Hundreds of housing units for the homeless are sitting empty. Why can't S.F. fill them?

One year ago, a damning investigation uncovered that 888 units of S.F's permanent supportive housing had been left vacant for years, even as the city's homeless population grew. The investigation found that the city had failed to track or maintain its inventory of vacant units, and that some units

Hundreds of housing units for the homeless are sitting empty. Why can't S.F. fill them?

San Francisco's homelessness crisis is visible to anyone who lives in or visits the city. And yet despite the obvious need for action, the city continues to struggle to place homeless individuals approved for permanent supportive housing into open units.

New data released to The Chronicle Editorial Board by the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing shows that of the approximately 7,800 people who are homeless in San Francisco, 2,100 have been approved for a subsidized, permanent supportive housing unit. By all rights, they should be indoors.

But that's not easy — even after the city promises you a place.

One year ago, a damning ProPublica investigation revealed that 888 units of San Francisco's permanent supportive housing, which are earmarked for people living on the streets, their cars or in temporary shelters, were sitting empty. (Disclosure: The report was compiled and written by Nuala Bishari, who is now a Chronicle Editorial Board member.) That's not because there was a shortage of people to fill them; more than 1,600 people were on the waiting list for the units — 400 of whom had been waiting for more than a year.

At the time, city officials with the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing blamed a limited software program that didn't accurately capture data, a shortage of case managers, complicated intake paperwork that people had to complete and resistance from unhoused people to accept units without bathrooms or elevators.

A year later the problem has only gotten worse.

As of the end of February, the city reported 912 units were sitting vacant, approximately 10% of its total stock. That's far more vacancies than the city is comfortable with. City officials say their goal is to have a 7% vacancy rate, to accommodate people transferring between rooms and buildings.

They aren't hitting that target. While there was some vacancy fluctuation month-by-month in 2022, the number of empty units never dropped below 800, including hundreds of units that are marked 'offline,' due to pending repairs or cleaning.

At the same time, there are currently 340 people approved for housing who have spent more than a year sleeping in shelters and on the streets while they wait for a permanent home.

That's unconscionable.

In fairness, the city is trying new ways to improve these outcomes. The housing department's two-year budget includes a new investment of $62 million for case managers in an effort to raise wages, reduce turnover, attract more staff and reduce caseloads from an unwieldy 85 tenants per manager to 25. It has also sped up the transfer paperwork to housing providers and is sending referrals of people who are ready to move in batches instead of one by one. And it's made a temporary team — tasked with moving homeless people from shelter-in-place hotels into permanent supportive housing during the height of the COVID pandemic — permanent. Today, 17 staff members are charged with helping housing providers and the city negotiate the bureaucracy of moving people indoors.

'We don't want to see vacancies at a high rate,' Shireen McSpadden, director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, told the Editorial Board during an interview last week. 'I think we've made a lot of improvements in our system over the past year and a half.'

Perhaps that's true, but the data tells a different story.

A year ago, when the average time between being approved for housing and handed keys was 85 days, the city said it was aiming to cut the time to 30 to 45 days. But last week, when asked what progress they'd made, officials disclosed that wait times had actually gone up. In fact, they've more than doubled. It now takes an average of five months, or around 150 days, to move someone experiencing homelessness into a home.

That's a shameful length of time for a program allotted $356 million each year.

San Francisco, like the rest of the country, uses a system called coordinated entry to determine which people experiencing homelessness qualify for housing. It's a list of questions designed to capture those 'with the greatest need and vulnerability,' according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which it defines as people who are older, suffering from addiction, mental health issues or physical disabilities, and who have spent many years on the streets. Each question is scored, and if someone hits a certain threshold of points, they're put on the list for permanent supportive housing.

It is not perfect. It has been demonstrated that coordinated entry systems across the country have a higher percentage of people of color than those who are white. San Francisco spent over a year redesigning their system. It should be ready for launch shortly. These fixes may help. The homeless people in San Francisco who are still waiting for a unit are those the city considers most in need. This should not be a surprise as it means their path to indoors is easy and quick.

It's clearly not.

San Francisco has hundreds of empty units of housing and more than enough people to fill them. Continued vacancies and delays are unacceptable. At the very least, the city should do an in-depth audit of its permanent supportive housing program to diagnose exactly where the process is collapsing. And then, it should do everything in its power to get hundreds of people off the street as quickly as possible.

Anything less is an embarrassment.

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