Is San Francisco trying to help the homeless -- or drive them away?
That theory was thoroughly debunked in a Board of Supervisors committee hearing on Feb. 5.
"The idea of services as a magnet, ... we haven't seen any empirical data to support that," noted Peter Connery of Applied Survey Research, a consultant that conducted the city's most recent homeless count. "The numbers in San Francisco are very consistent with the other communities."
He went on to address the question on everyone's mind: Why haven't the numbers decreased? "Even in this environment where there have obviously been a tremendous number of successes in various departments and programs," Connery said, "this has been a very tough economic period. Just to stay flat represents a huge success in this environment."
As former President Bill Clinton's campaign team used to say: It's the economy, stupid.
For Sabrina, it started with mental health problems and drug addiction. She grew up in Oakland, the daughter of a single mom who worked as a housecleaner.
"Drugs led me the wrong way, and eventually caught up with me," she explained at the soup kitchen while cradling Lily, her Chihuahua-terrier mix.
"I had nothing, at first. You have to learn to pick things up. Eventually, I got some blankets," she said. But she was vulnerable. "It can get kind of mean. The streets can be mean — especially to the ladies."
She found her way to A Woman's Place, a shelter. Then she completed a five-month drug rehab program and now she has housing at a single room occupancy hotel on Sixth Street.
"You don't realize how important those places are," she said, crediting entry into the shelter and the drug-rehab program with her recovery.
Since the 10-year plan went into effect, Coalition on Homelessness Director Jennifer Friedenbach told us, emergency services for homeless people have been dramatically scaled back. Since 2004, "We lost about a third of our shelter beds," she explained. About half of the city's drop-in center capacity was also slashed.
"Between 2007 to 2011, we had about $40 million in direct cuts to behavioral health," she said at the Feb. 5 hearing, seizing on the lack of mental health care, one of the key challenges to reducing homelessness.
"The result of all three of these things, I can't really put into words. It's been very dramatically negative. The increase in acuity, impact on health," she said, "those cannot be overstated."
The need for shelters is pressing. The city has provided funding for a new shelter for LGBT homeless people and a second one in the Bayview, but it hasn't kept up with demand. And for those who lack shelter, life is about navigating one dilemma after another, trying to prevent little problems from snowballing into something heinous.
Consider recent skirmishes that have arisen around the criminalization of homelessness. Department of Public Works street cleaning crews have sprayed homeless people trying to rest on Market Street. Sitting or lying on the sidewalk can result in a ticket. There are few public restrooms, but urinating on the street can result in a ticket. There are no showers, but anyone caught washing up in the library bathroom could be banned from the premises. Sleeping in a park overnight is illegal.
"The bad things that happen are when people don't see homeless people as people," said Bevan Dufty, the mayor's point person on homelessness. "That's the core of it — to be moved away, to be pushed away, citing people, arresting people."
Friedenbach said the tickets and criminalization can ultimately amount to a barrier to ending homelessness: "You're homeless, so you get a ticket, so they won't give you housing, because you wouldn't pay the ticket. And so, you're stuck on the streets."