• COVID-19 is accelerating the United States's housing crisis, with more than 40 million facing eviction in the next few months.
  • Here are four innovative ways organizations are helping support the homeless.
  • Solutions include rebuilding social support systems and closing the digital divide.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect lives and livelihoods, as many as an estimated 40 million Americans are at risk of eviction in the next several months, potentially marking the most severe housing crisis in the country’s history. Perhaps no region is feeling this anxiety more acutely than the San Francisco Bay Area where years of surging housing demand, insufficient inventory and an uncoordinated regional strategy left 28,200 people homeless before the pandemic.

The Bay Area has the nation’s third-largest homeless population (following New York and Los Angeles), as well as one of the largest unsheltered homeless populations. While 95% of homeless New Yorkers and 85% of homeless Washingtonians have access to shelters, only 33% of homeless Bay Area residents are sheltered.

COVID-19 has only exacerbated this crisis. Already limited shelters have had to “de-intensify” to create safe spaces to social distance, losing 75% of the previous occupancy in congregate settings. In one neighborhood, the Tenderloin District, the number of unsheltered people grew by 400% in May. Additionally, the nation-wide chaos resulted in unclear regulations for many shelters and food banks in serving their homeless clients.

To address this issue, the Young Global Leaders and the Global Shapers Communities of the Bay Area met with local policymakers and non-profit executives last month to explore solutions that could address the immediate challenges of homeless communities. These four innovative ways organizations are responding could offer a path forward.

Rebuilding social support systems

As many as 1 in 3 people experiencing homelessness have lost their social support systems. Sometimes the breakdown in family support is intentional (such as domestic violence victims or LGBTQI+ runaway youth), but sometimes other factors are at play. HIPAA privacy regulations restrict shelters from confirming or denying the identity of their residents while the digital divide (a lost phone number, a change of address or even unreliable internet) makes connecting difficult. Feelings of shame or embarrassment can also prevent people from reaching out for help.

The nonprofit Miracle Messages is tackling homelessness by rebuilding support systems. Its approach is simple: a person isolated by homelessness records a short message to a loved one. Then, a network of volunteer "digital detectives" attempt to locate the loved one, deliver the message and facilitate a reunion.

The team has so far reunited more than 375 families with an average time separated of 15 years. Miracle Messages CEO, Kevin Adler, said that 80% of delivered messages have been positively received, and dozens of reunions have resulted in getting an unhoused person off-the-streets, all at a fraction of the cost of other interventions.

What can you do? Volunteer to become a "digital detective."

Image: Miracle Messages

Closing the digital divide

Keeping people experiencing homelessness connected is one of the solutions to preventing chronic homelessness. People in shelters use the internet to apply for housing and benefits, schedule appointments with doctors and case managers, search for jobs, and stay in touch with family and friends.

ShelterTech and Code Tenderloin are two organizations that are closing the digital divide. ShelterTech works with internet service providers to offer free WIFI in shelters and transitional housing facilities and offers portable chargers to address battery-charging issues, while Code Tenderloin works on the next step -- connecting the homeless population with job opportunities in the tech world of San Francisco by teaching coding and job readiness courses.

What can you do? Participate in datathons and donate to relief packages.

Upskilling through arts programmes

In addition to providing important traumatic healing and community-building benefits, arts programmes for homeless youth are also an important upskilling opportunity for the new economy.

To adapt to COVID-19 restrictions that prevented in-person meetings, Larkin Street Youth Service, a non-profit organization that provides art and design trainings that have benefited more than 75,000 young people since its founding in 1984, reformated its arts programming.

Their young participants may not have access to iPads or computers, and WiFi may be inconsistent, but they do have two important qualities: first, like most young people, they can easily adopt new technology, and second, they usually have smartphones. Larkin Street, therefore, shifted to helping young people build out social media presence and digital portfolios, offering professional training on essential digital skills that young creatives need.

What can you do? Volunteer to help support young artists.

Improving access to food

Before the pandemic, one in nine Bay Area families was considered food insecure. “Now, it’s one in five families,” Kristen Acosta, Food Programs Coordinator at The Women’s Building, explained.

The Women’s Building, the first women-led community center in San Francisco which hosts a hub of non-profit organizations, has seen a 70% increase in food pantry utilization since March.

The Women's Building
The Women's Building
Image: Robert Werner

“Even though the federal government did make it easier for states to get people on, and keep on, SNAP during Covid relief, it did not increase benefits," Will Thomas, Director of Government Relations & Public Funding at Food & Friends explained. "People lost their jobs, and sometimes supplementary sources of food, like kids who are normally fed at school, now aren’t getting the money they had before, nor the food.”

The Women's Building partnered with SF Marin Food Bank, SF Market and CalFresh to shift their food distribution model to a more unique, farmer’s market-style layout offering a food pantry full of fresh fruits and vegetables, canned goods, eggs, and bread.

Market-based food solutions are facing similar issues. Entrepreneurs from La Cocina, a non-profit incubator for women-led, low-income food businesses, saw 70-100% of business dry-up overnight, according to Naomi Maisel, Community Manager of La Cocina's Municipal Marketplace.

The organization secured rent abatement and pro-bono lawyers to help entrepreneurs re-negotiate their entrepreneurs’ leases, conduct loan deferment and navigate employee assistance programs. It established an emergency relief fund of more than $750,000 to date. They then pivoted to alternative income generation channels for their entrepreneurs, creating community food boxes of aggregated prepared foods from La Cocina entrepreneurs, and securing catering contracts to prepare meals for frontline workers and food insecure populations.

What can you do? Donate supplies, volunteer, subscribe to La Cocina’s community boxes or order from small businesses directly.

Keely Stevenson and Ivan Hartanto contributed to this article.