2022 The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Medium Newsroom finalist

Broken Homes

About the Project

For decades, San Francisco leaders have promised to solve the city’s homelessness crisis by offering people rooms in residential hotels built in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake. These single-room occupancy hotels, or SROs, are the cornerstone of an approach called permanent supportive housing. Lifting people off the streets, the SROs are supposed to provide stability to thousands of homeless people so that they can rebuild their lives and move on to independent housing.

Yet a Chronicle investigation found that people who left San Francisco’s permanent supportive housing were twice as likely to return to the streets – or die – than to find a lasting escape from homelessness.

Reporters Joaquin Palomino and Trisha Thadani found that Mayor London Breed’s administration has routinely understaffed and underfunded the city’s SROs, allowing the hotels to devolve into hotbeds of crime and chaos. Elevators break down for months, stranding elderly and disabled people in their rooms on top floors, while other tenants battle rodent infestations, ceiling cave-ins, and broken toilets.

The problems have become so bad that tenants told The Chronicle they had abandoned their units, choosing to live in tents on the sidewalks instead.

The day-to-day operations of the SROs are overseen by nonprofit organizations that sign top-dollar contracts with the city. In 2016, San Francisco leaders created the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, or HSH, to monitor these nonprofits and sanction them when services fell short. Yet reporters found that the agency – which reports directly to Breed – had failed to issue even a single plan of correction to nonprofits.

And alarmingly, the homelessness crisis had grown worse. According to data exclusively obtained by The Chronicle, the number of people receiving homelessness services in San Francisco has increased by 56% since the creation of HSH.

In the investigation, Palomino and Thadani explore how and why Breed has failed to address the obvious and persistent problems in the city’s SROs. They note that, three years ago, Breed lobbied hard against a measure that would have created an oversight body for HSH, saying it would create too much bureaucracy. And they analyze budget data to illustrate how these century-old hotels – the vast majority of which are clustered in the Tenderloin, the epicenter of San Francisco’s fentanyl epidemic – are receiving far less money than new buildings intended to house the homeless.

The lack of funding has caused some case managers to oversee upward of 85 tenants a day – five times higher than federal standards. These underpaid and overworked employees are left to put out fires, rather than address the mental health issues and traumas that often led people to homelessness before landing in SROs. Without getting the services they need, these residents cycle back out onto the streets.