Is San Francisco trying to help the homeless -- or drive them away?
In one sense, San Francisco's homeless residents have never been more visible than they are in this moment in the city's history, marked by rapid construction, accelerated gentrification, and rising income inequality. But being seen doesn't mean they're getting the help they need.
Not long ago, Lydia Bransten, who heads security at the St. Anthony's Foundation on 150 Golden Gate, happened upon a group of teenagers clustered on the street near the entrance of her soup kitchen. They had video cameras, and were filming a homeless man lying on the sidewalk.
"They were putting themselves in the shot," she said.
Giggling, the kids had decided to cast this unconscious man as a prop in a film, starring them. She told them it was time to leave. Bransten read it as yet another example of widespread dehumanization of the homeless.
"I feel like we're creating a society of untouchables," she said. "People are lying on the street, and nobody cares whether they're dead or breathing."
Condominium dwellers and other District 6 residents of SoMa and the Tenderloin are constantly bombarding Sup. Jane Kim about homelessness via email — not to express concern about the health or condition of street dwellers, but to vent their deep disgust.
"This encampment has been here almost every night for several weeks running. Each night the structure is more elaborate. Why is it allowed to remain up?" one resident wrote in an email addressed to Kim. "Another man can be found mid block, sprawled across the sidewalk ... He should be removed ASAP."
In a different email, a resident wrote: "The police non-emergency number is on my quick dial because we have to call so often to have homeless camps removed."
It's within this fractious context that the city is embarking on the most comprehensive policy discussions to take place on homelessness in a decade.
In 2004, city officials and community advocates released a 10-Year Plan to Abolish Chronic Homelessness. One only needs to walk down the street to understand that this lofty objective ultimately failed; people suffering from mental illness, addiction, and poverty continue to live on the streets.
Most everyone agrees that something should be done. But while some want to see homelessness tackled because they wish undesirable people would vanish from view, others perceive a tragic byproduct of economic inequality and a dismantled social safety net, and believe the main goal should be helping homeless people recover.
"The people living in poverty are a byproduct of the system," said Karl Robillard, a spokesperson for St. Anthony's. "We will always have to help the less fortunate. That's not going to go away. But we're now blaming those very same people for being in that situation."
Sabrina: "The streets can be mean."
Guardian photo by Rebecca Bowe
A common framing of San Francisco's "homeless problem" might be called the magnet theory.
The city has allocated $165 million to homeless services. Over time, it has succeeded in offering 6,355 permanent supportive housing units to the formerly homeless. Nevertheless, the number of homeless people accounted for on the streets has remained stubbornly flat. The city estimates there are about 7,350 homeless people now living in San Francisco.
Since the city has invested so much with such disappointing results, the story goes, there can only be one explanation: Offering robust services has drawn homeless people from elsewhere, like a magnet. By demonstrating kindness, the city has unwittingly converted itself into a Mecca for the homeless, spoiling an otherwise lovely place for all the hardworking, law-abiding citizens who contribute and pay taxes.
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."
A man slumped over his lunch tray and fell to the floor. Within minutes, a medical crew had arrived on the scene, set up a powder-blue privacy screen, and cleared away a table and chairs to administer emergency care.
Throughout the dining hall, most continued lifting forkfuls of mashed potatoes, broccoli, and shredded meat to their mouths, unfazed. Volunteers clad in aprons continued to set down heaping lunch trays in front of diners who held up laminated food tickets. At St. Anthony's, where between 2,500 and 3,000 hot meals are served daily to needy San Franciscans, this sort of thing happens all the time.
"A lot of our guests are subject to seizures, for one reason or another," Robillard told me by way of explanation. Behind him, a pair of medics hovered over the man's outstretched body, his face invisible behind the screen. "In almost all cases, they're fine."
Seizures are just one common ailment plaguing the St. Anthony's clientele, a mix of homeless people, folks living on the economic margins, and tenants housed in nearby single room occupancy hotels.
Jack, an elderly gentleman with a gray beard and stubs on one hand where fingers used to be, told me he'd spent years in prison, battled a heroin addiction, and sustained his hand injury while serving in the military. He previously held jobs as a rigger and a train operator, and said he became homeless after his mother passed away.
St. Anthony's staff members mentioned that Jack had recently awoken to being beaten in the head by a random attacker after he'd fallen asleep on the sidewalk near a transit station.
A petite woman with a warm demeanor, who introduced herself as Kookie, said she'd been homeless last August when she faced her own medical emergency. "I was in the street," she said. "I didn't know I was having a stroke."
She'd been spending nights on the sidewalk on Turk Street, curled up in a sleeping bag. When she had the stroke, someone called an ambulance. Her emergency had brought her unwittingly into the system. At first, "They couldn't find out who I was."
