“Homelessness in San Fransisco, it’s so terrible, but what can we do? It’s just so hard, such a complex issue”.
Honestly, I just don’t think it’s all that hard. It’s just that we are not really trying.
1 in 12 residential buildings in San Francisco is vacant, and kept that way by a range of factors. When the city tries to create housing shelters and resources, it’s often the local residents that shut it down. In the end, I find it hard to believe this is a tough problem to solve, I think our incentives are wrong. After 7 years of living in this city, I am unwilling to wait for someone else to solve this.
[you can donate to support this endevour here]
A few months ago, someone sent me an article written by a human who had been living in a homeless shelter for three years. They (I will refer to them as DB) were asking for help, they were stuck and could see no way out.
At the Embassy, San Francisco, we are 14 residents living together, experimenting with different forms of home and solidarities. For myself, a theory of change in the last few years has been ‘creating windows where there were once walls’ (Foucault). I have found that just by dint of sharing space, cooking dinners together, organic friendships form and this is where real solidarity can grow. A solidarity that goes beyond charity and do-gooding. Because, ‘until we are all free, we are none of us free’. As Judith Butler puts so well:
“I am most glad to have my personal liberty, but I only have it to the extent that there is a sphere of freedom in which I can operate. That sphere is coproduced by people who live together or who have agreed to live in a world in which the relations between them make possible their individual sense of being free.
So perhaps we might regard personal liberty as a cipher of social freedom. And social freedom cannot be understood apart from what arises between people, what happens when they make something in common or when, in fact, they seek to make or remake the world in common.
The world is given to me because you are also there as one to whom it is given. The world is never given to me alone but always in your company. Without you, the world does not give itself. We are worldless without one another.”
Inspirational and wordy quotes aside — as a house we decided to try something new. We reached out to try and find DB — the article was anonymous, and not all the comments were so nice so it’s not surprising that they hid from all the messages they got for a while.
It’s well known that the steps to homelessness are extremely slippery, and few in number. Often one missed paycheck, a car accident or divorce are enough to push someone over the edge. In a country where 40% of adults surveyed reported that they would not be able to pay an unexpected $400 expense (Federal Reserve’s Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2017), ending up unable to pay rent is a common occurrence. The hypothesis that I had was that perhaps intentional communities could provide the reverse slippery slope out of homelessness into long term housing.
Having talked with DB and what they could and could not do, the reasons behind this were that:
// We don’t take deposits
// We never do background or credit checks
// We have a range of means of payment
// We have a range of rooms that can suit difference incomes.
For DB and for many people, a huge barrier to getting off the streets were these exact things. Their accounts were frozen so they could not pay electronically, only cash. They could not pass a credit check nor pay a deposit, but they could just about afford to pay rent. DB, like many people living in shelters, had a job.
So our plan was to subsidize a room for DB for 3 months to give them space to heal, a room to be alone for some time, a community to support them and help with work, websites and house hunting. We all chipped in a little to make this happen and so it was — DB moved in on the 1st of May.
Things went very smoothly indeed. The house, including DB decided not to talk about this with the outside world, as we all wanted DB to have an equalising experience, and space to recover from what, in the default world, is a very stigmatised experience.
Four months on, and DB integrated so easily into the house. For their last month with us, they paid full rent. Pretty soon after moving in, they started opening up about their experiences and it was no longer a secret. We worked on business cards for their gardening business, the community rallied to help source housing solutions. But really DB did it all themself. They quite literally just need a place to be, to stop and be calm for a second, before they set about building their life again.
Today, DB leaves our house (but not our community!) and moves into long term housing in the East Bay. They want to return to the intentional communities, and I am determined to help make that a reality with them. So this is just a vacay to the easy bay. But it is the beginning of the next phase for them. And it was really very simple.
It’s been an amazing journey, for lots of reasons, but in reality what has been mind blowing is just how simple this was.
My proposal then, is that the community houses, and many other houses, can do this fairly simply. The barriers are mostly socio-cultural. I’d like to see the intentional communities be reverse engines of the capitalist machine. Churning capital wealth into common wealth, and humans from the alienated streets to the warm living rooms and calm hearths of long term housing.
Let it be so.
What next / Next steps!
Our hope in sharing this experiment is to inspire the other community houses in San Francisco to do the same. A huge part of how we other people, other groups, is through segregation. Put a window where there are walls between you and some group of society. Be humans together, see where your friendships take you. If your community house wants to try exploring this, reach out and we will help you. I can help screen people for you, see who is a good fit, talk you through our experience and learnings and provide support. If your house isn’t the right fit for this but wants to support it there are many ways you can help, reach out or donate here. These funds will be used to cover rent for someone in a house that is able to take someone in.
One of my big learnings has been community first, infrastructure second. Once you have organically forming friendships, building homes and projects together is easy. In the coming months we hope to start a potluck dinner with some of the unhoused community so that people can get to know each other and perhaps start cohabiting and building solutions together from there.
Benefits of doing this in community houses:
:: there are many of you under one roof so it doesn’t cost a lot to subsidize or cover a room between you all
:: there are a lot of you, so bringing in someone new that you don’t know is diluted — this would be much more intense in a house share of 3 people than in a community house of 15.
:: the broader community of intentional communities is here to support you. Maybe your person will go on to find long term housing in another community house. Maybe Haight St Commons has medical, legal or social worker help that they would benefit from. We live in such a strong social ecology that we are well positioned to do this.