'Housing first' approach touted as way to remedy homelessness

SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU) -- Elaine Buchanan spent over a decade living on the streets of San Francisco after she suffered a series of setbacks, including losing her job and the death of her daughter.

“I was actually wanting to commit suicide because I didn’t understand my pain,” said Buchanan, who succumbed to alcohol and drug addiction as she struggled to cope. She said she spent years on a waiting list at Glide Memorial Church for one of the apartments the Tenderloin District church provides for the chronically homeless.

Seven months ago, Buchanan received some news she had been praying for.

“I was so relieved,” she recalled through tears.  “I almost gave up.  But I’m glad I didn’t.”

Having a permanent place to live changed everything for Buchanan.  She said she no longer worries about being raped or assaulted in the middle of the night, and says she is now sober and off drugs.

“I don’t have a desire to drink anymore," Buchanan said. "I see the crack coming up the street (and) I see people smoking crack and it don’t bother me.”

Her story illustrates the success of what is described as a “housing first” approach to solving homelessness, meaning the first step to helping anyone on the streets is to get them into housing and then provide the services and support they need.

The Rev. Cecil Williams and his wife, Janice Mirikitani, who founded Glide Memorial Church, have been on the front lines in the fight against homelessness for over 50 years. Mirikitani says once a homeless person has housing, the follow-up is crucial.

“A homeless person, when you have them housed, will not retain their housing if they are not supported," she said. "If you don’t continue their recovery, if you don’t have medical care and case management, it’s very difficult.”

Mirikitani says there are a range of programs at Glide for the homeless because everyone’s needs are different.  The church’s programs target several underlying programs that can lead to homelessness, including mental illness, drug addiction, advancing age and being part of the LGBT community.

“The people who are homeless are perceived as that’s their choice in life (or) that’s their way of life and that’s not” true, Mirikitani said. “So many people are homeless because they’ve lost their jobs; so many people in San Francisco are newly homeless because of the rents.”

Fueled by demand from highly-paid tech workers, the median rent in San Francisco has skyrocketed to $4,500 per month, according to a recent survey by Zillow.com.

Also, demand has nearly wiped out available space in single-room-occupancy hotels, which are owned privately, but through contracts with the city, provide rooms to hundreds of homeless people.  Many SRO landlords are now renting out those rooms for more than $1,200 per month.

The number of available SRO rooms plunged from 340 to 76 from the 2014-2015 fiscal year to 2015-2016, according to the city’s Homeless Outreach Team.

“That’s where we’re taking a nosedive in San Francisco (and) that’s where our pipeline over the next six years just looks frightening,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, who works with the Coalition on Homelessness. “So if we continue on this direction, if we think it’s bad now, we’re going to see a massive explosion in the number of people living on the streets.”

A lack of affordable housing is one of the biggest challenges facing Mayor Ed Lee’s newly formed city department to deal with homelessness, called the Mayor’s Office of HOPE, (Housing Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement).

Backed by an annual budget of $221 million, Lee has set an ambitious goal of getting 8,000 people out of homelessness over the next four years. Sam Dodge, who is second-in-command in the new municipal department, acknowledges it’s an immense task.

“It’s a big challenge but we live in a community that thinks easily about self-driving cars and stem cell therapy," Dodge said. "I know that we can do this.”

The Mayor’s Office of HOPE is planning next month to move out of its cramped office quarters in the basement of City Hall and expand from six employees to more than 100.

“What we haven’t had the opportunity to do is to work together as a system and really all row together in the same direction and put all our assets towards the same strategies,” Dodge said.

Former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown does not share Dodge’s optimism.  He says there’s no way Lee can accomplish such an ambitious goal.

“There clearly isn’t enough affordable housing," Brown said. "There’s not enough available housing and the process we go through and the speed with which we engage in, you probably will expire by the time the unit gets built.”

Brown said the number of homeless people in the city has doubled since he was mayor because of what he describes as the migration of homeless people to San Francisco.

“They are in other locations and there’s no doubt that people tell them how much better off they are if you are in need in San Francisco versus some other place," he said. "So they will migrate to San Francisco. And we are a very generous city.”

Brown thinks the problem of homelessness can be solved only if there are changes on a state and federal level.

Sam Dodge says the city is gradually finding space and buying up properties where homeless people can live.  Although the number of homeless people on city streets has remained relatively unchanged for about a decade, Dodge says the city provided housing to an additional 1,300 homeless people last year.  

He said the “housing first” approach is the best way to help the chronically homeless. People like Elaine Buchanan who has spent years on the street. 

She said her heart is filled with gratitude because she finally has a place to call home. “I’m very grateful,” she said.  “And I finally stopped running.”