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Input from the unhoused may be crucial solution to homelessness in San Francisco

Correction: The introduction to this story stated that 35,000 people are without a place to live in San Francisco. In fact, that figure refers to the greater San Francisco Bay Area, including San Jose, Oakland and surrounding counties. The NewsHour regrets the error.

The San Francisco Bay Area has a rising homeless population. On any given night, an estimated 35,000 individuals are without a place to live. Meanwhile, the cost of living continues to climb. Much effort has gone into resolving the crisis, to little avail. But now, there's new hope that those with an insider's perspective can make that much needed difference. Stephanie Sy has that story.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    San Francisco has a soaring homeless population. On any given night, some 35,000 are without a place to live. Much effort has gone into resolving the crisis, with little effect.

    Stephanie Sy reports on how there is now hope that a new perspective can make a difference.

  • Man:

    It's easy to get stuck in this life, especially when you don't have no help, no hope.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    This is Silicon Valley, home to Facebook, Google and some of the greatest wealth in the country. And yet, along the 140 miles of trails and riverbeds in the city of San Jose lies its other half.

    Do you think you are always going to be homeless?

  • Jimmy:

    Yes. I have come to terms with the fact I will probably die out here.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The hidden population of homeless, who can't afford the ever-increasing cost of living.

    What's it like to live here?

  • Scooter:

    You're vulnerable. You can't really be prepared for everything that's out there.

  • Evelyn:

    You can't get better once you get on the street. There's really no way to get a job.

  • Lee Clark:

    One of my greatest desires is for somebody to see the change in me, because I know a lot of these people out here.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Lee Clark has been there himself. Addiction and jail time led to a five-year stretch of living on the streets.

  • Lee Clark:

    I used to ride the bus all night. They call it the Hotel 22.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Like the thousands of others without a home in the region, he felt lost and ignored by a broken system. Just before the pandemic hit, Lee finally made his way out, but hasn't forgotten who he left behind.

  • Lee Clark:

    I'm going to call you this week, call you next week.

    One of the biggest things out here is being able to win people's trust, reaching back out to the homeless, offering them services, trying to get them housed.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Lee's transformation is in part due to his involvement with the Lived Experience Advisory Board. Formed by the nonprofit Destination: Home, it gives the homeless a voice in what matters to them.

  • Destination:

    Home's CEO, Jennifer Loving, says this type of formal board reflects a paradigm shift.

  • Jennifer Loving:

    It was created by a group of people that had either been homeless here or were currently homeless, saying, we need a place where we can talk about what's going on. We need power to make decisions.

    And I'm like, sign me up, like, today. All Destination: Home did really was provide the container. It's been self-governed from the beginning.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Its Executive Committee, led by Dontae Lartigue, oversees the 16-member board.

  • Dontae Lartigue:

    It's important for us to build organizations rooted in lived experience.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Together, they advise nonprofits such as Destination: Home on policy and spending, while also consulting for the local government.

    Their most recent assignment was to determine why this hotel bought by the city for housing the homeless wasn't being fully utilized.

  • Dontae Lartigue:

    And the reason why it looks institutional. It looks like a prison. You go, there's this gate. You got to be buzzed into this gate. So, it looks like a juvenile hall.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    A cinder block look.

  • Dontae Lartigue:

    Yes. Yes. It looks like you're in a cell.

    The first thing I told them, it's not going to work,

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And they listen to you?

  • Dontae Lartigue:

    We will see.

  • Ragab Henninger:

    We set aside some funding in our budget to make improvements to the site, in partnership with the Lived Experience Advisory Board.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Deputy Director for San Jose's Housing Department Ragan Henninger says the advisers have shed light on the complexity of the homelessness crisis.

  • Ragab Henninger:

    For us, it really highlighted, nearly homeless person we're serving has some kind of previous trauma in their life.

  • Jennifer Loving:

    The more that people are understanding how powerful this is, the more in demand they are. There's an undersupply of housing that's affordable in every city in this country.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    In San Francisco, another organization has taken working with a homeless community advisory board even further, leading to tangible results in housing.

    Andrea Evans leads the chronic homeless program at Tipping Point, a nonprofit backed by some of San Francisco's richest philanthropists, including 49ers CEO Jed York and the Charles Schwab family. Its goal is ambitious.

  • Andrea Evans:

    It is a $100 million, five-year initiative, the goal of which is to partner with San Francisco and a bunch of nonprofits to cut the number experiencing chronic homelessness in half by the end of 2022.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    How much is $100 million in the grand scheme of the homelessness problem here in San Francisco?

  • Andrea Evans:

    It's not a lot…

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Really?

  • Andrea Evans:

    … in the grand scheme.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    That's due to the fact that 3,000 chronically homeless San Franciscans are currently living on the streets.

  • Andrea Evans:

    We are by no means able to kind of replicate what the city does on an ongoing basis. And so we are really trying some very targeted approaches to house people more quickly and to make sure that they're able to stay housed.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And that's where Tipping Point's seven-member advisory board comes in. Like Destination: Home, it consists entirely of individuals who've been homeless, like T.J. Johnston.

  • T.J. Johnston:

    Right now, I'm staying in a house, but, for about nine years, I have been unhoused in San Francisco.

    A lot of people, like, do struggle just to survive. I'm kind of honored that people are asking us for our input.

  • Andrea Evans:

    These are very much studio units.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And each of these has an en suite bathroom?

    So far, that input has resulted in major decisions in grant money spending, including Tipping Point's $11 million flexible housing subsidy program.

  • Andrea Evans:

    It's been incredible to have that wisdom at the table.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    However, longtime homeless advocate Jennifer Friedenbach cautions that not all boards are as effective.

  • Jennifer Friedenbach:

    There's advisory boards where you will have like one or two unhoused people. And then they get tokenized and never listened to in the group.

    And so you really have to have a deep connection to decision-making, real power.

  • Andrea Evans:

    Even before the formal advisory board was formed, we canvassed about 300 people who were experiencing homelessness and asked them, what are your priorities? And it's bringing in that expertise.

  • T.J. Johnston:

    We have that — that sort of like know-how that we would like to impart on the rest of our community. Our needs are relatively simple, in that we just want to be housed, and we want to be able to live in dignity.

    In shelter situations, having your own, like, privacy, it's next to impossible.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And that input is what drove forward the construction of the Tahanan building, 145 units dedicated solely for the homeless population downtown.

  • Andrea Evans:

    We're using modular construction. And so that has cut both the time and the cost significantly.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The goal is to have the entire project finished in just under three years for under $400,000 per unit, a record for the city's tough building laws, which still sounds like so much money.

  • Andrea Evans:

    Yes, it's still a lot of money. But, by San Francisco standards, its normally about $600,000 a unit.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The units are free for those who qualify.

    To pull it off, each unit was created off-site, and then hauled in and assembled on location.

    All right, let's go in and check out what it looks like inside.

  • Andrea Evans:

    It is much more than a roof over your head. It really is. It's an opportunity. It's going to be beautiful.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Here it is.

    You have never seen this before. What do you think?

  • T.J. Johnston:

    Wow. Relief, for one thing, just to see all this realized. I think this represents a chance to get a new start on life.

    A fridge.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And, for T.J., it's satisfaction in knowing that he helped so many homeless individuals find a new home with a door.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy in San Francisco.

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