Tilly Josephson
Account Manager, Human Services

San Francisco media is collaborating this week to highlight the causes of and solutions to local homelessness. Multiple local events are also happening today (learn about HandUp’s and Lava Mae’s below). Follow the social media conversation at #sfhomelessproject.

So much of the media we see about homelessness, and specifically the interaction between the technology sector and homelessness, is negative. But in our work every day, we see agencies succeed in helping clients find and stay in permanent housing. Organizations are also using the innovative technology for which the Bay Area is famous to increase their impact.

For this day of awareness-raising, we spoke with four Bay Area organizations about diverse causes of homelessness, and their equally diverse, inspiring solutions that are lifting up people in need.

Causes of Homelessness

A difficult economic climate and rising costs of housing have exacerbated the homelessness crisis and created increasing pressure on individuals in the community. But even beyond these particular circumstances, the ways people have landed in homelessness in the Bay Area are as unique as the individuals themselves.

Katrina Belda, Partner Support at San Francisco agency HandUp, has seen the variety of root causes behind homelessness, and the misconceptions: “When I started working at HandUp, I was able to see profiles [for individuals who were currently homeless], and the different ways people got into this situation. There’s not just one common way. Many times, it’s people who’ve been working and living in San Francisco. They had a job and then some type of family crisis happened. They had medical bills, they got behind on rent, and it just snowballed until suddenly they were homeless. A lot of people are living check to check. If you’re living so tightly, any small emergency like getting sick can be detrimental, so it’s hard to even pay for those basic needs.

“There are also a lot of cases where people come from other countries, seeking asylum. They’re fleeing dangerous gang violence, or a government that’s against them, maybe they’re gay or lesbian and fearing for their life. There are people that become caretakers for their parents, and are living with them. Then their parents pass away, and they may lose the house as well. We only see the chronic homeless on the street, and that’s only 20% or less of the actual homeless population. It’s easy to bucket people into stereotypes: maybe they’re just lazy or they’re drug addicts. There’s a much larger population with all these different situations.”

Rachel Kenemore, Senior Development Associate at Hamilton Family Center, notes that causes can also be divided by target populations: “There are larger factors that specifically affect families. The biggest is financial hardship of many different kinds: loss of a job, a physical or mental health issue that takes a lot of time or financial commitment, and domestic violence.”

The homelessness agencies in San Francisco are tackling these systemic causes with their programs, and working with other agencies to provide a full spectrum of services for different needs. See the events at the bottom of the post for some ways they’re collaborating!

How They’re Tackling Different Pieces of the Puzzle

Bay Area agencies Hamilton Family Center, HandUp, LifeMoves, and Lava Mae shared their approaches to solving different facets of homelessness.

Supporting Families with Re-Housing

San Francisco-based Hamilton Family Center works exclusively with families experiencing homelessness, and they believe getting people housed is integral to providing stability for healthy and empowered lives. “We take a multi-tiered approach,” Kenemore explains. “Our programs prevent homelessness through housing subsidies and support, provide shelter and stability for families in crisis, return families to permanent housing, support the well-being of children experiencing homelessness, and increase families’ income.”

They also conduct extensive outreach with students in San Francisco, supporting the over 2,000 homeless students in the district. “One in 25 students here does not have a stable place of their own to sleep every night,” Kenemore says. “We have a partnership with the San Francisco Unified School District. Any time a teacher, nurse, counselor, janitor, or other school staff member identifies a child who is experiencing homelessness or is at risk of being homeless, we’re called. Within one to three days, we have someone sent to the school to work directly with the families, and get them re-housed as soon as possible.”

The Center is known for its effective rapid re-housing program that began 15 years ago. They provide families rental subsidies on a personalized basis, and work with them for up to 12-18 months, tapering off subsidies as families become more stable. These subsidies provide a security net for their network of landlords who rent to the families: “Over 86% of the families we work with are successfully back in stable housing,” Kenemore says. “So we see this as a one-time solution. We have a fantastic group of case managers who work closely with these families as they’re going through this process to help them make healthy, financially sound decisions for them to create and regain stability for healthy lives.”

Bridging the Funding Gaps

At San Francisco agency HandUp, the core concept and solution is providing flexible funding for individuals. Belda explains the problem they are trying to solve, “Government programs and a lot of grants are limited to very specific things that people can use the money on. There’s a housing voucher, for example, but they can’t use it to pay their security deposit or first and last month’s rent. There are these small barriers that are blocking people from moving forward. Having a state ID, birth certificate, or social security card is not something the state will pay for, but it’s blocking them from a lot of applications to get housing, or services, or larger funding.

