Government and NGOs Fight Homelessness in San Francisco: Is it Working?

homelessSan Francisco is known for being a county with forward-thinking policies toward its homeless community. The city spends over $200 million every year addressing homelessness, yet it continues to remain a major issue. Its welcoming attitude, welfare programs, favorable climate conditions, institutions and policies can be viewed both as a blessing and a curse. This expensive city with no space to lose is witnessing an escalating population of homeless migrating from all over the country, and as a result, the government has had to incur rising expenditures and responsibility with a narrow budget.

Interestingly, it costs the city more ($40,000 per homeless person) to leave them on the streets than to have them in supportive housing because of costs related to jail, arrests, emergency rooms, shelters etc. For over 6,544 homeless people, the city has a total of 1,134 beds for single adults, less than 100 for families and 40,000 households on waiting lists for public housing.

Over the past few years, we have seen a rise in the number of construction initiatives like Project Homeless Connect (which has benefitted over 67,605 homeless people in SF as of December 2012), Housing First, Shelter Plus Care, rapid re-housing and permanent supportive housing programs working to take people out of the poverty trap. At the same time, there has also been an increase in policies that criminalize homelessness, consequently making it harder for them to find jobs. What outcomes are we seeing with all of these initiatives and policies in place? Based on the 2012 Annual Homeless Assessment Report:

  • Homelessness has remained stable since 2011, but declined 5.7 percent since 2007
  • Chronic homelessness has seen a 6.8 percent decline since 2011, 19.3 percent since 2007
  • There has been a 46 percent increase (90,000 beds) in permanent supportive housing beds

The state and federal governments have been increasingly focused on ending homelessness through legislation, though funding for program and services hasn’t necessarily followed. California Homeless Youth Project, a research and policy initiative focused on informing policy makers about the needs of homeless youth has seen an increased level of awareness in youth homelessness both among legislators and community members.

However, the state’s support must also be extended to promote the growth, survival and success of social enterprises. Initiatives like First Source Hiring and Local Hire, created with the motive of connecting economically disadvantaged individuals with entry level jobs, is primarily successful in the construction industry, but not many others. Most of the funding for homeless services either comes from the federal or the local level and not significantly from the state.

Solutions SF offers training in housing jobs, such as lobby management, maintenance and pest control. They then offer staffing services to housing companies all over San Francisco. Two of their grants are funded directly by the federal government out of which the bigger one, the Social Innovation Fund, was designed by the Obama Administration to help spur innovative ways to create jobs in the country.

As a social business that provides lobby solutions by employing formerly homeless people, Solutions SF often faces the challenge of experiencing supply over demand. Though there are no particular government policies that directly hurt or help the organization’s growth, it would be beneficial to enact policies that work toward erasing the stigma homeless people face. Change happens faster when guided by powerful principles that will ensure all players of the economy are able and motivated to act together to make better choices, stay on course, and shape a stronger, healthier, more inclusive framework.


By Sanyanth Naroth, Luis Enrique Pardo, Jun Liu, Dinara Zhaxynbek and Osazuwa Osayi. The authors are Master of Social Entrepreneurship candidates at Hult International Business School.

[image credit: raging wire: Flickr cc]

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