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10 Years On, ‘Housing First’ Misses Many

Creative Solutions to the Housing Crisis

Thousands wait in shelters and on street for a chance at recovery

The cover story in the fall 2014 print edition. Buy a copy in print. Stories rolling out online this fall.

After a decade of ambitious reforms and hundreds of millions of dollars spent trying to rid San Francisco of homelessness, the problem seems as knotty, gritty and intractable as ever.

What more can be said about the issue?

Lots. We learned a great deal about how the offer of basic accommodations — what is called in the social service sector “housing first” — might disrupt the cycle of poverty, mental illness and addiction.

While the theory was sound, San Francisco’s homeless population turned out to be a moving target.

Inequality increased dramatically across the city. Rents rose, squeezing those at the bottom of the housing market the hardest.

At the culmination of the “10-Year Plan to Abolish Chronic Homelessness,” the city has built nearly 3,000 units of affordable, subsidized supportive housing. But the evidence on the street is that there are many more waiting than offered spaces each year.

Reporter Angela Hart interviewed city officials, social service workers and people transitioning from living on the streets to homes.

She found that two large agencies — the Department of Public Health and the Human Services Agency — still have work to do to coordinate their offerings and get supportive services to the right people. Reforms to the triage system could give those waiting for a room at least an idea of when they might get off the streets or out of a shelter.

But even the politicians who set the city down the housing-first path recognize that not enough money has been reserved to match the rising demand for supportive housing.

This special report, supported in part by the Fund for Investigative Journalism, also delves into the reasons why housing is beneficial to mental health, and why the San Francisco jail has become the city’s psychiatric institution of last resort.

Project Stories

1. Promise of Supportive Housing for Homeless Faces Reality of Short Supply

10 years after pledging to help neediest on the street with “housing first,” City Hall reforming system that leaves clients in dark about a home

Published Nov. 13, 2014

2. Formerly Homeless Residents May Face Higher Eviction Rate Than Other S.F. Tenants

Even in supportive housing, some residents struggle to avoid eviction

Published Nov. 20, 2014

3. Q&A: Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi on San Francisco Jail System

S.F. jail increasingly looks like a psychiatric institution

Published Nov. 21, 2014

4. INFOGRAPHIC: How San Francisco Places Homeless Into Supportive Housing

Published Nov. 13, 2014

5. Sentencing Reform Side Benefit: Behavioral Health Court Expansion

Reduced sentences for felonies could redirect millions to alternative legal programs

Published Nov. 25, 2014

6. S.F. Alternative Court Provides Lifeline

How one woman recovered from mental illness with the help of a compassionate judge at a specially tailored city courtroom

Published Nov. 25, 2014

7. How Homelessness Can Compromise Mental Health

Studies show insecure housing can create or aggravate psychological problems

Published Dec. 8, 2014

8. Traumatized By The Streets: Two True Stories About the Struggle to Find Housing In San Francisco

Published Jan. 12, 2015

9. Schizophrenia Diagnosis Puts People First in Line for Benefits

Local agencies hope Social Security will extend pilot program

Published Dec. 9, 2014

10. Thoughts on HomelessnesS FROM sAN FRANCISCO CIVIC LEADERS

Eight leaders in homeless policy reflect on what they see as the biggest impediments to overcoming chronic homelessness 

Published Dec. 10, 2014

11. As Neighbors Decry Spread of Homeless Encampments, One Mission Resident Opens Her Home Instead

Police invoke sit-lie law to move homeless from city center into other areas

Published Dec. 19, 2014



cover and flow chart images by Patrick Sean Gibson //

comic about mental illness and homelessness by Dan Archer //

faces of policy-makers by Anna Vignet //