Community Voices

Community Voices: A Review of San Francisco’s Homeless Crisis Since 2000

Emma Chiang/Ingleside-Excelsior Light

More than 6,500 people are homeless in San Francisco. That’s far too many. Our own eyes tell us so and so do the media and the politicians. People are as angry as wet chickens, with feathers flying everywhere, unable to coalesce into warm, comfortable nests. In response, the San Francisco Chronicle proposed a San Francisco Homeless Project, a citywide media blitz that Editor-in-Chief Audrey Cooper says will be “nothing less than complete civic engagement and understanding of the multiple causes and solutions to homelessness.” What you are reading now is part of that project.

In City Hall the flurry is finding a focus. Most recently, the Board of Supervisors voted to add at least six new Navigation Centers to the two that are already in the works, experimental facilities providing comprehensive social services and housing aid to San Francisco’s “difficult-to-serve homeless population.” That’s shorthand for “birds of a feather that flock together in camps.”

District 2 Supervisor Mark Farrell offered another approach to the same problem: an initiative called “Housing, Not Tents.” He’d like voters in November to authorize the city to dismantle “dangerous and unhealthy” homeless encampments—with 24-hour written notice—in exchange for a shelter or housing opportunity or a ticket out of town. And the Chronicle notes that District 11 Supervisor John Avalos is preparing a counter solution: to provide bathroom and garbage services for the camps.

During the last encampment sweep, on Division Street in March, about 300 people were living in 65 tents. That’s enough people to make quite a mess, enough people to make passers-by rather nervous and apparently enough to set off a major campaign among the media and the politicians.

Once again the people of San Francisco are showing their infinite capacity for living in the moment. Sometimes they’re like budgies on an exercise wheel, going round and round, getting nowhere. They forget that there are other times and other places. But contrary to the opinion of historically and geographically challenged observers, sometimes things do change.

Travel back to the beginning of this century, when San Francisco was soaring on a thermal. Estimates of homeless populations were less scientific then, but the usually accepted figure is about 12,500. Four years of Willie Brown as mayor meant that it was no longer illegal to serve soup to a street person without a permit, but the police still handed out 23,000 quality-of-life citations in 1999. A homeless person’s path to food and shelter was so byzantine that the Local Homeless Coordinating Board called it “survival of the fittest.”

The city felt out of control, as it sometimes does now. Policymakers grasped at straws. The Department of Human Services proposed a system of coordinated access points for shelter applicants, probably not the best idea for a city with a rudimentary computer system.

After 9/11, the city felt even more out of control. The economy plummeted, and shadows of vultures appeared on the skyline. The streets were lined with fallen sparrows: the city’s homeless count was 5,376 in 2000, 7,305 in 2001 and 8,640 in 2002.

Homelessness loomed large in the mayoral election of 2003, with Gavin Newsom riding on the wings of his recently approved Care Not Cash program and Angela Alioto pushing for a more humane shelter system. A measure banning aggressive panhandling was also on the ballot.

The voters banned aggressive panhandling and elected Newsom, who immediately rewarded Alioto for her passionate campaign. He appointed her to head a council preparing San Francisco’s Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, giving her four months to complete the task. By then, the city was known as the homeless capital of the United States, with an estimated homeless population of 15,000.

Newsom unveiled the ten-year plan with great fanfare on June 30, 2004. Once again San Francisco portrayed itself as the Great American Innovator, this time with a “‘Housing First’ model, which “emphasizes immediate placement of the individual in permanent supportive housing, and then provides the services, on site, necessary to stabilize the individual and keep them housed.” Newsom said, “This won’t all happen tomorrow. But it will get done.”

And of course it didn’t.

But something else did. Instead of soaring overhead like a proud, lonely eagle, the city of Saint Francis joined a huge aviary of like-minded birds. As any bureaucrat or service provider will tell you, the city’s ten-year plan is only one of at least 234 that were filed with the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness in 2004. Each was examined and evaluated, becoming part of a national ten-year plan called “Opening Doors,” which was announced in 2010.

The feds say, “Homelessness is a problem we can solve.” A problem. Not a crisis. They’ve seen the principles developed by the various cities and towns in action; they know what works. Leading the list are the words that Newsom used to describe San Francisco’s plan: “Housing First.” The other elements are also familiar to bureaucrats and service providers, although they might stick in a few politicians’ craws: data tracking, collaboration and investment.

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, often ruffles the establishment’s feathers. But she offers a hopeful note in a recent Examiner op-ed: “San Francisco is housing 6,000 homeless people now. With turnover and new-planned units, it can house an additional 250 to 500 people a year. That is not bad.”

A report from the Controller’s Office on the performance of the city’s first Navigation Center is equally optimistic: during the first 10 months, 142 of its clients moved to permanent housing.

But the success is bittersweet. The report adds, “The single navigation center currently in operation requires about 22% of the City’s existing supportive housing stock for single adults.” Friedenbach echoes its concern: “We need to create a progressive, sustainable revenue source to ensure we have the resources we need to put a serious dent in this issue.”

Housing first; data tracking; collaboration; investment—these are fine feathers for a city bird. And when held firmly in the hand, they beat any two encampments in the bush.

Betsey Culp published the San Francisco Call newspaper from 2000 to 2005. This article was produced as part of the San Francisco Homeless Project, an effort of 70 Bay Area publications to focus on the issue of homelessness for one day. Articles produced for the project by other media can be found on FacebookMediumSFGate and Twitter (#SFHomelessProject).

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