California has around 130,000 people experiencing homelessness, or 24% of the nation’s total homeless population. This includes nearly 59,000 people in Los Angeles County and roughly 28,200 people 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 40,000 chronically homeless Californians.

The chronically homeless is a tough bunch to help: between mental illness, physical disability, substance abuse, lack of social skills, a fierce independent streak, and/or neurocognitive disorganization, these individuals are often unable to live normal, productive lives. Most of them can’t “just get a job”. Many (possibly most) would qualify for Supplemental Social Security (SSI) if they applied, assuming they had competent assistance in applying. In California, the maximum SSI benefit is $931 a month (more than in other states because California tops off what the feds provide). Those who qualify for SSI would also be eligible for California’s version of food stamps (CalFresh), worth up to $192 a month, as well as Medicaid (aka “MediCal”).

My task in this post is to figure out how to house California’s chronically homeless, assuming they receive SSI, food stamps, and MediCal, or have managed to secure similar resources in some other way.

Ok… As SSI recipients, they’ve got $931 a month and don’t have to worry about food or medical care. If able or inclined, they can also work a bit without jeopardizing their SSI benefit ($85 a month with no reduction in benefit and then a fifty cents benefit reduction for every dollar earned up to a certain limit). For those unable to work at all, I’d expect them to spend half of their SSI check on rent, or about $470 a month.

This is doable if we bring back Single Room Occupancy residential hotels (SROs). Consider: San Francisco had 65,000 residential hotel units in 1910, compared to around 19,000 units today. These were teeny rooms (typically 8 x10 feet) with barely enough space for a bed and a dresser (bathroom down the hall) but at least they offered shelter and safety from the streets. Many of the individuals who lived in these units were single men with problems that plague the chronically homeless today: substance abuse, mental illness, disability. Just like today.

The difference is they had a place to stay.

Next: SROs on a budget. Floor Plans!