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Bay Area Philanthropists Pinpoint The Region's Biggest Challenge

San Francisco
San Francisco Giants CEO Larry Baer, The Sobrato Organization Chairman Emeritus John A. Sobrato, Taube Philanthropies Chairman Tad Taube and Bay Area Council Chief Operating Officer John Grubb, who moderated

The Bay Area's biggest philanthropic need, homelessness, is a highly visible one, but one that has been a challenge to address.

Efforts to create permanent housing with on-site services to help break the cycle of homelessness — or help address the untreated mental illness that often underlies the problems behind homelessness — are constantly met with the same response: Not in my backyard.

"The way to get well is you have to put them in a permanent home with on-site services. Nobody wants that in their [neighborhood]," said John A. Sobrato, who joined fellow philanthropists Tad Taube and Larry Baer for a discussion on giving back at Bisnow's Office West event in San Francisco last week.

Sobrato, founder of The Sobrato Organization, which does its philanthropic work though The Sobrato Philanthropies, recalled a project he had pursued in Santa Clara where the city planned to give his organization a lease for $1 a year to build permanent supportive housing.

The project had council support, but there was vocal opposition at community meetings, he said. Ultimately, the council voted down the project.

Such attitudes heighten the challenge.

"The homeless situation in San Francisco is the most critical problem," Taube Philanthropies Chairman Tad Taube said. The need is unmet, he added, and growing out of control. "Nobody really knows how to solve it."

Without permanent supportive housing with services like mental healthcare, the public healthcare system cannot handle the volume of people coming in, said San Francisco Giants CEO Larry Baer, who co-chaired the San Francisco General Hospital Foundation Campaign Committee to support the new hospital.

"[We have] a number of folks in our communities that are crippled by mental health issues that are treatable, but aren't being treated," he said.

Sobrato said he is hopeful that the legislation now in front of Gov. Jerry Brown that would allow permanent supportive housing by-right in areas already zoned for multifamily would smooth the process for future projects. It is one of several bills that could affect housing in the state if the governor signs it into law.

"Let's hope that passes," he said.