Can Big Data Help San Francisco's Homeless Kids?

Advocates spoke to the complicated nature of what drives young people to the streets, in advance of the city's plan to consolidate services and focus on measurable impact.
March 28, 2017, 7:03pm
Tiffany Case. Photo by Renée Alexander

Last year, San Francisco allocated a record $214 million to prevent and reduce homelessness, an $84 million increase since 2011. And it still isn't enough.

Pressure for the city to address its unceasing homelessness epidemic—by the wealthy, by activists, and by the homeless residents themselves, through proposition ballots and last year's creation of the city's first Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing—has been building for decades. The latter department is an idea first pitched within city hall 14 years ago, and its formation couldn't have come soon enough; much of the reason the city spends spends such astronomical sums lies in the tangled patchwork of contracts and departments that currently characterize how it addresses homelessness.


According to the San Francisco Chronicle, as of last year, the city had more than 400 contracts with 76 private nonprofits and homelessness organizations—and not enough coordination between them, nor a system to track individual homeless persons as they moved from one organization to another. Jeff Kositsky, the department's newly named director, has made the establishment of a unified database that will coordinate the delivery of services and track progress of homeless individuals a top priority. Named ONE (for Online Navigation and Entry System), the department is aiming for a two-year timeline to create and integrate it within the city's myriad homeless services.

With data, he hopes, will come accountability and streamlining. And Kositsky has professed that his department will focus on measuring client outcomes from each of the organizations the city has contracts with, meaning that those who fail to produce results may lose city funding.

"We are creating a coordinated entry that will help us best match people with the appropriate resources," said Randall Quezada, the Department of Homelessness's communications manager. "Often, the feedback we get is that it feels like a very patchwork system. People don't have a sense of how to move from one point to the next, and they have to go to different providers, and they have to tell their story over and over. With the ONE system, that's all going to go away."


Within the disparate populations that homelessness affects, youth homelessness proves to be one of the trickiest to effectively serve. As of the most recent Homeless Unique Youth Count and Survey, some 1,500 unaccompanied homeless children (those under 18) and transition-age youth (18 to 25) were homeless in San Francisco, representing 20 percent of the city's overall homeless population. Advocates for homeless youth in the city are cautiously optimistic about the ONE system, but also worry that a renewed focus on measured outcomes will detract from harder-to-measure initiatives that are also essential in effectively helping the homeless.

To understand the sheer complexity of addressing a problem like youth homelessness, one need only look at the slew of programs and resources offered by Larkin Street Youth Services. For the past 30 years, the organization has run drop-in community centers in the Haight and Tenderloin neighborhoods, education and employment services at Larkin Street Academy, medical care at the Michael Baxter Larkin Street Youth Clinic, emergency shelter for kids 17 and under at Diamond Youth Shelter and for 18- to 24-year-olds at Lark-Inn for Youth, and various types of housing for both general and specific populations, including foster care "graduates," LGBTQ youth, young people with behavioral health needs, and HIV-positive youth.

"Many of our clients are dealing with layers upon layers of trauma," said Graham Thomas, director of Programs for Larkin Street. "As a result, their coping skills are diminished."


When Kositsky took on his new position in August, he told the San Francisco Chronicle that "our number one priority is we want to get people who are homeless into housing." But Thomas expressed concern that "housing first" policies will lead to "housing only" practices. "Let's address housing, absolutely," he said. "But if we want to solve homelessness, we're going to have to cough up some serious resources. We need wraparound services to address the whole person."

By all accounts, the city's increased funding and the creation of ONE will provide those wraparound services. But others echoed Thomas's concerns over the pressures ONE will produce.

"One of the things we've learned over the years is that progress is not linear, and the more trauma you've experienced, the less linear your progress will be," said Rob Gitin, co-founder of At the Crossroads, a homeless youth outreach program. "If you're hiring someone, and you have one position to fill, are you going to hire the person who has a 70 percent chance of succeeding, or the person who has a 30 percent chance of succeeding? That's how outcome-based funding can lead to the people who are struggling the most having the hardest time getting the help they need.

"The kids we see who can maintain positive changes, it's because they have figured out how to build healthy relationships, and they have figured out how to navigate challenging relationships with healthy boundaries," continued Gitin. "When we put so much focus on housing and jobs, we keep them in survival mode. We want to help them thrive, and they need those relationships to do that."


For homeless youth like Tiffany Case, forming trusting relationships can be terrifying. During her final semester of college in Sacramento, she said, her roommates chased her out of their shared apartment after taking up meth. A woman who offered to help sold her into sex trafficking instead. She escaped, fled to San Francisco with two backpacks of belongings, and lived out of her car while working event-production gigs. Before she could get back on her feet, another driver rear-ended her at high speed. "I could barely walk from the car accident," she said, when she started sleeping in Golden Gate Park in 2014.

While living there in a tent, she took advantage of the services offered by Homeless Youth Alliance, a street outreach team that provides basic necessities to young people, such as hot food, dry socks, band-aids, and tampons.

In 2016, a friend introduced her to Christian Calinsky, a former Golden Gate Park resident who, in late 2014, founded Taking It to the Streets, a neighborhood organization that provides homeless youth with housing in exchange for community service. Taking It to the Streets currently houses 63 kids in 37 units across two San Francisco hotels, and their cleaning crews sweep streets and clean graffiti in a 70-block area of the Upper Haight neighborhood.

Case is one of them. "When I met Christian, I was a nervous wreck," she said. "I had been turned away a lot, and I was wary of anyone who said they wanted to help. His accepting energy was truly shocking, and it made all the difference for me. I knew I could trust him, and he hasn't let me down."

The fear among youth homelessness advocates is that providers of such "soft" services will lose city funding. But Quezada says that's not the intent. "We recognize that people are on different journeys, and we want to do whatever we can to support that journey," he said. "We can't compel people to accept services, but we're not giving up on folks."