According to the latest counts, there are around 28,200 homeless persons in the San Francisco Bay Area. Extrapolating from previous research, I’m guessing about a third of these individuals are chronically homeless, defined as being without housing for at least a year. That would give us about 9,000 chronically homeless Bay Area residents.
Between mental illness, substance abuse, cognitive disorganization, and physical disability, the chronically homeless are a hard bunch to help. I suspect the vast majority would qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefit (assuming application assistance). In California, SSI is good for $931 a month (the state tops off the federal benefit), plus qualifying for SSI gets you food stamps and healthcare (“MediCal”). Not bad, but not nearly enough for rent in these parts. And not enough for what counts as “affordable” housing in the big coastal cities.
We need to bring back an updated version of residential hotels to house the chronically homeless. Residential hotels aren’t for families with children, but they’ll do just fine for fragile adults. California used to have tons of them: San Francisco alone had 65,000 residential hotel units in 1910, compared to around 19,000 units today. Unfortunately, most residential hotels were torn down in the name of urban renewal. This decades-long destruction was mostly finished by the 1980s, which - not coincidentally - was when unsheltered homelessness was discovered by the local media.
Of course, we can’t just recreate residential hotels as they were a hundred years ago, with their teeny rooms (typically 8x10), bathroom down the hall (called SROs, for “single-room occupancy”). However, for someone just off the streets with no income or resources, a subsidized teeny room might be just the ticket. Anyone wanting something bigger would have to pony up some rent. A big incentive for those too disorganized or ornery to apply for SSI would be the nearby availability of private studios with bathrooms, affordable within an SSI budget. So my new and improved residential hotel would have units of different sizes, possibly like so:
Straight off the street, no money, get a totally subsidized 8x10 SRO, with bathrooms down the hall. Those with at least $600 for monthly rent could get a studio. Couples with at least $600 for rent each would qualify for bigger studios or a small one-bedroom apartment. All in the same building, as an incentive for individuals to aspire for something better, something that is within reach, and with help available (e.g. completing benefit paperwork, arranging monthly rent transfers).
But how much would this scheme cost? Next.