Improving Housing & Supports for San Francisco’s Transitional Age Youth

In the face of an economic boom and the highest housing costs in the country, San Francisco’s homeless population has grown dramatically over the past several years. Data from 2015 show that 20 percent of people who experience homelessness in the City are Transitional Age Youth (TAY), defined as unaccompanied young adults age 18 to 24. Many TAY become homeless when they leave traumatic family situations, age out of foster care, or have been involved with the criminal justice system. These young people need services that are tailored to their needs in order to transition successfully into an independent and self-sufficient adulthood.

This is where San Francisco’s system of TAY housing and services fits in. The current system consists of two housing models:

  • Transitional housing provides a supportive living environment for up to two years and serves as a bridge to permanent housing; and
  • Supportive housing, in which residents have their own leases in non-time limited affordable housing with supportive services.

Within each type of housing, individual sites often have their own approaches to selecting and serving TAY residents.

A few months ago, my colleagues and I at Harder+Company Community Research talked with young people living in San Francisco’s TAY housing, and the housing providers, about how effective the current system is and where there are opportunities for improvement. We conducted this research for the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development and the Corporation for Supportive Housing, who are supporting the development of new TAY housing units.

Here is what we found:

  • Reaching TAY who need housing, prioritizing those who are most in need, and placing them in the most appropriate housing situation are crucial for the system to work efficiently. Eligibility criteria and referral processes are designed to offer multiple points of entry into the system and to accommodate TAY with diverse needs. But this variability can also be confusing for both providers and young people alike. Our assessment uncovered several common barriers in this area.
  • All aspects of TAY housing—staff, mix of services offered, physical design, location, and beyond—must be youth-specific and responsive to residents’ particular needs and backgrounds. All staff who work with TAY need ongoing training and support to ensure that they are equipped to provide high quality and youth-specific services. Many TAY housing sites already use best practices such as phased, ongoing orientation processes that involve both case managers and property management staff. There was widespread agreement that TAY housing should offer access to kitchens, computers, and Wi-Fi, and that shared bathrooms were not appropriate for most young people in these housing situations. Additionally, both residents and staff expressed concerns about safety and security at some housing sites, especially in the Tenderloin and South of Market.
  • Many TAY and providers are confused about whether and how youth should exit each of San Francisco’s two housing models (transitional and supportive). Supportive housing is a newer model for TAY in San Francisco. While it is technically “permanent,” young people age out of their designation as “transitional age” once they turn 25. Providers and housing developers have yet to agree on whether young people are expected to exit supportive housing when they reach that age and, if so, how to help that process.
  • The Bay Area’s high cost of living makes it more challenging than ever for young people to move into independent housing. As they prepare youth for exits, providers need to start housing searches earlier to deal with the current market. At a systems level, it will be important to identify clear pipelines into adult housing situations, including adult-specific supportive housing, and to explore options for providing financial assistance to TAY in the form of transferable housing vouchers or other rental subsidies.

The full report provides more details about these findings. This project is a great example of our community research approach. We worked closely with the young adults living in supportive housing—as well as representatives from city agencies, housing providers and developers, and referral agencies—to identify critical research questions, gather data, and create recommendations. We particularly appreciate members of the Citywide TAY Advisory Board who helped us co-facilitate focus groups with TAY housing residents. This ensured that participants felt comfortable speaking candidly about their experiences and helped us make meaning of what they shared. Based on their engagement in this project, we are confident that our partners have built the momentum they need to refine and improve the system over the coming months.