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Frequently Asked Questions
About Family Homelessness

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Who are we talking about when we talk about "homeless families?"

There are multiple definitions of homelessness. The federal definition includes only families that are unsheltered (sleeping in tents, cars, etc.) and those in homeless shelters (historically abbreviated as “streets and shelters”). San Francisco’s definition is more expansive and includes families living in spaces that aren’t appropriate for a family including those living in single room occupancy hotel rooms or doubled or tripled up with other families in spaces that are not meant for multiple families. The experiences of homeless families vary in many ways. Compass has supported families living in tents, couches, cars, and even a raft. At times, there are excessive numbers of people living in just one apartment or unit. In one case, Compass worked with a family living in just one room in the Mission with a total of 30 people. These families are doing whatever they can to keep their children sheltered or, when that’s not possible, at least safe. As one might imagine, parents have to make some incredibly difficult compromises when in this position, sometimes putting their own safety and well-being at risk (as is common with domestic violence situations). While there are families who do live in tents, it is much less common than with other homeless populations. Many parents hold the very understandable fear that their children may be taken away from them if they are seen living in a tent. While it is not legal for children to be removed from their parents solely due to homelessness, mistrust continues.

Do homeless parents experience the same issues as the homeless people we see on the street?

Yes and no. Homelessness as an experience is extremely traumatic and most everyone experiencing homelessness shares common issues related to that trauma including constant fear and uncertainty, not having somewhere where they feel safe, challenges accessing food and hygiene, etc. Human beings, whether in a family unit or alone, are not designed to sleep outside. Homelessness is caused by a lack of affordable housing. In San Francisco, a lot of public attention focuses on unsheltered adults who use drugs and those with severe mental illness. While substance use is not absent from the population of families experiencing homelessness, it is less common and typically less severe when it is present. Parents experiencing deep and severe addiction will most likely lose custody of their children and thus, will not be eligible for the family system (they will go to the single adult system unless/until they can regain custody). Additionally, parents living with serious mental illness (the type that might require significant intervention) are less frequently engaging with the family homelessness system for the same reason – if functioning is impaired enough, these parents will likely lose custody of their children. ​ Family homelessness is often hidden. It’s likely that you would walk by most families Compass serves without ever imagining they are homeless.

What is Coordinated Entry, and what does it mean for how families access shelter and housing?

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires local communities receiving federal funds to address homelessness to operate Coordinated Entry Systems. HUD developed the concept of Coordinated Entry following an increase in national homelessness with the foreclosure crisis of 2007-2010. Coordinated Entry replaced a first-come, first-served model of shelter and housing intervention waitlists with a model that assesses and sorts applicants by their level of need. Coordinated Entry acts as a front door for connecting households facing homelessness with shelter and housing. Coordinated Entry Access Points identify, assess, and prioritize homeless individuals and families for housing and services, based on vulnerability and severity of need through a standardized process. San Francisco implemented Coordinated Entry in 2018. The primary principles of Coordinated Entry are: Prioritization. People with the greatest needs receive priority for any type of housing and homeless assistance available in the area. Low Barrier. Housing and homelessness programs lower their screening barriers in partnership with the coordinated entry process Housing First Orientation. People are housed quickly without preconditions or service participation requirements. Person-Centered. Individuals and families receive choice in where they want to live, and in the services they engage in (but this is tricky in the SF Bay Area, where there is so little housing stock available) Most Appropriate Housing Intervention. Ensure that people experiencing homelessness receive the right housing intervention (but again, this is tricky, if not impossible in the SF Bay Area, because there is such a dearth of any type of housing, so just because a family needs, for instance, permanent supportive housing, that does not at all mean that they are going to get it). Multiple Entry Points to Services. San Francisco currently has three family access points: Central City Access Point, operated by Compass, and Bayview Access Point and Mission Access Point, operated by Catholic Charities. Coordinated Entry prioritizes unsheltered families over those with shelter, even when that shelter isn’t sufficient. Families under the federal definition of homelessness are served before those that fall in the broader San Francisco definition. As a result, families living in conditions that are unsafe or unfit for children (for example, a whole family in an SRO hotel room or doubled or tripled up in a unit with another family or families) rarely are able to access the shelter system or housing options linked to Coordinated Entry, because they are lower priority, and the capacity of the system is extremely limited.

