The housing shortage and homelessness in San Francisco. Is there a solution?

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Pedestrians pass a man laying on the sidewalk near the Powell Street Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and MUNI public transportation system station in San Francisco, California. Photo by Robert Galbraith/Reuters

Pedestrians pass a man laying on the sidewalk near the Powell Street Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and MUNI public transportation system station in San Francisco, California. Photo by Robert Galbraith/Reuters

Editor’s Note: The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is a whopping $3,590. With diminishing housing options and soaring rents, the city also has one of the higher homelessness rates in nation.

Special correspondent Duarte Geraldino traveled to San Francisco, where he met housing advocate Gary McCoy. McCoy, who was homeless in San Francisco for years, is now running for a seat on the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee.

The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length. For more, tune in to tonight’s Making Sen$e report, which airs every Thursday on the PBS NewsHour.

Kristen Doerer, Making Sen$e Editor


Duarte Geraldino: What do you hope to accomplish if you make it on to the Democratic County Central Committee?

Gary McCoy: I’m HIV positive, and I have been very open about it. I’m also in recovery from substance abuse. Currently, there is one member who is openly HIV positive, but he’s not running for reelection. So I think there is a voice to be heard in our Democratic party, and we need to make sure that it’s in alignment with a lot of the other folks who live in the city — those with disabilities, those in recovery, those with with HIV and AIDS — an advocate for homelessness and for real solutions.

Duarte Geraldino: Why is a positive diagnosis so important for housing, and why do you think that view needs to be represented so explicitly?

Gary McCoy: There are a lot of people, especially seniors and long-term survivors — folks are living a lot longer with HIV and AIDS — who are on fixed incomes. A lot of them are on private disability plans that will soon expire. And so they might be living in a house that they can afford currently with their private plan, but once they’re on Social Security Disability Insurance, and they are on that low, fixed income, we start to see a problem where they can’t stay in the city, and they can’t see the medical providers that they’ve had for a long time. And they’re forced out of the communities that they’ve been in for a long time and that they rely on for their emotional and mental well-being. So it’s important to make sure housing is available for everyone.

I was treated in Ward 86 for a long time, and it is top notch. They’ve been on the forefront of HIV and AIDS since the early 80s. I don’t know where I’d receive the same care anywhere else in this country or even in the Bay Area for that matter.

Duarte Geraldino:  So what is your own story?

Gary McCoy: I moved here in 2001. Almost immediately after moving here I became HIV positive, and within six months, I had a substance abuse problem, I was on the streets, and I didn’t have a job anymore. It lasted for several years.

Duarte Geraldino: When you were homeless, what was that like?

Gary McCoy:  Man, being homeless was tough. It’s very stressful. A lot of my focus was on where I was going to stay for the night — just trying to find a couch I could sleep on, and if that didn’t work, trying to find a dry place out of the elements where I could sleep through the night. I was very embarrassed. I tried to get up before the sun came up so nobody would see me. It’s hard to focus on getting yourself out of that hole when you’re just in survival mode.

The rising cost of rent doesn’t just affect residents, it also affects the nonprofits.

And then there was a way out. We had programs that were available, and there were a lot of hoops to jump through for those programs. It wasn’t easy, but it was possible.

Duarte Geraldino: What types of programs?

Gary McCoy: The AIDS Housing Alliance was a great help. They provided resources for housing lists, wait lists. They got me onto a Section 8 list or a variation of it, and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation had places to get treatment.

Duarte Geraldino: Are these programs still available for people now?

Gary McCoy:  Yes, they are still available. A lot of them have downsized. They’re struggling with funding and staying in the city and expensive storefronts. A lot of them are nonprofits, and so it’s very difficult to budget. The rising cost of rent doesn’t just affect residents, it also affects the nonprofits. When they’re spending more money on overhead, they have less money to provide to the client.

A lot of the SROs [single room occupancy] and transitional and supportive housing units have shuttered. The city contracts with hotels to provide supportive and transitional housing, and what’s happening is that some of these hotels aren’t contracting with the city anymore. They’re making more money renting out to tourists and people that are moving here with good jobs, but who don’t have anywhere to live yet. So they’re making more money being able to charge $1,400 a month, and somebody on disability can’t afford $1,400 a month for an SRO. It puts a strain on the housing stock.

We need to provide a ladder up….As somebody succeeds, that frees up housing at every level.

Duarte Geraldino: So if you’re elected, do you want more and more development, more housing? Is this something that you advocate?

Gary McCoy: I think it’s important to have housing at all levels. We need to provide a ladder up in the housing market. There are people with disabilities and seniors, we need to provide places for them, but we also need to provide places for people who are coming out of homelessness and coming out of drug addiction and alcoholism and who are starting, so to speak, at the ground level, in the affordable units and the SROs. And they can climb out of that. And as somebody succeeds up that ladder, that frees up housing at every level.

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