The latest count of homeless people in San Francisco is in, and already the bureaucrats and the news media are misquoting it to make their political points.
"Most of San Francisco's Homeless from Other Areas," the headline on KCBS.com read. "City Attracts Homeless for More Than One Reason," the San Francisco Chronicle concluded. "Homeless folks tend to migrate to San Francisco," Trent Rhorer, the head of the city's Human Services Agency, told the Chron. "In a sense, we're swimming upstream here."
Well, what the survey actually showed is that the number of homeless people increased slightly this year, to 6,377. That's a pretty bogus number, since it's hard to count the city's entire homeless population in one night with a bunch of volunteers who don't even interview most of the people they count. They also don't count people who are living in cars (it's often hard to find them), and they don't count people who are crashing on somebody's floor or couch, or multiple families crammed into single rooms, or a lot of others who technically don't have a home in San Francisco.
But it's a number that scares the mayor a bit, because it suggests that his much-vaunted program to deal with homeless people, Care Not Cash, isn't making huge inroads. So it's easy (even though the city hardly gives out any cash anymore, and services are stretched thin, and compassion is harder and harder to find) for Gavin Newsom's staff to say that it's impossible to really solve the problem because so many new homeless people keep flocking to this city.
In fact, that's what a follow-up survey of some of the homeless people suggested: about 31 percent of them said they had come here from somewhere else.
A bit of reality here: more than 31 percent of the people who work at the Guardian came here from somewhere else. This is a city of immigrants. It's a place where people come to reinvent themselves, where people who are down on their luck and can't handle the stress of being different in a white-bread community arrive in search of a better life. It's hardly surprising that a lot of the homeless people are also relatively new arrivals.
But what's far more staggering to me is that 69 percent of the people who are homeless aren't recent arrivals. These are folks who have either lived on the streets of San Francisco for quite some time or lived here in some sort of tolerable condition and recently become homeless.
Rhorer's got it backward: the trouble isn't that some people who lost their homes in another part of the country decided they'd have a better shot in San Francisco. It's that so many San Franciscans have become homeless.
And I think I can hazard a guess as to why.
Let's face it: housing costs in this city drive people onto the streets. The tenant activists like to say that eviction is the number one preventable cause of homelessness, and I agree. We can complain about San Francisco being a homeless magnet (which will probably never change), or we can recognize that public policy (too easy evictions, too little affordable housing) is the root cause of a lot of the homelessness that begins right here at home. *