How does Coordinated Entry Work?

When a family comes to a Family Access Point, they are assessed by staff who collect a great deal of information about the family’s current situation and history (note that this retelling can be traumatizing for families). That information is entered into San Francisco’s Homeless Management Information System, the Online Navigation & Entry (ONE) System. The information is filtered through the City’s algorithm and the assessed family is given a prioritization score. If they score high enough, they can be offered shelter and/or housing (see info below for what options exist in the system). Families that don’t score high enough are assigned “Problem Solving” status, meaning they cannot access housing programs at this time. These families can still be placed on the shelter queue, or access emergency shelter. However, in San Francisco the beds in this category are currently very limited. Compass assists families with “Problem Solving” status to find other solutions. For example, if a family has relatives in Reno who could take them in for a bit, Compass can provide them with transportation support to get there. Typically, Compass is not able to solve many housing crises with problem solving, but occasionally this works. The threshold that a family needs to meet to get on the housing list is not static. The City adjusts the threshold score based on the availability of housing options in the system. If there are not many housing units available and there are a lot of families coming in for housing, the City will adjust the threshold score up so that only those who score very high will be eligible.

What shelter and housing options are there?

Shelter: There are a few different types of shelter that exist in San Francisco: •Emergency Shelter – these are shelters that are just for sleeping. They are “mat on the floor” shelters where families cannot enter until a certain time in the evening and must leave early in the morning. Possessions cannot be left in the shelter so this is not a great long-term solution for anyone but can be very helpful on a very short-term basis. Currently, the availability of this type of shelter is very limited for families. The only shelter of this type in San Francisco is Buena Vista Horace Mann, which is available only to families with at least one child enrolled in SFUSD (not available for those with just young children). Families do not need to go through Coordinated Entry to access this type of shelter. They can “self-refer.” This shelter tends to be at capacity each night. •General Emergency Shelter – Emergency shelter is available through Coordinated Entry and provides guaranteed accommodation to families for a limited amount of time (time limits were suspended during the COVID crisis and reinstating them is under discussion). Families have an assigned space (typically a room) and can store belongings on-site. They can also access the space throughout the day. Typically, these shelters, including Compass Family Shelter, provide private rooms. Facilities vary and have different features. For example, some may provide hot meals each day while others have available kitchen facilities for families to use. Case managers support shelter residents to address various aspects of stability, including finding housing solutions so that they can move on from shelter into something more permanent. Compass Family Shelter provides 22 families at a time with private rooms with private bathrooms, and a broad array of support services. •Transitional Housing – this is an option that is not very prevalent in San Francisco. Families can get referrals to Transitional Housing through the Coordinated Entry system. Stays are typically longer than with emergency shelter, varying by facility (6-18 months), and there are intensive services on-site to support families in reaching stability so that they will be prepared to stay housed after exit. Compass Clara House is a Transitional Housing property hosting 13 families at a time in private apartments and offering a broad array of support services. •Urgent Accommodation Vouchers – Compass currently offers the City’s only Urgent Accommodation Voucher program for families. With this program, families are placed into short term hotel stays when other shelter options aren’t available. Compass Urgent Accommodation Vouchers (CUAV) offers hotel stays with limited support services to 130 families at a time. Housing: There are also a few housing options that families may be offered (Compass offers all of these through Compass SF HOME and The Margot): •Rapid Rehousing – Families are provided with time-limited subsidies (frequently two or three years) covering the majority of their rent and allowing them to secure housing in units on the open market. Housing locators help families search for housing, negotiate with landlords, and move into their new homes. Once housed, families are assigned a case manager who provides support throughout the duration of the subsidy to help them increase their income and address other barriers, so they are able to afford to stay in their unit at the end of the subsidy period. A few notes about Rapid Rehousing: This is the option most frequently offered to families because it’s the most plentiful. Rapid rehousing is a great tool, but many families need more intensive support to be successful. Often families are given rapid rehousing because it’s the only available option, but they really need permanent supportive housing to stay stable. Families can be housed up to two hours from San Francisco, so about half of rapid rehousing families get placed outside of the City in locations such as Richmond, Vallejo, Antioch, Tracy, etc. •Site-Based Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) – Families are placed in units in dedicated buildings, such as The Margot, with support services onsite. They are able to stay in their units permanently, which offers families real, long-term stability and gives children a real sense of security. Families pay a portion of their income (one-third) for as long as they are in the unit. •Scattered-Site Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) – This is a hybrid between rapid rehousing and site-based PSH. Families receive a subsidy to get housed in a unit on the open market just like in rapid rehousing, but they will receive the subsidy forever. With this option, families don’t have to live in dedicated PSH buildings, giving them more flexibility. It’s a great option for families that are not likely to be able to significantly increase their income, but who don’t need as much active support as is provided when in a site-based program. •Housing Ladders – Through the housing ladder model, families that have been successful in site-based PSH for at least two years can move into scattered-site PSH with a housing subsidy. This makes room for families that need site-based support to be able to receive that, while continuing to support families that no longer need that level of support services but do need financial support with housing.

