This story is part of coordinated media coverage centered on homelessness, by outlets with presence in San Francisco. Follow the project by searching for the hashtag #SFHomelessProject on Twitter and other social media platforms. Find aggregation of coverage at sfhomelessproject.com, hosted by Medium. Join the discussion about this story here.
Across California, the population of homeless individuals is rising--and that's forcing a reckoning within the business community.
The number of individuals living without a home in San Francisco, one of the state's biggest entrepreneurship hubs, could be anywhere between 6,000 and 12,000 according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Statewide, the numbers are similarly bleak, with an estimated 116,000 people living on the streets, as of January 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That's a fifth of the nation's homeless population.
A mix of factors is to blame for the uptick, says Kerry Morrison, the executive director of Hollywood Property Owners Alliance, a nonprofit organization of property owners in Hollywood. Homeless people are moving to town from out of state; inmates are being released from prison without proper housing and there are fewer government resources available for people coping with mental illness.
"It is a true crisis," says Morrison, who notes that it's not one business owners can afford to ignore.
When people in a neighborhood struggle to attain necessary resources like food, shelter and medical or psychological care, it puts a strain on more than those afflicted individuals. It also forces to the fore difficult questions of how to handle situations where homeless individuals interact with your business. Business owners naturally want to create an environment that is inviting to paying customers or clients, without behaving insensitively toward someone who doesn't have a place to live.
Case in point, a few years back, many small business owners in Hollywood found themselves facing a dilemma: allow the homeless population, which was taking a toll on local commerce, to grow unabated or take steps to combat it? The latter won out.
But where to begin? That was the question Brian Folb remembers pondering at the time. The principal at Paramount Contractors & Developers, which owns two high-rise office buildings on Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard, says "It wasn't that we didn't care," just that that he and other business owners didn't know where to start. Years after he became involved in working with area homelessness nonprofits, he says "I think we're starting to see a significant movement to address this issue in a meaningful way."
The Los Angeles Times in May 2011 wrote about the business community's efforts to house Hollywood's homeless residents facing the greatest risk of early death, describing Morrison as a driving force in the movement. A homeless registry, launched in 2010, led to the housing of roughly 200 members of the area homeless population by 2013. The project also involved identifying and categorizing housing stock in the area. An overview of progress, as of 2013, mentioned that more landlords had become amenable to accepting tenants with Section 8 vouchers.
Today, area business owners like Folb are still helping aid in the effort. He continues contributing time, money and energy to help the cause and remains gladdened about the community's progress. The success in housing more people demonstrates the impact the private sector can have on highly public challenges. (Government programs have also had their impact, especially those that focus on housing veterans.)
These feats, unfortunately, reflect only a portion of the overall picture. Morrison says visual homeless counts in the two business improvement districts she manages showed a 67 percent increase in the number of homeless people from April 2013 to 2016, when 275 homeless people were counted.
"It feels a bit like bailing water out of a boat that has holes in it; we don't see visible evidence of all this good work that has been accomplished," she writes in an email, but adds, "the situation in Hollywood would be worse had our coalition not been formed and the business community not become engaged."
Folb echoes Morrison's frustration. He explains that despite efforts, he can't point to an immediate positive impact on the businesses of his tenants, who primarily run businesses in the entertainment industry. The increase in need eclipses strides made.
But as daunting as urban homelessness can be, and as great a need as there may be for public agencies to step in and government resources to beef up, businesses in apparently desperate areas are not themselves helpless. "There's nothing worse to me than a complainer," says Morrison. "Everybody can find something to do on this issue."
Here are some tips based on the success Hollywood businesses had with streamlining the link between people in rough spots and the resources they needed.
Meet the people in your area.
"You have to humanize your homeless population," then resources have a way of surfacing, says Morrison. This is how it happened with Folb, who became more engaged with area nonprofits working with the homeless population after he handed out some old ski jackets he had lying around as part of a clothing drive by nonprofit Gettlove. "It changed me," he says. "I had written checks, but I had never actually engaged with [local homeless people] on a human level." After the experience, he rallied some of his tenants to raise around $12,000 for Gettlove.
Don't go it alone.
It can be tempting to identify what seems like an obvious solution to an issue and move forward with it, but Morrison cautions that you may not see the full picture of what's going on. The best way to help is to find an organization that is familiar with the situation in your area and what the common needs are, and find a way to contribute to what that organization is doing. It might mean contributing money, it might mean contributing volunteer time or it might mean handling an administrative need for a nonprofit. You could task an employee with filing a nonprofit's tax returns, for example, or contribute excess food directly to a nonprofit that feeds hungry people. It's also wise to ask area nonprofits and the local police department for guidance in dealing directly with homeless people struggling with mental illness at your place of business.
Share what you learn.
Folb says he's hesitant to put resources toward something unless he's pretty certain it's going to work. That's just how he approaches business, and it works equally well for community involvement. When he realized Gettlove was making a real difference for people in the area, he was quick to recommend the nonprofit's efforts to others in the Hollywood business community. People will listen to those they respect, he notes. So if you notice there's an organization that's making headway, tell your peers.
Make some hires.
This one gets tricky, but in some cases you may be able to work with people who need financial assistance in a very direct way. Some people end up homeless after losing a job or after other unforeseen circumstances and may be ready to work again, though many who live on the streets are struggling with challenges that prevent them from being able to work. The subset most likely to be employable is homeless youth and youth at risk for homelessness, such as teenagers who have recently left foster care, says Morrison. Connect with an area nonprofit that works with at-risk youth to find out if there might be opportunity to mentor young people or employ them. Be aware that they may not yet be accustomed to typical expectations of employment, such as arriving on time for work. This is where the support of a nonprofit that works with youth can help, says Morrison.
Don't blindly hand things out.
Cater a lot of events at your office? Morrison advises against handing out food from your office. She calls this "toxic charity." The more accommodating life on the street becomes, she says, the harder it can be to persuade someone to accept resourcess that are available that may help them get off the streets. This is not to say Morrison won't buy a burger for someone who looks obviously hungry, or won't give someone a bottle of water. But she says that if you have excess food, you should give it to a nonprofit organization familiar with the ins and outs of effective distribution.
Use your voice.
In many cities, the prevalence of homelessness is more than private individuals can mitigate on their own. Ultimately, government resources are needed. Morrison reminds business owners that public officials will listen to them. Call your city councilors and state politicians. Keep up with proposed policies and programs that might improve a situation. Attend public meetings. If you see something that will work--or think something won't work--say so.