by Sam Lew
The rollout of San Francisco’s homeless coordinated entry system has been one fraught with controversy and conflict.
The opposing teams? The City vs. front line service providers: social workers, outreach workers, and case managers who see that the system is not working.
The coordinated entry system is a federally mandated system. Every county in the United States has implemented one of their own over the past couple of years and each is unique, although they are to accomplish the same goal: to increase efficiency and efficacy: Instead of giving homeless people the runaround to access services and case management from nonprofits and city agencies across town, coordinated entry is supposed to be a one stop shop where one would be assessed based on a vulnerability index and subsequently prioritized for housing and services that they are qualified for through that assessment.
But what happens if you aren’t even fully assessed once the Department of Homelessness deems that you are not homeless enough?
That’s exactly what is happening to hundreds of San Francisco’s homeless families.
In San Francisco, the definition of family homelessness — also recognized on the federal level through the federal McKinney-Vento act and on the statewide level— includes two key populations that are perhaps even more invisible than the already less visible homeless family population: families living doubled up (in an overcrowded living situation, on someone’s couch, etc) and families who live in single room occupancy (SRO) hotels. In both situations, families are in inadequate shelter, with sometimes upwards of eight people living in one room. In both situations, the negative outcomes for children — educationally, psychologically and developmentally — are similar to those of children who live in shelters and on the streets. These families deserve to receive equitable access to the same services and housing as would any other homeless family.
According to the SRO Families United Collaborative, a coalition of community groups that organize families living in SROs across the city, there are over 700 families living in SROs, the majority of them in Chinatown and many who have been living in these conditions for over a decade.
Ivy, a homeless mother living in a Chinatown SRO hotel says, “In my room, I have a twin-sized bed in there. There are four people, one son and two daughters. When we have to eat inside the room, we sit in the bed because we don’t have any other space. We have to use something in the room for the kids to relieve themselves because the restrooms are just too busy and they can’t wait so they do it in the room. This is what we face all the time. Our kids go to the restroom while we’re eating and it stinks like hell and this is our life. I have been here for seven years living in the SRO. I always take opportunities to apply for affordable housing, but no luck. I have no way of finding housing. I hope that the Coordinated Entry system would take care of some of our families. We need an opportunity to get our housing.”
The Department of Homelessness will have a bit more trouble excluding families with the passage of last year’s Prop C. Proposition C, a local voter initiative passed last November which requires taxing corporations for services and housing for unhoused communities, specifically mandated that funds for homeless families were required to include those living doubled up and in SROs.
It’s a dire problem that homeless advocates have been fighting since the creation of coordinated entry. The Homeless Emergency Service Providers Association, a coalition of over 27 of the City’s homeless providers, including the Coalition on Homelessness, has raised this issue for the past couple of years, arguing that these homeless families are being systematically excluded. Even worse, there is no means of tracking how many of these families are turned away. Advocates are only asking that SRO and doubled up families be included in the system so that they can be eligible for services and housing.
Maria Alvarez, who lives with her family in an SRO in the Tenderloin, is a tragic reflection of the decades that homeless families live in these conditions and desperately want a way out: “I have been fighting for 20 years to find housing and my children are already grown and I was not able to make that possible for them. What’s even more painful is my daughter is already married and has three children of her own and they live in an SRO.”