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Key Takeaways from the Voices of the Unseen Panel

Yesterday, Compass Family Services hosted a panel to discuss the release of the collaborative new report, “Voices of the Unseen: A Real Count of Homeless Families,” which was authored by a group of providers and advocates in San Francisco.

The panel on December 7 was moderated by Kyriell Noon, CEO of Hamilton Families, and included speakers Erica Kisch, Chariana Jones, Liberty Henegan, and Antonella Hernandez (not pictured)

An Invisible Crisis

When most San Franciscans think of “homelessness,” they often picture unsheltered individuals sleeping on the streets, living with acute addiction, in tents on neighboring blocks. There is a significant amount of political pressure to fix this type of homelessness - the one that is easy to see.  While no one should be without a safe and stable home, media and administrative  attention that focuses solely on individuals experiencing visible, unsheltered homelessness can drive the plight of homeless families out of the spotlight. Unhoused families often work hard to stay below the radar out of fear of punitive responses from the child welfare or immigration systems. They’re also less often found on the streets, instead resorting to ‘couch surfing’ with friends or family, living in vehicles, or overcrowding into single rooms alongside multiple families - a pattern known as “doubling up”.

While these families may stay out of the public eye, they still need services and support. Yet inadequate resources are directed toward this group, due to inconsistent and inaccurate undercounts of the population.

Giving Voice to the Unheard

On December 7th, Kyriell Noon, CEO of Hamilton Families, moderated a panel at Compass’s 37 Grove St. office that included Compass CEO Erica Kisch and three mothers experiencing homelessness. Following Erica’s summary of the issue and the goal of the “Voices of the Unseen” report, the mothers each shared their personal stories of fear and uncertainty navigating a response system that hasn’t served them well.

Chariana Jones became homeless after escaping domestic violence with her daughter. Due to housing uncertainty, Chariana has been displaced from her daughter who is staying with family. She hopes to find a stable and secure home where her daughter and her can live together again and share family moments.

“Now, my safety is more at risk … with me not being housed permanently or sufficiently. I have more of a probability of running into that same type of domestic violence situation. And that’s not just regarding me, that’s true of any man woman or child [facing homelessness].” - Chariana Jones, domestic violence survivor

Liberty Henegan has six children, one of whom is just four months old. Liberty says that many programs turned her away because they aren’t equipped to help larger families like her own. Before finding shelter, she and her children lived in their car out of fear of facing violence in open cots at emergency shelters. 

“There's so many people like me in my position. There’s so many people that got kids and they're scared to go to the shelter or don’t want to put in the necessary footwork to beat down these doors to say just help me please.” 

“Being in the {private room} shelter has made things better for my children. They play sports, they’re able to go on field trips, they’re not missing so much school, because we have a stable foundation.” - Liberty Henegan, shelter resident

Antonella Hernandez first came to America 12 years ago without legal immigration status. She had to manage working nights while spending days in the hospital with her daughter who was facing major health issues. While she has spent the past six years in a single occupancy room, her situation is not safe or tenable for her family. There are currently as many as 10 people living in the room; Antonella and her family have recently opened their home to another family in need of a place to stay.

“I’ve been [at the SRO hotel] for six years now, but the conditions are not good … There are rats, there is mold, there are cockroaches, some of the people living there have drug issues. That is not a good place for my daughter. So I want to have a better place … but it’s difficult to find help.” - Antonella Hernandez, SRO hotel resident [translated from Spanish by interpreter Elisa Gonzalez-Garcia]

Listening, Not Just Hearing

Chariana, Liberty, and Antonella were asked what they would most like San Francisco to do next year to better support homeless families, and a common theme emerged:: Listen to us. See us.

“Listen. Let’s start there.” - Chariana Jones

“I have a fifteen year old son and I have a twelve year old daughter. I want the city to see the future of San Francisco. I want the city to see them.” - Liberty Henegan

“I would like for [the city] to listen to us, and to see all of us and each of us as we are.” - Antonella Hernandez [translated from Spanish by interpreter Elisa Gonzalez-Garcia]

Working Together to Shine a Light

The published ‘Voices of the Unseen’ report asks the city to urgently put together a Family Point-in-Time Count to accurately represent the size of the family homeless population in SF. The report and its supporters are also asking for increased services and big picture system transformation.

“It is all of our responsibility to bring family homelessness out of the shadows and get real about the severity of this terrible problem, get real about the numbers, and make sure that the appropriate level of resources are being deployed.” - Erica Kisch, CEO of Compass Family Services

“Voices of the Unseen: A Real Count of Homeless Families” was produced by the Coalition on Homelessness Housing Justice Workgroup and the Family Subcommittee of theHomeless Emergency Service Providers Association (HESPA), with support from Chinatown Community Development Center, Dolores Street Community Services, GLIDE, Hamilton Families, Homeless Prenatal Program, SF City Vitals, and Compass Family Services.

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