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tredmond@sfbg.com
Bad social failures eventually come back to haunt you. That's what's happening in the California prison system, where decades of lock-’em-up legislation, stupid drug laws, and governors who are terrified of the political consequences of paroling inmates have filled the jails with aging prisoners who require extensive medical care. Tens of thousands of people will die in state prisons in the next few years, not of murder or abuse but because they're serving life sentences — and it's going to cost a fortune to take care of them in their declining years. The state may have to set up special geriatric cell blocks and hospital wards for inmates who did something pretty bad a long, long time ago and never got another chance at life.
And so it is, apparently, with San Francisco's homeless population.
According to a new study by the University of California, San Francisco, the median age of the city's homeless people has gone from 37 in 1990 to about 50 today. The thousands of people who live on the streets are getting older and older — and their health is failing. Many of them, it seems, have been there at least off and on since the 1980s, when the federal government under Ronald Reagan stopped spending money to help cities provide low-cost housing.
If the study, reported in the Chronicle on Aug. 4, is accurate, there are some important policy conclusions that we need to be looking at. For starters, it suggests that many of the homeless people in San Francisco are not arriving here because of friendly programs and attitudes; we are not a "magnet" for the homeless. In fact, the people living on the streets are ... San Franciscans. Some have been living here as long as I have. They are part of our community, part of our city. They just don't have a roof over their heads or a place to go and shut out the world.
Then there's the fact that harsh cutbacks in spending on low-income populations only create more, and more intractable, problems. The aging homeless are going to need a lot more expensive medical care over the next few years, and the only way they're going to get it is at taxpayer expense. By the time the baby boomer generation of homeless people has died, I bet San Francisco will have spent so much money on caring for them in their later years that it would have been cheaper to just give them all a decent welfare payment, health insurance, and a decent place to live.
Building housing is expensive. Building so-called supportive housing — residential units with social services on-site — is more expensive. Treating people in hospitals who are literally dying of homelessness is even more expensive than that.
You want to be a cold-eyed conservative? The cheapest solution is to radically raise the general assistance payment to the point where homeless people can afford an apartment. That also happens to be the most humane.
Once upon a time, what a lot of homeless people needed was cash, not care. Cash, not care. Now they need care — and the people who elected Gavin Newsom and who complain about the homeless are going to be paying for that care. SFBG