Homelessness in San Francisco is Visible, Tragic, and Solvable

Lessons from Tipping Point’s Historic Five-Year Investment in Addressing Chronic Homelessness

San Francisco is known for many things. Beautiful scenery, diversity of its people, world-class food, groundbreaking ideas, and increasingly, homelessness. Whether you are a long-time resident or a tourist here for a few days, the suffering we see on our streets is visible, it’s tragic, and, it’s solvable.

I believe that because I’ve seen the progress that can be made, as evidenced by the work we’ve done through Tipping Point Community’s Chronic Homelessness Initiative (CHI).

Tipping Point is a philanthropic organization dedicated to fighting poverty in the Bay Area. In 2017, we launched a five-year, $100 million effort to address homelessness in San Francisco. It was the largest private investment addressing homelessness in San Francisco’s history. The ambitious initiative was built on more than 15 years of work that we had under our belt to advance the most promising poverty-fighting solutions. Since 2005, we’ve invested over $350 million in organizations supporting individuals, advancing policy change, and developing new ideas to advance economic mobility. Still, given the crisis of housing unaffordability and homelessness in our region, it’s clear that something new was needed.

Philanthropy has a unique role to play as a convener and a connector, and most importantly as a risk taker. Philanthropy will never be able to scale solutions like government can, but we can test new ideas and prove what is possible. We can move faster and more flexibly. And that’s exactly what we did with the $100 million investment.  

As I reflect on the last five years of work, there are three lessons that I hope other funders can learn from and build upon.   

  1. Philanthropy does not always have to create a new solution when an existing one is working. We can help build on proven ideas that have worked in other markets, but localize and expand them for our hometown. For example, the idea of moving individuals who experience homelessness into housing throughout a city – as opposed to in a single building dedicated to formerly homeless people – is not groundbreaking, but it hadn’t been done here in San Francisco. The Flexible Subsidy Housing Pool (known as the Flex Pool), which we helped spearhead in San Francisco, was based on a model operating in Los Angeles. It was intended to increase the supply of permanent supportive housing (PSH), which is an evidence-based solution to address chronic homelessness, through the private rental market. This idea is also called scattered-site housing. Tipping Point played a critical role in convening all the partners and paying for the first 18 months of the Flex Pool in order to get it launched. But the real impact came when the City put their dollars behind it. After demonstrating it can work here, the City’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) then committed to providing ongoing funding for the program. As reported on by the Urban Institute who helped track progress and report on the Initiative:

“Cynthia Nagendra, deputy director of planning and strategy for HSH, emphasized CHI’s important role in dispelling misconceptions around the feasibility of scattered-site PSH in San Francisco, calling the program an important “proof point” that showed the city what strategies could work. “People here didn’t think that scattered-site housing could work for people who are experiencing homelessness because site-based was all the community knew, and they couldn’t imagine that landlords would rent to people who were experiencing homelessness,” she said. “If Tipping Point didn’t come in and seed the program, I don’t know if it would’ve happened. Tipping Point took a risk on innovation that HSH couldn’t have taken on what is now a key intervention in our options for permanent supportive housing.”

Since its philanthropically funded launch, the Flex Pool has expanded through multiple funding sources and has housed more than 1,000 people in scattered-site units. The city plans to continue investing in this private rental market approach in addition to providing site-based PSH. The Flex Pool was just one of several efforts led by CHI, including the Moving On Initiative and Rising Up program, that stakeholders point to as effective proof points for how philanthropy can test new approaches that lead to long-term change.

  1. Listen and involve the voice of the experts. In the business world, if you are a consumer of a product or a client receiving a service, the business cares deeply about your experience. As someone that’s been shaving for 35 years, Gillett razor is often seeking my input through survey and market research—I’m seen as an expert. But in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector, the very people we are hoping to support, our clients, are usually left out of the conversation. As part of our initiative, we wanted to ensure that people with lived experience of homelessness were central to decision-making. We convened a Community Advisory Board (CAB) and met regularly to better understand the gaps in services and mine their insights for projects in development. And, importantly, we paid CAB members for their time and expertise throughout the initiative. As Urban reports:

“If you don’t have people that understand it, that have lived it, touched it, tasted it, felt it, how do you know what to do about it?” said CAB member Couper Orona. “I ride the fence on the unhoused world and the regular world. I can take what’s happening here and tell people out there on the street what positive things are happening or what’s about to happen, and I can give people hope. And then I can bring what’s happening out there in here to say, ‘Hey, look, this is what’s happening on the street, and this is what people need, and this is what people want, and this is why they’re giving up.’”

  1. Find partners with shared urgency. This work takes partnership, and in order to effectively address a problem of this scale and complexity, you need all sectors at the table and they need to act with urgency. We need the service providers who know what works and what doesn’t work for communities. We need government to help scale proven solutions. But we won’t move the needle if we don’t have that shared sense of urgency to spur productivity. In our experience, partnerships work best when everyone agrees on the severity of the problem and a corresponding timeline to see results. Case in point – Tipping Point, alongside the San Francisco Housing Accelerator Fund, helped fund and build a 145-unit supportive housing building (Tahanan) for people experiencing chronic homelessness in a third of the time and two-thirds of the cost for what it typically had taken in San Francisco. And, once built, we brought in experienced service providers to run the building and master-leased it to the City to cover the cost in perpetuity. This was groundbreaking – not only for the people who were living in the building, but what it would mean for future developments in the City of San Francisco. Per Urban:

“Rebecca Foster, CEO of the Housing Accelerator Fund, one of CHI’s grantees, said her organization’s work with Tipping Point to build a 145-unit PSH building in the city for less time and money than previous PSH developments gave a “jolt of energy” to the organizations and partners involved in the project, showing them that it was possible to build housing in a different way.

“For the people who have been in this industry trying to tackle this problem for so long, we need those wins,” Foster said. “We have that with Tahanan. We are hearing from the people who live there that it is an amazing home for them. Everyone who was part of this project now knows that we can do super hard things that we didn’t think were possible, if we are willing to do things differently.”

After five years we didn’t solve chronic homelessness, but we proved that progress is possible. We housed over 1,000 people, tested and proved new solutions for our city, and created lasting partnerships that will continue to pay dividends for years to come. And for the first time in nearly a decade, we are finally seeing a reduction in the number of people experiencing homelessness. Our work on homelessness in San Francisco is not over. To the contrary: we are doubling down and expanding our efforts to address this preeminent challenge facing our beloved city.

This work isn’t easy, but it is doable. We need more philanthropic funders to draw lines in the sand and be willing to share the lessons, the progress, and the roadblocks. And most importantly, we need to remind each other that we need to take the big shots.