What is the wait time for a family to get into shelter?

Through Coordinated Entry, families that are unsheltered (meaning they are living on the streets, in a tent or in a vehicle) are given first priority. That said, there can still be long waits for unsheltered families to get into shelter. Wait times depend on available inventory in the system and how many families with similar or higher need, as determined by the Coordinated Entry scoring process, are seeking shelter at the same time. This can be particularly troubling when the weather is bad and for families who have medical needs, including pregnant parents. Relatively recently, the City has begun to rely on temporary hotel stays for unsheltered families when shelter is not available. But these, too, are typically at capacity.

What other organizations are serving homeless families and how do they all intersect?

There are a number of organizations serving the homeless community in San Francisco in a myriad of ways. This is quite fortunate as the need is great, but this very populated landscape also creates a good deal of confusion. One important note is that the organizations receiving funding from San Francisco’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing are generally segregated into three primary streams: Individual Adults, Transition Aged Youth, and Families. There are separate coordinated entry systems for each stream and organizations commonly specialize in one stream. Some large organizations, including Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army, operate in multiple systems and serve more than one population. There are number of other providers in San Francisco supporting homeless families including, but not limited to, Hamilton Families, Homeless Prenatal Program, Dolores Street Community Services, and Catholic Charities. Compass works with our sister organizations in many ways including through collaborative advocacy work with the Homeless Emergency Service Providers Association (HESPA), a coalition that works to advocate for the needs of the homeless population. Additionally, as opportunities arise, we partner with other providers on special projects. For example, we’re embarking on an exciting multi-year, randomized control trial of Guaranteed Basic Income for clients with our sister agency, Hamilton Families.

What is it like for children to experience homelessness?

Of course, there is no one experience of childhood homelessness. Some common themes include feelings of a lack of safety and security, hunger, and stress. Children in homeless families get sick more often than their housed peers and have more chronic illnesses like asthma. Children who have experienced or are experiencing homelessness are likely to have more unmet behavioral health and developmental needs than their housed peers. Older children miss more school, change schools with greater frequency, and are more likely to be behind in school due to lost instruction time. Even when parents can shield their children from many of the harsh realities of homelessness, they are dealing with a level of stress that most of us will never experience, and that stress has a way of trickling down to the children. Consistent stress can make it difficult for parents to be fully emotionally available for their kids, causing further challenges. When kids get a safe place to stay, the relief and the joy is palpable. Getting their own bed (and sometimes their own room!) is a huge milestone. This is what keeps many of us doing this work and is why we believe so strongly that every child deserves a safe and stable home. The transformation kids go through once they are housed is often profound.

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