Photo by Serginho Roosblad

Lena Johnson was curious to know how much it would cost to rent a “simple studio” in the Mission. So she called a real estate agent who was advertising an apartment on Valencia Street and learned that for that “simple place” a tenant was expected to pay $2500 per month. The utilities were extra. The rent was far above her budget, but what surprised her was his casual mention of a more affordable unit – a studio in Oakland for just $1900.

The exchange was a reminder that San Francisco has become a place of the haves and have nots.

What Johnson and her two children do have in the Mission is a room with two beds, three small night stands, and one bathroom that is shared with another family. “It’s better than nothing and better than the streets for sure,” said the 49-year-old mother, who lives at the St. Joseph’s Family Center on 899 Guerrero Street.

Family homelessness is the somewhat invisible face of the homelessness problem in San Francisco, as parents “run the risk of losing their children to Child Protective Services,” said Martha Ryan, director of the Homeless Prenatal Program. Some families, like the Johnson family are relatively lucky to have found shelters, but others “live in cars or other places that are not safe. Especially not for children. Often they bounce from one place to the other.”

Currently there are about 4,000 families, according to Ryan, who are seen by the several services in the city that deal with homelessness. Of these, about 60 percent don’t have a permanent living address.

In the late 1980s when Ryan started working in the family homelessness relief she was “ helping 72 pregnant women. Since then the number of homeless families has only grown.”

This is why, Ryan says, that she supports Proposition S, one of the 25 propositions on the ballot in San Francisco.

If passed, the measure will take a portion of the hotel tax revenue – growing from 16 percent in the 2017-2018 fiscal year to 21 percent in 2020-2021 – and direct it to newly set up family homeless and arts programs in the city.

Set up in 1961, the hotel tax revenue was initially meant to bolster the arts scene, which in turn would attract tourists whose presence would then co-fund the arts scene. “It’s needed to lure tourists here,” said then mayor George Christopher.

Later, in the 1970s the building of low income housing was co-funded by the hotel tax. “But over the years it’s been taken away from us,” said Martha Ryan. “To a point where in 2013 it was totally disallowed.”

Today the hotel tax revenue goes straight into the general fund. And the money that the city has reserved for homeless families mostly goes to shelters. “But these shelters are expensive and there’s not enough space.” Some 200 families are currently on the waiting list for the shelters.

The diminished housing stock available to homeless families in San Francisco has made helping people more difficult for her organization. “A few years ago we were happy if we could help 350 to 400 people. Now we’re lucky if we can help 200 families.”

Johnson is one of the unlucky ones. The mother of four – her 12-year-old twins are with her in the shelter, while her 14-year-old daughter lives with her grandmother and her oldest son of 28 lives on his own – has been living in the shelter since April. Before that, the family moved to different places after getting evicted from their home in Tulare, 45 miles south of Fresno, a year and a half ago. “I stopped paying rent on purpose because there were a number of issues with the apartment,” Jonson said.

“There was carbon monoxide leaking from the stove, but the landlord refused to fix it. The house was also infested with mice. On an average day killed six mice. It just wasn’t safe for my children.”

After Johnson was evicted, she first moved to a motel. “But that was just too expensive. All my money went to the motel. And I knew there were more resources for the homeless in San Francisco than where I was, so I decided to leave.”

Johnson’s move was based on earlier experience of homeless care in San Francisco. Back in the early 2000s, when she found herself without a permanent address, it took her over a year to find housing for her family of five.

But that was before the 2008-2009 financial crisis, the following recession and 2.0 tech boom. Since then “we’ve seen a huge influx of money,” Proposition S campaign manager Jasmine Conrad said. “And this happened so fast in San Francisco, that we were blindsided by the following displacement. Both the visible, but definitely the invisible.”

“The techies might have exacerbated the issue, but I see it as a continuation of larger problem,” Ryan added later. Year after year “we see less in everything. Less in support. Less in food stamp assistance. And with the five-year lifetime limit on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families it makes helping people very difficult.”

The housing crisis and defunding of assistance to needy families has created a situation in San Francisco where today in the unified school districts one in twenty-five children don’t have place to call home. “That’s one kid in every class. That’s unacceptable!”

The complexity of the Johnson’s homeless situation demonstrates to Martha Ryan how difficult it can be for people to regain control over their lives once they’ve been put out on the street. “When one becomes homeless it’s very difficult to rise above it,” she said. “People say that ‘homeless people need to pull themselves up from bootstrap,’ but what they don’t know is that often these people don’t even have boots.”

The increased funding that would come available if the proposition is passed will, according to Ryan, go to measures to prevent families slipping into homelessness or give additional support once they’ve found themselves on the street. “Homelessness is much more than housing,” she said. “It will help people become self-sufficient, give them training or help them with getting medication if they’re sick.”

Apart from Martha Ryan’s Homeless Prenatal Program, 72 arts organizations and homeless services, including the San Francisco Ballet, the Coalition on Homelessness and the San Francisco Symphony are part of the coalition that brought the proposition to the ballot.

If the proposition is passed, the arts in San Francisco, according to Ryan, will receive the lion-share of the $103 million of funding available from the 2020-2021 fiscal year onwards, while 6.3 percent or about $6.5 million, will go to the family homelessness cause.

“It won’t be enough to build new houses, but it will be enough to help families and move forward, advance in life and break the cycle.”

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