Poverty in perspective: 10,000 homeless households flood SF public-housing waitlist over six days 

click to enlarge Gary, who lives on the streets of the Tenderloin, is one of the 218,000 people in San Francisco the Human Services Agency says are living 200 percent below the federal poverty level. Mayor Ed Lee is trying to pull 500 families out of poverty. - MIKE KOOZMIN/2014 S.F. EXAMINER FILE PHOTO
  • mike koozmin/2014 s.f. examiner file photo
  • Gary, who lives on the streets of the Tenderloin, is one of the 218,000 people in San Francisco the Human Services Agency says are living 200 percent below the federal poverty level. Mayor Ed Lee is trying to pull 500 families out of poverty.

The challenge San Francisco faces in its quest to end poverty recently came into stark focus.

More than 10,000 adults or families signed up for the Housing Authority's waitlist for public units when it was opened for homeless people during a recent six-day period. It had been closed for the past five years.

"The level of interest was extraordinary," said Rose Dennis, a spokeswoman for the Housing Authority.

The sheer demand highlights San Francisco's well-acknowledged housing crisis and the difficulty Mayor Ed Lee and other city officials face after the mayor recently stated his mission to end poverty using the "shared prosperity" of a booming local economy driven by a healthy technology industry.

"There is no greater moral imperative for our city than to invest today's prosperity to break the cycle of poverty for too many of our fellow San Franciscans," the mayor said during his Jan. 15 State of the City address, when he also referred to the temporary opening up of the public-housing waitlist.

It is estimated that about 200 homeless families will move into a public-housing unit beginning this spring.

Last year, the Housing Authority, which oversees public housing, identified about 200 family-size vacant units sitting fallow that city officials and nonprofit homeless advocates such as the Coalition on Homelessness wanted to see made available to homeless families. The agency said the units were stuck in limbo due to a lack of resources, which prompted Supervisor London Breed — who recently became board president — and Lee to allocate $2.5 million this fiscal year to help rehabilitate about 160 units. Part of the effort included the opening of the waitlist in hopes that families who recently ended up in shelters might have a chance to move into a unit.

From Jan. 13 to Jan. 18, 10,401 households signed up for the waitlist, adding to the existing 7,259, which also includes some homeless people, Dennis said. The waitlist was closed in 2010 after reaching about 33,000, and last year, those still on the list were made to confirm their ongoing interest.

The units are in the Sunnydale and Potrero Annex and Potrero Terrace complexes, which are expected to undergo major transformations in about five years under the Hope SF program, which will rehabilitate the dilapidated sites and turn them into mixed-income housing projects. The first Hope SF site is Hunters View, where phased construction remains in progress.

As the mayor has directed his staff to battle poverty, issuing the directive less than a year before his re-election, it is unclear exactly what he can accomplish in a city where even people with the means find it hard to land a place. The mayor specifically announced Project 500, an initiative to bring 500 families out of poverty.

One indication of the struggle can be found in an August memo sent by a Human Services Agency planning analyst to the agency's executives.

"Over 218,000 persons in San Francisco (28 percent of the total population) are living below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level," the memo stated. For a single adult, that means earning $21,780 or less annually, or $37,060 for a family of three. The memo uses U.S. census data from 2011.

Thirty-two percent of all children in San Francisco are in these low-income households, with 6,500 living in destitution, the memo said. And women are slightly more likely to be poor.

Another vulnerable segment of the population are seniors older than 60.

"Though they form just 19 percent of the city's total population, the proportion of the city's older population that is poor is 34 percent," the memo said.

Lee's focus on poverty is "not exactly" referring to all of those people who are living below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, mayoral spokeswoman Christine Falvey said.

Dennis of the Housing Authority said that opening the six-day waitlist period was an example of the "shared prosperity" the mayor is talking about.

"There will be people who really benefit from this," she said.

The average age of the head of household who applied for the waitlist was 66, according to data provided by the Housing Authority. Some 64 percent were single adults and 36 percent families. Nearly 85 percent of the applicants filed online from somewhere in San Francisco, with the remainder from elsewhere in California.

"It is going to take a serious commitment by The City to address what is a mushrooming homeless crisis," said Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition on Homelessness. "A lot more work needs to be done."

On Friday, the mayor celebrated another highlight of the strong local economy when new state figures showed The City's unemployment rate dropped to 3.8 percent, a low not seen since 2006.

"We will continue to remain a city for everyone by aggressively pursuing policies that benefit our low- and middle-income families in my affordability and shared prosperity agenda," Lee said in a statement.

Of the 10,401 households who signed up for the waitlist, 16 percent were Latino, according to the Housing Authority. Of the remaining households, the Housing Authority said 48 percent were black, 32 percent white and 12 percent Asian.

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