“We are trying to be that flexible funding for people to use right away and not cause barriers. We’re trying to find and uncover where all the gaps are, and fill them. The big blanket budgets don’t always meet everyone’s needs.”

HandUp is a crowdfunding site that offers online profiles of individuals to which donors can give, and campaigns for organizations raising money for poverty alleviation program needs. As well, they have physical $25 gift cards, which donors can purchase and give out on the street to a fellow San Franciscan in need. The card recipient can bring it to one of HandUp’s participating partner nonprofits and trade it in for clothing, food, and hygiene items. If the card goes unused after the expiry date, the donated money will go to someone else in need.

“We’ve raised $1.25 million to date that’s gone directly to clients or programs, and helped nearly 2,000 individuals,” enthuses Belda. Over 5,100 goals on the site have also been met, representing both individual and nonprofit fundraising needs, with goals as diverse as work supplies, medical help, and resources to see family.

Providing a Plan and Life Skills

At LifeMoves, a Menlo Park-based agency which runs 17 shelters in San Mateo and Santa Clara county, their main goal is to return homeless individuals and families to stable housing or self-sufficiency through life skills.

“A lot of our clients are working homeless,” says Carolyn Hooper, Manager of Marketing and Communications at LifeMoves. “They’re typically working two to three jobs at minimum wage just to survive and, with the cost of housing, they’re not able to pay the rent. Clients who decide to come to LifeMoves have to follow a program. The main focus of our organization is really to help the working homeless figure out a plan to get them self sufficient long-term.

“We help them get life skills, build their resume, and practice interviews in order to get a better paying job. We also work to help them to secure affordable housing, figure out their income and make it work.” Stories that LifeMoves shared with us are illustrative of the diverse landscape of homelessness and the skills necessary to survive:

Paul, a veteran living in San Jose, suffered from PTSD and other health problems after his service which made it difficult to return to his old life. Mounting medical expenses forced him into homelessness. With the help of LifeMoves case management, he was able to create a plan that helped him pay off debt, find housing, and secure a job, as well as set up a 401k plan and savings.

Herminda became homeless after her husband’s behavior became violent, and she sought safety for herself and her daughter. After completing a domestic violence shelter program, she was referred to LifeMoves, who provided therapeutic children’s services and helped her find full-time housing and employment.

Penny and Robert moved to the Bay Area to get specialized care for their two disabled children, who had both suffered medical emergencies. They stayed in a motel short-term, but soon ran out of money. Working with LifeMoves, Penny learned how to plan for the financial future, saved money while in the program, and ultimately found housing they could afford in Santa Clara.

Returning Dignity through Hospitality

Lava Mae, a relatively new San Francisco nonprofit that takes retired MUNI buses and turns them into mobile showers and restrooms, works to deliver what they call “Radical Hospitality” to the homeless population.

Neil Shah, Lava Mae board member, and Director of Development and Partnerships at Code Tenderloin, shares his thoughts on the organization’s philosophy: “Lava Mae was founded on the idea that society has different standards for dignity for those with resources versus those who lack them. What attracted me to Lava Mae was really the idea of delivering Radical Hospitality, which we define as an unexpected level of care and respect.”

Living in homelessness has a strong emotional component, and Lava Mae’s approach works to restore optimism and instill a sense of opportunity while moving people through homelessness. “The facilities are very clean,” says Shah. “I go every Saturday and help clean them and talk to the guests. We call them guests instead of clients, because that’s hospitality. You’d be amazed at someone’s attitude before they go in and after they step off the bus stairs. It’s an amazing transformation.” Lava Mae has received hundreds of inquiries around the world about replicating its model, and is currently putting together an affiliate program and toolkit.

The Role of Technology in their Work

Working in the Bay Area positions local agencies to have a unique relationship with technology and the tech sector. We loved hearing a few of the ways that technology is helping them improve the lives of individuals facing homelessness.

Ability to Connect

Technology like websites and social media helps to power the work of numerous agencies by connecting those in need with those who want to help. “Technology is our whole platform,” says Belda of HandUp. ”We’re using technology to reach that larger audience and connect the dots. We’re able to connect donors directly and immediately to people in need that are fundraising on our site, and spread their stories in a mass way so they’re accessible to anyone who wants to help or is looking to contribute.”

Other new technologies play a part in surprising ways. “We have a really fun field day planned this week for some of the kids staying at our Transitional Housing Program,” says Kenemore of Hamilton Family Center. “There is a group of Google staff who will be bringing drones! Flying these drones is really fun and also not a typically accessible experience for a lot of these children and youth we work with. Having space for the kids to play and be kids, as well as connecting and having meaningful, safe connections with trusted adults like this has proven to be a really important factor in healing the trauma that occurs from experiencing homelessness.”

