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The Best and Worst Ideas from San Francisco's Big Homelessness Project

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You might have noticed an uptick of stories about the Bay Area’s homeless crisis in your social media feeds recently. Dozens of news organizations worked together to coordinate the publication of stories on homelessness today—all of which are mean to specifically focus on solutions for housing the region’s homeless population.

Back in May a coalition of editors from 70 newspapers, blogs, radio stations, and TV channels met to discuss how to “flood” the city with coverage on a single day (many other publications also published their own content independently). The San Francisco Chronicle has collected many of the stories on a separate section of its site, and you can also browse #SFhomelessproject. There are timelines, infographics, photo essays, videos, and many heart-wrenching stories about women and children living on the streets. Probably the worst part is seeing how bad the problem was in the 70s and 80s, and how it hasn’t gotten better.


The coverage is meant to be solutions-oriented, meaning that in addition to addressing the problem, the stories should propose ideas for reducing the number of people living on the streets. Some ideas are radically innovative. Some ideas seem misguided at best. Here are a few that caught my eye.

Providing free mobile showers

This project is not new but it’s getting a lot of attention today. The Lava Mae is a retrofitted MUNI bus that travels around the city to give private restrooms and hot showers to people who don’t have access to them. The bus uses city water from hydrants and hands out donated toiletries.


The idea here is that giving homeless residents access to this kind of basic sanitation, no questions asked, not only provides a compassionate public service, but it also might be able to help people feel more confident about attending school or going to a job interview. [SF Gate, Lava Mae, AJ+]

Opening a community computer center

Craigslist’s Craig Newmark has done more than just offer a free place online for people to find cheap places to live. He chimes in on how he built a tech lab in the Tenderloin, where many services for homeless residents are located. The lab provides free internet access and career counseling and also trains people in tech-related fields like computer repair. [CNBC]


Addiction is treated alongside homelessness

In most cities, supportive housing will only accept residents who are clean—who have already graduated from addiction programs. If they relapse, they’re back on the streets. There’s another, more radical approach, named “Housing First,” where all homeless residents are admitted into transitional housing, then work to treat their addiction issues. This approach has been famously championed in Salt Lake City, where chronic homelessness has been virtually eliminated.


For alcoholics, this kind of housing is called a “wet house” or “bunks for drunks” and ABC7 visits one in Seattle that could work as a model for San Francisco. Residents praise the program not only for giving them a comfortable place to live while they deal with addiction, but also for providing a safe place to drink where they’re not exposed to more crime. Apparently, this type of approach works even if residents don’t get sober, simply because the city saves so much money on services. Too bad SF Mayor Ed Lee is against it. [ABC7]


Housing people with an algorithm

You have to hand it to Mother Jones for attempting to tie together the tech world and the homelessness crisis with the grabbiest headline. “Could This Silicon Valley Algorithm Pick Which Homelessness People Get Housing?” sounds like a weirdly cold and determinate way to decide who gets housing. But the idea is much like the argument for how paying for preventative care reduces medical costs down the road:

The algorithm, known as the Silicon Valley Triage Tool, draws on millions of pieces of data to predict which homeless individuals will use the most public services like emergency rooms, hospitals, and jails. The researchers behind the project calculate that identifying and quickly housing 1,000 of these high-cost people could save more than $19 million a year—money that could be rolled into providing more housing for homeless people.


It makes sense. By selecting and housing the individuals who are more likely to drain the city of funds through public services—an estimate from the study claimed that chronically homeless residents cost cities an average of $83,000 per year, much more than it would cost to house them—the city can save enough money to put those funds towards more long-term solutions. [Mother Jones]

Give people vouchers for subsidized rent

A federal program called Section 8 is known for giving out vouchers which allow lower-income residents to live in any apartment—not just designated public housing projects—at rents that are up to 70 percent lower than the market rate. This has been proven to work in many communities, but the program is underfunded at the federal level and many Bay Area landlords refuse to accept the vouchers. [Fusion]


Turn homelessness into a game

I applaud BuzzFeed for what they are trying to do. I think they are attempting to create empathy with this game, which is kind of like a Choose Your Own Adventure for pretending that you’re homeless and need to find a place to sleep.


I see that the project is trying to address the lack of emergency shelters but that’s not really what I got from it. I found the execution to be more than a little tone deaf. [BuzzFeed]


Build more housing

This solution is very obvious, but there isn’t a great deal of agreement when it comes to how the city can add critical density to its streets. Here’s a simple budget proposal from the Coalition on Homelessness, along with the financial guidelines for how the city can develop a revenue source that fuels the construction of permanent housing solutions, and gets families into homes fast. [48hills]