In 2017, as part of a broader set of programs aimed at reducing chronic homelessness, the City of San Francisco, the San Francisco Housing Authority, and the grantmaking nonprofit group Tipping Point launched a new initiative called Moving On. The initiative, modeled on similar programs in Atlanta and New York, was meant to help residents of permanent supportive housing (PSH) transition into more independent living situations, and to open up new PSH space for people who were still living on the streets. For formerly homeless people whose lives had stabilized during their time in permanent supportive housing, the Moving On Initiative provided help finding and acquiring housing on the private market that those tenants could rent with a voucher from the San Francisco Housing Authority.
And before the Housing Authority had to stop issuing vouchers amid a $30 million budget deficit last year, the program was working, according to a new report from the Urban Institute. According to the report, 73 percent of participants who received a voucher successfully rented an apartment. That’s a slightly better success rate than the 69 percent average for all apartment-seeking voucher holders in large cities — “despite working with a highly vulnerable population in the most expensive housing market in the country,” the report notes. As of July, 193 participants had successfully moved from permanent supportive housing into an apartment of their own, and all 193 of them remained housed, according to the report.
The program works by providing staff to help participants at every step of the transition, from negotiating with landlords to buying furniture to helping to pay upfront moving costs. The city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing selected applicants “with no lease violations in the previous 12 months, no late rent payments, no aggressive behavioral issues,” and no need for on-site case management after the move, the report says. The nonprofit group Brilliant Corners received funding from Tipping Point to provide both case management for individual participants and property management to help find apartments and negotiate with landlords.
“Our findings demonstrate that MOI fulfills a widespread desire among PSH tenants to move to independent housing while supporting the goal of the City and County of San Francisco (CCSF) to increase the availability of PSH for people experiencing chronic homelessness,” the report says. “Expanding MOI could be crucial to reducing chronic homelessness, particularly over the next few years as CCSF’s current plans do not show a significant number of newly built PSH units opening until 2021–22.”
The report was based primarily on data collected by Brilliant Corners and on interviews with MOI participants and case managers. Participants mostly reported positive experiences with the program, according to the report. Those who moved successfully “said they felt safer, had an improved sense of self-worth, and were more independent in their new housing,” the report says, while some who were unable to move had negative experiences and described the program as a “letdown.” Applicants mostly moved from the Tenderloin, where the majority of San Francisco’s permanent supportive housing is located, to a range of neighborhoods. Some reported forging new friendships and connections with neighbors, though some had increased feelings of isolation after the move.
Urban was hired by Tipping Point in 2017 to evaluate a range of efforts that make up its $100 million Chronic Homelessness Initiative. Josh Leopold, a senior research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, co-authored the latest report with three researchers from the University of California at Berkeley and San Francisco.
“I think there’s a perception that in really high-cost, low-vacancy markets, vouchers aren’t the solution,” Leopold says. “And I think this shows — it’s not a huge sample — but it provides some evidence that vouchers still work if you invest in this [support] piece of it.”
Stephany Ashley, the Northern California director of housing services at Brilliant Corners, says that the group got $10,000 per participant from Tipping Point that staffers referred to as the “whatever it takes money.” Landlords are often reluctant to accept housing vouchers both because of discriminatory reasons and because of negative experiences working with the local housing authority, Ashley says. The extra money allowed Brilliant Corners to alleviate some bureaucratic concerns by, in some cases, renting an apartment early on behalf of a tenant — even before the voucher was available.
The only big flaw in the program, Ashley says, was that the vouchers were released all at once, leaving potential applicants to scramble for available slots, and then stopped all at once. But the program was successful at opening up new permanent supportive housing, where the turnover rate had in the past been basically commensurate with the mortality rate of residents, Ashley says.
“What I found most moving about this report was hearing people say that they felt like their life had returned to the way it was before they became homeless,” Ashley says. “But what’s also amazing about it is that we [freed up] almost 200 new units of permanent supportive housing.”
Andrea Evans, a senior planner with the Chronic Homelessness Initiative at Tipping Point, says the group wanted qualitative analysis of its programs because data doesn’t tell the entire story.
“If someone is able to move and they remain housed, that’s fantastic,” Evans says. “But if they do so and it is not in a situation that is improving their wellbeing in any way, or is maybe making that worse, those are the kinds of things you can only learn if you go behind the data.”
The Chronic Homelessness Initiative is a five-year program, and Tipping Point included the evaluation component so that the city and county would have a “roadmap” for how to continue, expand, or improve different aspects of the program after it concludes, Evans says. While the San Francisco Housing Authority is working out its financial troubles, advocates are trying to convince the city to fund Moving On vouchers with local money in the short-term, which the housing authority could eventually take over. The success of the program also suggests that a greater federal investment in vouchers could help reduce homelessness, advocates say.
“For us, the headline is that this really has the potential to move the needle on homelessness,” Evans says. “It’s really a win-win in the sense that the folks who moved out have expressed that this really improved the quality of their lives, and we now have folks who are able to move out of shelter and into the supportive housing that they need. So I think, for the entire system, it has the potential to really right-size and make sure we are providing resources based on individual need.”
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Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.