Opportunities from Technology Partnerships

Homelessness agencies in the Bay Area collaborate with movers and shakers in the technology world to bring additional resources to those they serve. “We partner with tech companies to bring skills to clients,” says Hooper of LifeMoves. “LinkedIn comes in and does a skill training with our clients, Adobe helps them understand how to build a resume. Many of our partners bring skillsets to clients.”

Kenemore remarks, “[Hamilton Family Center] worked with Twitter over the last year to build a digital learning center at our shelter program, and we’re working with others to build out another learning center in our transitional housing program. Just having a place for students to be able to check into their school portal, know their teachers, or play educational games is so valuable.”

She notes that what arises from these partnerships is often unexpected and ingenious: “We’re building out some digital learning curriculums with Yammer, like coding camps. We have amazing generous fiscal support from tech companies like LinkedIn, Google, Adobe, Genentech, and Salesforce, as well as a lot of technical assistance and volunteer support. So many things have been brought to the table by these relationships. Twitter came in and said: we have the resources to build a digital learning center, and Google asked, what would the kids want on the field day? And we said, I don’t know, face paint? And they said, how about drones? It’s the creativity of what people bring to the table.”

Flexibility to Changing Needs and Informed Decision-Making

Behind the scenes, these homelessness agencies use internal tools to seamlessly operate, track their data and gain insights into their programs.

“HandUp has backend tools where caseworkers can work with clients to set up profiles or set up campaigns,” says Belda. “We also have accounting tools and log transactions, so that everything can be reported on and how it was spent. We track our offline gift cards, and have backend tools to manage the organizational fundraisers on our site too.”

“Hamilton Family Center uses Salesforce as our data management system for all our participants of our programs,” says Kenemore. “It’s been integral in tracking the success of our work, how we need to change what we’re doing, and how we can continuously grow to serve a changing population.”

“Our system is also really phenomenal way of capturing data and capturing stories. It’s allowed us to become even more data-driven than we were in the past. We’re working on a new campaign to scale up our housing solutions, that was driven by the data we captured and reported on in our system. Since the recession, the number of homeless families in San Francisco has doubled. The current provider system of Hamilton and other nonprofit organizations can carry about 250 families. We know that some families will be in crisis, and homelessness is going to occur. But we’re experiencing a huge backlog of over 800 families experiencing homelessness in San Francisco. Driven by the data we’ve seen, we’re working to scale up a command center of the housing solutions office to house this backlog by 2020.”

Events Happening on June 29

Homelessness agencies often work together to address the challenges of this huge issue. “Collaboration is really necessary for tackling this problem,” says Kenemore. “All of the organizations in the Bay Area focus on different things, but we’re coordinating efforts to end homelessness.”

Today you can see the collaborations in action. Lava Mae’s pop up “Care Village” is during the day, and you can attend HandUp’s thought provoking panel tonight.

Lava Mae’s Pop-Up Care Village
June 29, 10am-2pm PT
Main Public Library at Civic Center, San Francisco

The Pop-Up Care Village is designed to be a one-stop shop of services for people in need. Shah, Lava Mae board member and Code Tenderloin Director of Development and Partnerships, notes, “The idea for this popup care village stems from Project Homeless Connect’s quarterly event, which brings together many service providers in one place. Lava Mae wanted to do that, in a way that brought our signature ‘hospitality’ aspect to the streets. They even got a design firm called SITELAB to design the layout to make it a very smooth experience for someone going through it, so it won’t be overwhelming.”

There will be showers courtesy of Lava Mae, clean clothes, ID vouchers and access to dental care from Project Homeless Connect, $25 gift cards from HandUp, mental health response courtesy of Concrn, and much more. There will even be free coffee from Equator and live music. “It’s about bringing the whole community together,” Shah says. “If you go anywhere near the Central Public Library on Wednesday, you can’t miss it! It’s a big party, it’s a big celebration, it feels good to be there.”

Homelessness, Housing, and the Way Forward for San Francisco (HandUp and SPUR)
June 29, 5:30-7:30pm PT
654 Mission Street, San Francisco

Attend a panel discussion discussing the biggest problems in homelessness that need to be addressed in San Francisco, and what we can do to move forward.

The event features many great speakers, including Jeff Kositsky, Director of Homelessness and Supportive Housing for the City and County of San Francisco, Gail Gilman, CEO at Community Housing Partnership, Darcel Jackson, Entrepreneur at Shelter Tech, and more.

This event will be live-streamed on Facebook here (make sure you follow their instructions at the link to view). Due to its popularity it is sold out to attend live!

Image by Nicolas Vollmer, used under a CC license.