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10 Things I Learned About Homelessness at Our Community Workshop

At the Impact Hub in the Mission District, a workshop tackled problem-solving for initiatives by the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. Photo by Garrick Wong // San Francisco Public Press/Renaissance Journalism

It was a dizzying day at our Jan. 25 conference, Solving Homelessness: A Community Workshop.

With dozens of speakers and hundreds of side conversations among the 200 attendees, it was clear that the reporting we’ve done at the Public Press to gather and investigate just a few of the most intriguing ideas for solutions to the human rights crisis playing out on our streets daily has just scratched the surface.

By engaging the community, we opened ourselves up to criticism but also reaped the reward of an activated public. Many attendees — neighbors distressed by the sight of people living on the sidewalks and in marginal shelters, as well as subject experts who have devoted their lives and careers to helping stabilize people’s lives — said they learned new things and got inspired to follow up with proposals for fixes to broken systems.

I was surprised to learn a few things too. Here are 10:

  1. Mark Farrell wants to be the homelessness mayor.  That’s what Jeff Kositsky, the director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, told me after rushing in after a series of meetings with the new mayor about his priorities Farrell — the surprising choice for a caretaker mayor after his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors ousted the board president, London Breed, from her temporary job — is very focused on making progress on homelessness, he said. But what can he possibly get done before the special election in June? 
  2. Wheels for the homeless are a sticking point. Kositsky clashed with activist Amy Farah Weiss, whose Saint Francis Homelessness Challenge advocates building temporary structures on wheels organized into ad-hoc clusters on city or donated private land. Kositsky is a fan of building a range of experimental small housing structures, including legal accessory dwelling units in backyards and basements. But anything with wheels, which are hard to get to conform to building and health codes, is a problem for a city department focused on permanent housing.
  3. Alaska is the socialist vanguard. Ken Fisher of the Economic Justice Project/Truth Be Told presented one of the more in-vogue, if quixotic, ideas — universal basic income. Granted that there aren’t many scenarios in which local and state government could provide large checks to every citizen to cover the basic cost of living here, he did provide one counterintuitive example: the Alaska Permanent Fund for decades has given checks to every resident as a dividend from oil industry royalties. Where is California’s commodity windfall to level the playing field for the poor?
  4. S.F. really is a homelessness “magnet.” The third rail of homelessness policy in San Francisco is the so-called magnet theory — the question of whether, by providing generous services and subsidized housing, City Hall is drawing homeless people here. Kositsky pointed out that in recent surveys, about half of the newly homeless in San Francisco came from somewhere else (mostly other cities in the Bay Area). That’s a different slice on the same survey that also says that about 70 percent of all  unhoused homeless were living in the city when they became homeless. I asked him if the data on churn in the newly homeless lent credence to the “magnet theory.” He said no. His point was that we need regional solutions, in which cities cooperate to help people out of homelessness where they come from. However ...
  5. We theoretically can afford to house everyone. “The reality is that we’re serving about 20,000 people a year, with about a third of our budget,” Kositsky said of his department in a talk at the close of the event. “We just cannot build our way out of this.” In fact, he could afford to do it — with a budget of about $750 million a year. That’s three times the current budget. It’s not cheap, but it’s also not technically impossible, considering the city’s budget this year is topping $10.1 billion.
  6. There are many missing persons. One of the most surprising presentations was by Kevin Adler, whose nonprofit organization, Miracle Messages, helps connect homeless people with their loved ones. Some people struggle with mental illness and thus problems doing the research themselves. Others are ashamed. The organization reunites them with family members and friends who can help support them either here or in other parts of the country.
  7. Welcome, village people. Several presenters envisioned micro-housing — tiny, private abodes that can be built for a few thousand dollars each. These are not exactly Weiss’s idea of mobile structures, but rather permanent small villages. The key to neighborhood acceptance, said architect Charles Durrett, is attractive design.
  8. Not in my parking space. You’ve probably heard the phrase “not in my backyard.” Architect/designer Richard Tsai has produced renderings of his proposed “Park Shelter”: beautifully furnished industrial shipping containers that can each fit into a standard parking space. The approach is sound, assuming the requisite political will: The streets are public property that localities can put to a public purpose, and there are more than enough parking spaces to house every homeless person in one of the steel boxes, he said. But what is lacking is the consensus that spots for cars should be sacrificed to get people out of being exposed to the elements in tents, sleeping bags, cardboard boxes (or even their own cars).
  9. Businesses, too, can help. On a panel of people who have experienced homelessness, Shanna Orona (a.k.a Couper) has quite a story to tell. She was a firefighter who lost her job and split with her domestic partner, and through the economic tumult ended up on the streets. She said that when she was living in a tent, people wouldn’t look her in the eye. It was humiliating. The Impact Hub San Francisco, a co-working space in the Mission District where the conference was held, offered her a space in their parking lot for a micro-home on wheels built by St. Francis Homelessness Challenge. In exchange, she helps out with events and logistics. More businesses could do the same, though it’s not at all clear this is a scalable solution. (Read more about Couper and her box home here.)
  10. People care. Of about 200 people who attended the event for the whole day, many were already working on solutions through their jobs or activist projects. But probably the majority were average concerned residents, looking for a way to help. The conference was a chance for them to get up to speed quickly and offer their reflections on solution ideas that were already in motion. And in afternoon workshops, nearly everyone had a chance to speak and offer their own ideas.

At separate breakout groups, participants discussed possible solutions involving mobile transitional villages and services beyond housing. Photo by Garrick Wong // San Francsco Public Press/Renaissance Journalism

At separate breakout groups, participants discussed possible solutions involving mobile transitional villages and services beyond housing. Photo by Garrick Wong // San Francisco Public Press/Renaissance Journalism

Did you attend “Solving Homelessness: A Community Workshop” on Jan. 25? Did you come away with other assessments? What made a big impression for you? What are the most promising — and most problematic — proposals for solutions? Add your thoughts in the comments below, or on our Facebook page. And sign up for our email newsletter for updates and follow-ups on the event.