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Homelessness among Latino residents has spiked in San Francisco

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Homelessness among Latinos is up dramatically in San Francisco and elsewhere in California. That's despite renter protections put in place during the pandemic. From member station KQED, Vanessa Rancano reports that this community is especially vulnerable to sky-high rents.

VANESSA RANCAÑO, BYLINE: Every Tuesday as the sun comes up, dozens of RV residents that call San Francisco's Winston Drive home prepare for a weekly ritual, avoiding the street sweeper.

(SOUNDBITE OF STREET SWEEPER)

RANCAÑO: With the street cleaned, they rumble back to their designated spots.

JOSE LUIS DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).

RANCAÑO: With the weekly move done, Jose Luis Diaz stands outside his RV waiting for his kids to finish getting ready for school. He says there's an order to things here. It's a community.

DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).

RANCAÑO: He's got the spot with the tree because he was the first one out here about a month into the pandemic. Diaz lost his job as a sous chef in March of 2020. Within a few weeks, he'd moved into the RV with his wife and kids. They're now 17 and 12. Later, he says, other families from the apartment building where they were living in nearby Daly City came to check it out.

DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).

RANCAÑO: Now they're neighbors again out here. They're among the growing ranks of Latinos living on San Francisco's streets or in RVs, cars or city shelters. Homelessness among Latino residents in San Francisco is up 55% since the start of the pandemic, despite an overall drop in the city's homeless population. In neighboring Alameda County, Latino homelessness rose an astonishing 73%.

LAURA VALDEZ: So there's just a lot of ways that our community is very vulnerable.

RANCAÑO: Laura Valdez is executive director of the Latino-focused Dolores Street Community Services. She says the kinds of service industry jobs available to many Latinos disappeared during the pandemic.

VALDEZ: So when every single person in the household is losing their job, it really created a very dire situation.

RANCAÑO: Add to it language and cultural barriers that prevented people from accessing services, a lack of shelters in the city's primary Latino neighborhood and a lot of informal living situations.

VALDEZ: Many of our community members - they don't have a lease, and they don't know their rights.

RANCAÑO: When tenants don't know their rights, don't speak English or don't have legal status, it gives landlords a lot of power. Valdez says that contributes to disproportionate formal and informal evictions among Latinos. Outside his RV, Jose Diaz surveys the neighborhood. "Yeah, there's a lot of Latinos here," he says.

DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).

RANCAÑO: He says, "a lot of people here are immigrants. And some don't have papers, so they can't get unemployment." He shrugged his shoulders and asks, "what else can people do?"

DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).

RANCAÑO: It's not just undocumented Latinos, though. Diaz has a visa that allows him to work legally, but he didn't apply for assistance because he worried it could hurt his pending application for permanent residency.

DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).

RANCAÑO: Latinos now make up 30% of homeless people in San Francisco, though they're only 16% of the overall population, according to the city's most recent count. In response, the city is funneling more resources to the historically Latino Mission neighborhood, says Emily Cohen, a spokesperson for the city's Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing.

EMILY COHEN: We are increasing partnerships with Latinx-serving organizations to help ensure that we have culturally appropriate, culturally competent service providers.

RANCAÑO: Advocates welcome that. But to truly address the problem, they say, officials have to take on the root cause, the shortage of affordable housing and the high cost of living in San Francisco. Even before the pandemic, with Diaz and his wife working, he says after rent and bills, they'd be left with $150 at the end of the month.

DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).

RANCAÑO: "Nobody can get by on that," he says. Everyone who ended up out here on the street is just trying to survive.

DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).

RANCAÑO: Diaz is now working as a truck driver. He plans to stay in the RV, save money and move away because he doesn't see a future here.

For NPR News, I'm Vanessa Rancano in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.