The Homeless Crisis In San Francisco That Nobody Is Talking About

CREDIT: Shutterstock

Daisy first became homeless when she was 18 years old after she left a verbally, emotionally, and physically abusive household in Hayward, California to move across the bay to San Francisco. Over the next year, she slept in shelters and on friends’ couches, in their garages, and in their cars. Even with those challenges, she enrolled full time at City College and held down a job.

People were always amazed to learn that she didn’t have a home while doing all of that. “They couldn’t believe it, like, how could you be at school full time, how could you work full time, and still be homeless?” she said. “It’s very possible in the Bay Area – highly possible – especially for a young person.”



CREDIT: Shane Downing

For many city residents, homelessness is all around. They often think of the man publically urinating on Market Street or the woman sleeping on a sidewalk in the Tenderloin neighborhood.

But homelessness in the city also looks like Daisy, a young person going to school and work with no where to live. According to the most recent point-in-time homeless count, 1,441 youth between the ages of 18 and 24 are either sleeping on the streets or in shelters on any given night. Over 20 percent of San Francisco’s homeless population is between the ages of 18- and 24-years-old.

Despite well-intentioned assessments, affordable housing plans, and partnership initiatives between the city and community outreach groups, progress in addressing the lack of housing for this demographic is alarmingly slow. The longer these youth remain without supportive, appropriate housing, the more likely they are to become chronically homeless as adults.

By definition, transitional age youth, or TAY, are between the ages of 16 and 24. They are in the process of transitioning out of public systems, including foster care, and into life as independent adults. The demographic is at a high risk of incarceration, substance abuse, homelessness, and more.

Becoming homeless during this time can have a lasting impact. “For a young person, having an extended period of homelessness is really going to relegate them to a bleaker future,” said Bevan Dufty, San Francisco’s director of Housing Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement (HOPE), and Mayor Ed Lee’s (D) go-to point person for homelessness.

Homeless youth are more likely to practice high-risk behaviors and often struggle with mental health issues. According to the city’s 2015 homeless count and survey, TAY have more than double the rate of HIV/AIDS than their older, homeless peers (13 percent versus 6 percent for the broader population).

They also face numerous educational and employment barriers, which impedes their chances of becoming self-sufficient, financially stable adults. Nearly 40 percent of San Francisco’s homeless youth over the age of 18 have not completed high school or received a GED. Nationally, young people who experience homelessness are 87 percent more likely to stop going to school, according to a 2014 report.

Taylor, 24, spent most of her life at other’s people houses, sleeping on their floors and couches. Her mother struggled with mental illness and couldn’t hold down a steady job.

Like a lot of TAY coming out of difficult living situations, Taylor has struggled to find housing in San Francisco. When she went to Larkin Street Youth Services last year, it was her first bed in a decade.

But she knows how critical having a home is for someone near her age. “For people to become successful, you have to have stability. You have to,” she said. “I have to be housed in order to feel like I can do something with my life.”

The city is also aware of how important housing is when it comes to helping this population. “We have organizations that are doing a very good job of serving this population – we just can’t house them,” Dufty said. “It’s not a service issue, it’s a housing issue.”

But San Francisco is in the midst of a housing crisis. On average, the city has added just 1,500 units annually over the past 20 years – even as the population continues to grow by tens of thousands.

In 2007, San Francisco made new housing for TAY a top priority. At any given time, there was approximately four and a half times the number of homeless youth in San Francisco than there was available housing. To address this, the mayor’s office, under the directive of then-mayor Gavin Newsom, created a TAY Housing Plan, which set a goal to create 400 additional units of housing for this population by 2015.

According to Anne Romero, a project manager with the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, “the reason that we selected 400 units was because we thought that that was something that was actually achievable.” But even 400 wouldn’t be enough. Romero admits that it was not going to match the number of TAY actually requiring housing.

Even so, the city is nowhere close to reaching its goal this year. As of this month, 263 of the 400 units have either been completed, are under construction, or have land identified to begin construction. That leaves 137 units up in the air.

The economy is partly to blame for the delay. The TAY housing goal was initially discussed before the recession hit. “When the economy went bust, it held up a lot of the building of affordable and subsidized units in this city,” said Glenn Eagleson, San Francisco’s citywide lead for TAY services.

There’s been another big obstacle for TAY housing development: neighborhood opposition. The pushback comes from NIMBYists – residents who don’t want to see these kinds of low-income housing developments in their backyards. They dispute anything from zoning changes to environmental impact reports to the potential of increased criminal activity in their neighborhoods. With resistance like this, TAY housing developments can miss important funding deadlines, adding years to a project’s timeline. Some transitional housing developments, such as the Booker T. Washington and the Edward II facilities, were delayed by over three years because of lawsuits and appeals.

“These appeals have the effect of literally taking needed housing out from underneath young peopled during a critical period of their lives,” said Adele Failes-Carpenter, director of the San Francisco Youth Commission.

In the debate over how to house the homeless, TAY are often invisible. “People don’t tend to think of youth when they think of homelessness,” said Eagleson. “They tend to think of the middle-aged guy on the street corner that they see.”

“People often think that all of these homeless people are people that came from somewhere else,” Eagleson explained. “They’re choosing to be Bohemian or they’re choosing to be here.” But he noted that half of them are natives of the area, and for the others who may come for the weather, they’re no different than other people who migrate to the city.

“We don’t turn our back to the 40-year-olds who come to the Bay Area because they like the weather, why should we turn our back to the 20-year-old who came for the same reason?” he asked.

Shane Downing is a writer in San Francisco covering homelessness and transitional age youth.