She said she'd stayed in the hospital for six months. Once she'd regained some strength, care providers connected her with homeless services. Now Kookie stays at a shelter on a night-by-night basis, crossing her fingers she'll get a 90-day bed. She's on a wait-list to be placed in supportive housing.
Kookie unzipped a tiny pouch and withdrew her late husband's driver's license as she talked about him. Originally from Buffalo, NY, she lived in Richmond while in her early 20s and took the train to San Francisco, where she worked as a bartender. She's now 60.
"When I was not homeless, I used to see people on the ground, and I never knew I would live like that," she said. "Now I know how it is."
Kookie: "I used to see people on the ground, and I never know I would live like that."
Guardian photo by Rebecca Bowe
Way back in 2003, DPH issued an in-depth report, firing off a list of policy recommendations to end homelessness in San Francisco once and for all. The product of extensive research, the agency identified the most important policy fix: "Expand housing options."
"Ultimately, people will continue to be threatened with instability until the supply of affordable housing is adequate, incomes of the poor are sufficient to pay for basic necessities, and disadvantaged people can receive the services they need," DPH wrote. "Attempts to change the homeless assistance system must take place within the context of larger efforts to help the very poor."
Fast forward more than a decade, and many who work within the city's homeless services system echo this refrain. The pervasive lack of access to permanent, affordable housing is the city's toughest nut to crack, but it doesn't need to be this way.
At the committee hearing, Friedenbach, who has been working as a homeless advocate for 19 years, spelled out the myriad funding losses that have eviscerated affordable housing programs over time.
"We've had really huge losses over the last 10 years in housing," she said. "We've lost construction for senior and disability housing. Section 8 [federal housing vouchers] has been seriously cut away at. We've lost federal funding for public housing. There were funding losses in redevelopment."
A comprehensive analysis by Budget and Legislative Analyst Harvey Rose found the city — with some outside funding help — has spent $81.5 million on permanent supportive housing for the formerly homeless.
That money has placed thousands of people in housing. Nevertheless, a massive unmet need persists.
Following the hard-hitting economic downturn of 2008 and 2009, San Francisco saw a spike in families becoming homeless for the first time. Although a new Bayview development is expected to bring 70 homeless families indoors, Dufty said 175 homeless families remain on a wait-list for housing.
Yet the wait-list for Housing Authority units has long since been closed. And many public housing units continue to sit vacant, boarded up. Sup. London Breed said at a March 19 committee hearing that fixing those units and opening them to homeless residents should be a priority.
DPH's Direct Access to Housing program, which provides subsidized housing in SROs and apartments, was also too overwhelmed to accept new enrollees until just recently. Since the applicant pool opened up again in January, 342 homeless people have already signed up in search of units, according to DPH. But only about a third of them will be placed, the results of our public records request showed.
Meanwhile, the city lacks a pathway for moving those initially placed in SROs into more permanent digs, which would free up space for new waves of homeless people brought in off the street.
City officials have conceptualized the need for a "housing ladder" — but if one applies that analogy to San Francisco's current housing market, it's a ladder with rungs missing from the very bottom all the way to the very top.
In the last fiscal year, HSA allocated $25 million toward subsidized housing for people enrolled in the SRO master-lease program. "It's often talked about as supportive housing," Friedenbach notes. "But supportive housing under a federal definition is affordable, permanent, and supportive."
In SROs, which are notoriously rundown — sometimes with busted elevators in buildings where residents use canes and wheelchairs to get around — people can fork over 80 percent of their fixed incomes on rent.
"An individual entering our housing system should have an opportunity to move into other different types of housing," Dufty told the supervisors. "It's really important that people not feel that they're stuck."
Amanda Fried, who works in Dufty's office, echoed this idea. "Our focus has to be on this ladder," she told us. "If people move in, then they have options to move on. What happens now is, we build the housing, people move in, and they stay."
Homelessness does begin somewhere. For Joseph, a third-generation San Franciscan who grew up in the Mission and once lived in an apartment a block from the Pacific Ocean, the downward spiral began with an Ellis Act eviction.
After losing his place, he stayed with friends and family members, sometimes on the streets, and occasionally using the shelter system (he hated that, telling us, "I felt safer in Vietnam"). He now receives Social Security benefits and lives in an SRO.
Homelessness is often a direct consequence of eviction. Last year, the city allocated an additional $1 million for eviction defense services. Advocates hope to increase this support in the current round of budget talks. The boost in funding yielded measurable results, Friedenbach pointed out, doubling the number of tenants who managed to stave off eviction once they sought legal defense.
There's also a trend of formerly homeless residents getting evicted from publicly subsidized housing. Since 2009, the Eviction Defense Collaborative has counted 1,128 evictions from housing provided through HSA programs. Since most came from being homeless, they are likely returning to homelessness.
