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S.F. had bold plan to cut chronic homelessness in half in 5 years. The numbers only got worse

San Francisco Chronicle 9/20/2022 By Mallory Moench and Kevin Fagan
SF had a plan to cut homelessness in half but numbers got worse. Homeless man Alvin Craig Calloway moves belongings after being told to leave Russ Street in San Francisco. He has been on the streets for almost 30 years. © Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

SF had a plan to cut homelessness in half but numbers got worse. Homeless man Alvin Craig Calloway moves belongings after being told to leave Russ Street in San Francisco. He has been on the streets for almost 30 years.

In 2017, San Francisco’s top officials announced an audacious goal: Cut the city’s chronic homelessness number in half over the next five years.

A few months earlier, the city had received support to help reach that goal — $100 million in pledged private expenditures from a nonprofit aiming for the same five-year reduction, complementing the city’s more than $250 million annual homelessness budget.

“This is going to be huge,” then-Mayor Ed Lee told The Chronicle at the time about the initiative by nonprofit Tipping Point. “I do believe we’ll be able to cut chronic homelessness in half with this help.”

As San Francisco approaches the end of the five years in December, it seems clear the city will fail to cut the number of chronically homeless in half. In fact, that number is higher than it was in 2017 — 2,691 compared with 2,138.

Despite a reduction over the past three years in overall homelessness and an explosion in the city’s budget to tackle the crisis, moving the needle on chronic homelessness remains elusive. The group is defined as those who have a disabling condition and have been unhoused more than a year, or more than four times over three years adding up to 12 months.

People who are chronically homeless can have complex health needs and be the most vulnerable and challenging to support. Alcohol or drug use was the main cause of homelessness for chronically homeless people, compared with job loss for others, according to a small survey done as part of this year’s larger homelessness count.

While the city and Tipping Point made some progress, the city is failing because despite housing thousands of chronically homeless people, the number of those newly becoming chronically homeless snowballed, officials and advocates said. The pandemic, inefficient systems and changes in city leadership also slowed the effort.

Some critics said the five-year goal was unrealistic and doomed from the start.

“Everybody loves a f— plan, but they are a fool’s errand, just being done for publicity or more funding,” said Paul Boden, director of the antipoverty nonprofit Western Regional Advocacy Project. “Housing will fix homelessness, not more plans.”

Homelessness department spokesperson Emily Cohen said the goal was “always bold” and “aspirational,” but “goals like this are set to become an organizing force.”

Despite being on track to fail to meet five out of nine goals in the 2017 plan, the city isn’t giving up on setting targets.

Officials are already working on the next five-year plan, set to come out in January.

The goals will emerge as officials face pressure from San Franciscans to make a difference on the streets, with The Chronicle’s recent poll revealing homelessness is the city’s top issue. San Francisco’s spending on the crisis ballooned to $1.3 billion in the current two-year budget, flush with hundreds of millions in new local tax dollars plus federal and state help. The city boosted shelter beds and opened new supportive housing, and officials say resources helped cut homelessness by 3.5% in 2022 compared with 2019.

Chronic homelessness dropped by 11%, but it’s still higher than in 2017. The number remained around a third of the total homeless population.

Those numbers come from a one-night biennial tally, a known undercount. While this year’s count, conducted in February, reported around 7,750 homeless people on that one night, officials estimate a total 20,000 will be homeless over the course of the year.

One of them is Alvin Craig Calloway, 58, who’s been homeless for 26 years. He said he has had trouble staying in shelters because of what he sees as onerous rules, and can’t find adequate housing combined with substance-use rehabilitation.

“Whatever five-year plan they had didn’t do anything,” he said, sitting the other day next to his heaped shopping cart near the corner of Russ and Minna streets in SoMa. “I mean, I’m still out here. My own five-year plan is to be around my family again, go to my brother’s church, have a place to live. But as far as I can tell, that’s going to take a miracle.”

Tipping Point said its plan didn’t take into account the increase in how many people would become homeless, and Cohen said the city’s framework didn’t have adequate data to project that number. The city now estimates that for every person who exits homelessness, four more lose their housing.

Cohen said that while the city has made progress in housing people who are already chronically homeless, it’s not been very successful at preventing it by quickly housing people who’ve been homeless for less than a year.

Cohen said the pandemic also delayed rolling out the full strategy because staff were diverted to focus on keeping unhoused people safe from COVID-19.

Coalition on Homelessness director Jennifer Friedenbach said the 2017 framework fell short because it lacked specifics.

“We’ve never felt like that strategic framework adequately captured the need, and that was a big complaint,” Friedenbach said. “And then we never felt like it identified the resources to even meet the goals.”

The city’s five-year framework touched on different efforts to halve chronic homelessness, but didn’t set concrete benchmarks for each one. They included creating a coordinated data system to prioritize chronically homeless people for permanent supportive housing, adding more housing, focusing on prevention and helping people move out of supportive housing into their own apartments to free up units.

The city did launch a new system called Coordinated Entry, an algorithm that prioritizes the most vulnerable people for housing. The 2017 framework said the city expected to use Coordinated Entry to house 3,600 chronically homeless people by the end of 2022.

The city has since housed 7,271 people, and the vast majority were chronically homeless, said Cohen.

She said that means more tenants have higher health needs and may require more intensive services, such as mental health or addiction treatment, than are already offered in their buildings. She said her department is working with health officials to provide those services.

Friedenbach and other critics say Coordinated Entry has been a “broken promise,” creating a bureaucratic nightmare with barriers and bottlenecks. Cohen acknowledged it’s been a mixed bag, and the city is currently redesigning the system.

Officials also said they would create a citywide tracking system to bring together 15 databases. The ONE system is almost fully implemented — three years late — with the hope it will eliminate inefficient duplication and identify what hasn’t worked for an individual and what might.

The framework additionally pledged to create more permanent supportive housing, but didn’t specify how much. The city has nearly doubled placements from 6,652 to 13,299 units over the past five years, but it’s still not enough.

The city did move hundreds of people from permanent supportive housing to units with fewer services such as public housing. But the city agency that runs public housing couldn’t issue additional vouchers due to a budget shortfall in 2019, Cohen said.

Tipping Point’s five-year plan, while sharing the same goal, differed from the city’s in that it funneled resources directly into new initiatives.

CEO Sam Cobbs said that while he’s never been a fan of plans like these, the five-year timeline “really does put a target on everybody’s back and makes everyone work hard. And I have to say that in this case, a lot worked.”

Tipping Point’s marquee accomplishment was a 145-unit supportive housing complex built using modular units at a factory in Vallejo, a project built at about half the cost and time of traditional construction.

Other modular projects are now in the works.

The funding also helped launch new pilot programs that the city is continuing, including giving out hundreds of vouchers for people to rent their own apartments and helping more than 500 youth get out of homelessness, Cohen said.

An evaluation last year showed that while some Tipping Point programs exceeded their goals, others fell short. Progress was hindered by the city’s slow and inconsistent pace of referrals to housing, a failure to fill vacant units and barriers to entry such as getting documentation when offices were closed during the pandemic, according to an analysis by the Urban Institute.

San Francisco business owner Tamara Freedman said a five-year plan could have been good if it had worked. But the SoMa-area shopkeeper said tents, open-air drug use and panhandling have mushroomed in her neighborhood over the last five years.

“Does it look like it worked? No,” she said. “People are dying a slow death out here. And if they’re coming up with a new five-year plan, that’s not the answer. I don’t want to wait that long.”

Mallory Moench (she/her) and Kevin Fagan are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: mallory.moench@

sfchronicle.com, kfagan@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @mallorymoench, @KevinChron

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