised to see that family homelessness only fell by 1%, from 208 to 205 households. This reflects the long term economic damage wrought by COVID, and the impact of ever-spiraling rental prices in the Bay Area.
There is bad news just below the surface of these meaningful but narrow gains: Homelessness, like the rest of society, is subject to racial disparities and lack of equity.
While white people are under-represented in the figures, most communities of color suffer from homelessness at disproportionate rates. Black, African American and African people make up only 6% of San Francisco’s population, yet 38% of the 2022 PIT survey respondents were from these communities.
The Black community suffers disproportionate risks as a result of structural racism, including discrimination in housing, health services, extreme and devastating racism in the criminal justice system, and racism surrounding employment opportunities.
Hispanic/Latinx people made up 19% of the homeless population in 2019, but by 2020 that number rose to 30% of the unhoused population. American Indian and Alaskan Native people, as well as Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander people, also suffered homelessness at an increased rate. The racial disparities are being targeted by the City via various programs.
LGBTQ people were found to also be at increased risk of homelessness, with 12% of the general population of San Francisco identifying as LGBTQ but 28% of survey respondents belonging to this population. Also, LGBTQ people tended to experience their first bout of homelessness at a younger age than the straight/cis population, and reported a higher rate of HIV/AIDS-related illness.
The human toll of homelessness is evident in the numbers of homeless people who experience chronic and severe physical and mental health issues. It is clear that those most in need of assistance often end up suffering and struggling on the streets of San Francisco. In this beautiful, rich city we live in, 39% of homeless people identify as having a disabling condition. The unhoused people who responded to the survey reported terrifying levels of food insecurity. We are failing to provide basic health care, sustenance and support to the members of society that need it most. People who are impacted by racism, homophobia and transphobia, who have grown up in the foster care system, or been impacted by domestic violence, often end up with nowhere to live, no health care and not enough food to sustain life, let alone health.
These figures paint a picture of a city that made huge strides towards providing long-term and meaningful assistance and shelter, but whose effort has stalled without the force of a life-and-death pandemic driving the people with the money and power to act in meaningful and practical ways that make a difference. In order to make real and lasting change for vulnerable people suffering from both new and chronic homelessness, there needs to be a passion for change. Of course, when society sees a benefit to itself in making things happen quickly, as was the case in 2020, when getting people off the streets helped slow the spread of a deadly disease, then things get done. Now that the world is getting used to a “new normal,” that passion has somewhat dissipated, giving way to the old apathy.
The City counted 7,754 homeless people in February 2022. This number is a reflection of the situation, yet some unhoused families and individuals remained unseen and uncounted. It is estimated that as many as 20,000 people will experience being homeless in San Francisco over an entire year, which is one of the definitions of chronic homelessness. For every household in San Francisco that transitions from being unhoused to permanently housed, approximately four become homeless.
The resounding success of the SIP hotel program has made lasting and positive change for the kind of shelter provision available in San Francisco. The homelessness response system does aim to eventually make homelessness a rare and brief state, but in the meantime a combination of outreach and coordinated entry to assist people in getting into shelters and linked up to help partly fills that huge gap between need and provision.
The SIP hotel program opened up 2,228 rooms across 25 hotels, but has been winding down since June 2021 and will end later this year. Over 1,200 participants of the SIP Program were helped into housing, and it is expected that another 700 more will be assisted into housing by the time the program ends later this year.
The SIP program worked; it worked for me. It is unfathomable to me that this fantastic program that has made such inroads into actually solving the issue of homelessness for so many people, including families with children such as my own, is not being expanded and protected. When the program closes down entirely later this year, I suspect San Francisco will see a terrible and inhumane rise in the numbers of unsheltered people of color, disabled people, seniors, families with children and members of the LGBTQ community.
In addition to the hotel program, and inspired by the SIP success story, there has been a greater emphasis on providing non-congregate and semi-congregate shelters, ranging from cabins to trailers and hotel-based emergency shelters. The safe sleep program has put in place safe parking for those who live in their vehicles and campers. There are answers out there that give people the privacy and dignity that is rightfully deserved, and help unhoused people make meaningful improvements to their quality of life.
The survey findings of 2022 are clear: The pandemic triggered a response which got many people off the streets. Providing non-congregate shelter and support works, but there are lingering and devasting disparities based on race, gender, sexual orientation and disability. In the end, the question that San Francisco’s affluent population needs to ask itself is whether it wants to punish addiction, bad luck and poor health, and perpetuate racism and homo/transphobia, or actually fix the issue of homelessness and get people inside, fed and cared for adequately so they can contribute to society and live meaningful and dignified lives? Ask yourself not what feels easiest, but what these statistics show works. If you are living inside and don’t want to look out at scenes of deprivation and suffering, if you are upset by the dirty streets and the people having to live their lives outside in full view, then it is to your benefit to push for non-congregate and semi-congregate shelter to be provided. We can solve these problems with compassion—not punishment, denial and cruelty.
Money is wasted when it is poured into programs and provisions that do not work. We now know what works. We made a leap and made these changes rapidly, proving the problem is not intractable, nor does it take a long time to fix. Homelessness is solvable if San Francisco wants it to be. That might sound idealistic, but as I sit here, inside, in my apartment, a SIP Hotel Program success story, to me it is an undeniable truth.