Innovations, Solutions, and What We Can Learn in San Francisco

I can’t believe that we are so close to the 2024 Innovations and Solutions for Ending Unsheltered Homelessness conference. It feels like things in life and work are moving so fast this year – and while the conference itself proves to be a busy time for both me and the Alliance team, I am looking forward to being in community with so many of you so that we can catch our collective breath and recharge for the year ahead of us.

As I think about the energy I want to bring to San Francisco, I think about positivity, and light and solutions-oriented thinking. I hope those of you who are attending are feeling the same way: looking forward to seeing friends and colleagues, bringing joy into the space, and getting inspired to bring solutions back to your community and organizations.

Because we need to talk about solutions more than ever. We need to implement solutions now more than ever. We need to learn from each other now more than ever. We need housing and service resources now more than ever – both for the short term and the long term.

Homelessness on the West Coast

This is why our West Coast conference is focused on ending unsheltered homelessness. It is also why we are holding our conference in San Francisco, California – a city and state that have made so many strides and innovations in this space. However, these places still struggle with unsheltered homelessness, the opioid crisis, and an affordable housing shortage that drives people into homelessness faster than the homeless system can rehouse them.

In San Francisco proper, as well as regionally in the Bay Area, we know there have been some exciting innovations that include:

  • using funding made available through Homekey to buy market rate buildings when the market took a downturn, allowing the City to both prevent blight and rehouse people;
  • targeting Emergency Housing Vouchers for the most segregated, marginalized parts of the city to make sure public resources address existing racial and spatial inequities;
  • speeding up the process to move people into housing by cutting the red tape and documentation barriers that hold up people from moving into housing;
  • passing Proposition C in 2018, a business tax which generated nearly $300 million in FY22-23 for services and creation of permanent supportive housing across the City;
  • a regional collaboration in Santa Clara County to pass Measure A, an affordable housing bond that is providing nearly $1 billion to fund affordable housing units across ten different cities in the county; and
  • nine Bay Area counties putting aside regional political squabbles to join together to create a new housing finance agency (BAHFA), which will put forward a measure to voters in November that could fund as many as 80,000 affordable housing units.

These innovations have helped San Francisco and the surrounding region avoid the biggest jumps in the number of people experiencing homelessness in the state, but there is a lot of work yet to do.

The Challenges We Face

Housing is too expensive. According to Zillow, median rent in San Francisco is nearly $3,300. The number of unintentional overdoses are too high in San Francisco, and the city does not have enough mental health and substance abuse treatment beds to meet the amount of need.

But this isn’t a problem unique to San Francisco. Many of you are experiencing similar challenges in your communities. The affordable housing and services people want and need are harder to access. And as these challenges persist, evidence-based practices like Housing First – a method that pairs individualized services with affordable and stable housing – are increasingly under attack.

We can’t go backwards.

In California and beyond, state and local measures are emerging to move people experiencing homelessness out of sight, usually through use of camping bans or ordinances. Arresting or fining people who have nowhere else to go doesn’t end homelessness. Pointing fingers at the courts or going back to old models of drug testing (as contemplated in the City’s Prop F efforts) cannot be the way forward.

For those of you who are attending the conference in San Francisco, the whole Alliance team is looking forward to being in community with you. For those who can’t attend, we hope you can watch Day 1, Day 2, or Day 3 of the conference plenaries, or are able to join us for the Alliance’s July conference. I hope we can all think about how to bring joy and positive energy into our shared spaces and that we lean into what will propel us forward, in spite of the headwinds we are experiencing. To me, that means prioritizing solutions-oriented thinking and embracing joy when we have wins. The agenda and workshops for this conference will help show the way.

See you soon.