Families living in overcrowded and even dangerous Single Room Occupancy hotels (SROs) are no longer considered a priority in the city’s new coordinated entry system for tracking homeless residents, according to housing advocates. Specifically, this impacts approximately 700 families currently living in SROs — places that were initially viewed as temporary lodging but have become long-term solutions.

SROs were built in the early 20th century dormitory-style for single adult occupants. They were never designed to be inhabited by children.                                                                                         

“Because you don’t have your own bathroom, you don’t have your own kitchen; you’re sharing literally this 8-by-8 square foot room with four, five, six people,” said Raúl Fernández-Berriozábal, a senior coordinator for SRO Families United Collaborative. 

Despite subpar conditions, for many families SROs remain the only affordable option in a city with the highest median rental cost in the world. While the federal government classifies families in SROs as homeless, the city’s new coordinated entry system puts them last in line for permanent housing. 

Nearly two years ago, the city of San Francisco rolled out coordinated entry” to track and help people experiencing homelessness. 

The basic idea was that, instead of people having to go to multiple organizations and locations to receive services and housing, they could go to a one-stop access point in their neighborhood. There they take a computer-based assessment, and are then prioritized for services based on need. 

The goal was to shorten the time people spend unhoused — and to save money, time, and lives. On paper, it sounded good.

“I think, in theory, it made a lot of sense that you would just have to go to one place,” said Sam Lew, a policy director at the Coalition on Homelessness. “And that a lot of different organizations would have access to your information. And that those with the highest needs who are the most vulnerable would be put first.”

But for families living in SROs, coordinated entry actually acts as a barrier to accessing services.

Fernández-Berriozábal says that around 40 percent of the rooms in San Francisco SROs  are currently occupied by four or more people. And his coalition services approximately 700 families living in SROs in San Francisco, including approximately 30 in the Mission.

All of these families are technically homeless, but moving to permanent housing suitable for them has now become nearly impossible, as families are last in line.  

“There’s really no exit for SRO families at this point,” said  Fernández-Berriozábal. “There’s really no way the families are going to be able to make enough income to rent in the private market, but at the same time they’re being barred from the system.”

Representatives from the San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing declined to comment for this story.

The federal government began classifying families in SROs as homeless in the early 2000s because those children were “getting sick more often, and were not meeting developmental milestones,” he said.

“So they came up with a new definition of homelessness, that is broadened to not only include people living on the streets and in the shelters, in cars, in tents — but also, families living in SROs.”

He is referring to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, an amended federal law that provides funding for homeless shelters. One of the first significant federal legislative responses to homelessness, the act was signed into law in 1987 and revised in 2000. This newest iteration defined families living in hotels and in substandard conditions as homeless.

The current problem is, according to Lew and Fernández-Berriozábal, that the city has not been adhering to this definition. When families living in SROs go to coordinated entry access points, they are instantly barred from accessing any services or housing resources.

“As soon as they identify that they live in an SRO, the assessment stops automatically,” said Fernández-Berriozábal. 

The reason this happens, he says, is that families living in SROs are considered low- or no-priority. 

“And ‘no priority,’ in this particular case, is a euphemism for, ‘You’re on your own. Good luck,’” said Fernández-Berriozábal. 

This means that, while the number of families living in SROs is growing, there appears to be no viable alternatives to substandard living.

In SROs, families struggle to fit all their earthly belongings in a 60-square-foot room. Photo from a report by the SRO Families United Collaborative.

“For a family member that is seven or eight years old,” said Lew, “to be staying in a cramped room growing up, it takes a toll on your mental health, on your development, on your physical growth. It’s just hard.”

Family homelessness in San Francisco is, according to official counts, relatively unchanged in recent years. The city’s 2019 Point in Time count tracked 201 homeless families, compared with 212 in 2015. But families living in SROs were not included in this count. 

In a 2015 report, the Families United SRO Collaborative documented an increase of 55 percent more families living in SROs across the city between 2001 and 2015. The total is now more than 700. 

If counted, SRO families would more than quadruple the total count of homeless families in San Francisco.

Most are immigrants (62 percent), nearly half reported that their health was negatively impacted by living in an SRO (48 percent), and nearly all were members of the working poor. Many have been in their current units for decades, according to the Collaborative’s report. 

“Ultimately, the issue that we have,” Lew added, “Is that they are excluding the majority of homeless families from housing and services, which is fundamentally wrong.”

In July, Lew says that Mayor London Breed and the Coalition sat down to discuss exit strategies for people living in SROs. Lew says she is hopeful that change is coming. 

“We have an agreement with Mayor Breed that she will change this policy to include families living in SROs and doubled-up families to coordinated entry,” Lew said. “And we are hoping that she stays firm on her commitment to those families.”

Jeff Cretan, a spokesperson for the mayor, said, “The mayor has agreed to work with city departments and non-profit service providers to address the needs of the families living in SROs,” but would not say whether she planned to change the current policy.