Dufty said more could be done to help people stay housed. "Yes, we're housing incredibly challenged individuals. And we have to recognize that allowing those individuals to be evicted, without the city using all of our resources to intervene to help that person, that's not productive," he said. "It's debilitating to the person. It's just not good."
Fried said the city could do more to provide financial services to people who were newly housed. "You were homeless on the street — you know you didn't pay some bill for a long time. Really that's the time, once you're housed and stable, to say, 'let's go back and pull your credit.' Once we have people in housing, how are we increasing their income?"
Gary: "If I knew how to fix it, I would."
Guardian photo by Mike Koozmin
The reopening of [freespace], a community space at Sixth and Market temporarily funded by a city-administered grant, attracted a young, hip crowd, including many tech workers. A girl in a short white dress played DJ on her laptop, against a backdrop where people had scrawled their visions for positive improvements in the city. Some of the same organizers are helping to organize HACKtivation for the Homeless, an event that will be held at the tech headquarters of Yammer on March 28. The event will bring together software developers and homeless service providers to talk about how to more effectively address homelessness.
"The approach we're talking about is working with organizations and helping them build capacity," organizer Ilana Lipsett told us. The idea is to help providers boost their tech capacity to become more effective. And according to Kyle Stewart of ReAllocate, an organization that is partnering on the initiative, "The hope is that it's an opportunity to bridge these communities."
Other out-of-the box ideas have come from City Hall. Sup. Kim, who stayed at a homeless shelter in 2012 during a brief stint as acting mayor, said she was partially struck by how boring that experience was — once a person is locked into a shelter, there is nothing to do, for 12 hours.
She wondered: Why aren't there services in the shelters? Why isn't there access to job training, counseling, or medical care in those facilities? Why are the staffers all paid minimum wage, ill-equipped to deal with the stressful scenarios they are routinely placed in? Her office has allocated some discretionary funding to facilitate a yoga program at Next Door shelter, in hopes of providing a restorative activity for clients and staff.
More recently, Sup. Mark Farrell has focused on expanding the Homeless Outreach Team as an attempt to address homelessness. Farrell recently initiated a citywide dialogue on addressing homelessness with a series of intensive hearings on the issue. He proposed a budgetary supplemental of $1.3 million to double the staff of the HOT team, and to add more staff members with medical and psychiatric certification to the mix.
But the debate at the March 19 Budget and Finance Committee hearing grew heated, because Sup. John Avalos wanted to see a more comprehensive plan for addressing homelessness. "I'm interested in people exiting homelessness," he said. "I'd like there to be a plan that's more baked that has a sense of where we're going."
Farrell was adamant that the vote was not about addressing homelessness in the broader sense, but expanding outreach. "We have to vote on: do we believe, as supervisors, that we need more outreach on our streets to the homeless population or do we not?" he said.
Sup. Scott Wiener defined it as an issue affecting neighborhoods. "When we're actually looking at what is happening on our streets, it is an emergency right now," he said. "It's not enough just to rely on police officers."
When other members of the board said homeless advocates should be integrated into the solution, Wiener said, "The stakeholders here are not just the organizations that are doing work around homelessness, they are the 830,000 residents of San Francisco ... It impacts their neighborhoods every day."
Asked what she thought about it, Kim told us she believed sending more nurses and mental-health service providers into the city's streets was a good plan — but she emphasized that it had to be part of a larger effort.
"If you're just going to increase the HOT team, but not services," she said, "then you're just sending people out to harass homeless people."
Mike is 53, and he's lived on the streets of San Francisco for five years. He was born in Massachusetts, and his brothers and sisters live in Napa. We encountered him sitting on the sidewalk in the Tenderloin. "I don't like shelters," he explained. "I got beat up a couple times, there were arguments." So he sleeps under a blanket outside. "It's rough," he said. "I do it how I can."
A few blocks away we encountered Gary, who said he's been homeless in San Francisco for 17 years. He was homeless when he arrived from Los Angeles. He said he'd overdosed "a bunch of times," he's gone through detox five times, and he's been hospitalized time and again. "Call 911, and they'll take care of you pretty good."
Gary is an addict. "If I knew how to fix it, I would," he said. "Do yourself a favor, and lose everything. It's like acting like you're blind."
Gary and Mike, chronically homeless people who have been on the streets for years, are HOT's target clientele. "My slice of the pie is the sickest, the high-mortality, they're often the ones that are laid out in the street," said Maria Martinez, a senior staff member at DPH who started the HOT program.
"I went through years of the 10-Year plan," she added. "Do I feel like I could take this money [the HOT team supplemental] and do something effective with it? Yes. Do I think there's a lot of other things that we could address? Yes."
Pressed on what broader solutions would look like, she said, "There has to be an exit into permanent housing. I've seen that we've been creative around that. We can make lives better. I say that vehemently. And permanent housing is critical to exiting out of homelessness."
Guardian photo by Mike Koozmin