How We Can Solve San Francisco’s Growing Homelessness Epidemic

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Despite so many people leaving their hearts in San Francisco, San Francisco itself can be pretty heartless. We have over 100,000 millionaires in The City — about 1 out of 8 people — yet somehow we have a crippling homelessness crisis that only seems to be getting worse.

To top things off, we have powerful members of our city government who, instead of actually tackling the problem from a humanistic perspective, continue to use bastardized versions of the broken windows theory to sweep it all under the rug. Instead of working on getting the homeless into homes, Supervisor Scott Wiener has been pushing to take their tents away. Similarly Supervisor Mark Farrell has submitted a ballot measure that would ban homeless encampments. All of this comes in the wake of Mayor Ed Lee’s Super Bowl debacle.

When Super Bowl 50 came into town, Mayor Lee pushed the homeless people out of downtown and “hid” them under the freeway. Of course as soon as the cameras were gone, he then had the police come through and tell those same people that they couldn’t be there. It seems that Mayor Lee, and Supervisors Wiener and Farrell, manage to forget that we’re dealing with actual human beings; people who, more than anything, need our help.

So how do we fix homelessness? Here’s an answer: give them homes. Sounds straightforward, right? But A program called “Housing First,” makes a priority out of getting homeless people into homes as quickly as possible. The program was first formulated by Tanya Tull at PATH Beyond Shelter in Los Angeles in 1988 and has since found success in states around the US and countries around the world.

Not only is Housing First a viable way to give homeless people housing, but in doing so, it can  actually save the city money in the long run. Conservatives often try to block new social programs based on budgetary restrictions, but when you take into account how much money is spent each year on medical bills, cleaning bills, shelters, and all of the other expenses that exist as a direct result of homelessness, building housing for these folks actually ends up costing the city less than the alternative. Housing First is not only the humanistic solution, it’s also the best financial one.

The state of Utah has seen a 72% drop in homelessness since first enacting Housing First policies in 2005. And while San Francisco is certainly not Utah (for so many reasons really), Kelley Cutler, from the Coalition on Homelessness (COH) – a local nonprofit that advocates on behalf of homeless people – spoke to SF Sounds on possible solutions to fixing our homelessness problem:

“We need a sustainable revenue source. Since 1976, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s nationwide budget has dropped by more than $45 billion per year [$32.6 billion as of 2014], with the biggest drop occurring between 1980 and 1983. The funding has stayed relatively flat since. This is a major factor that created the housing/homelessness crisis.”

The COH has a five-year plan with concrete solutions that would end family homelessness in San Francisco and could be applied to homelessness in the city in general. Their six-step plan called “The Roadmap,” includes: increasing affordable public and private housing subsidies, allowing affordable housing units to be specifically used for homeless housing when they turnover, moving homeless folks into vacant housing authority units, and investing in preventing homelessness in the first place. The entire plan can be seen at cohsf.org/the-roadmap/    

Another measure that could greatly help alleviate the homelessness epidemic, is the addition of six more “navigation centers.” The navigation center is a pilot program launched in San Francisco in 2015 that has less rules than traditional shelters. Residents don’t have curfews, they can stay with their partners, and they can bring in their belongings. There are also mental health professionals, advocates, and counselors on hand at the navigation center to help the residents transition from living on the street to moving into more permanent housing. Since the navigation center’s opening in the Mission, they’ve served 550 people and the SF Examiner reports that “80 percent of whom have moved into stable supportive housing or were reunited with friends and family.”

Following this incredible success rate, Supervisor David Campos called in March for a state of emergency with the intention of getting state and federal dollars to help build more of these centers. Yet for some reason, Mayor Lee’s response was to say that Supervisor Campos and the other Supervisors who supported the state of emergency were “grandstanding,” and refused to sign the measure. It took a unanimous, veto-proof vote from the Board of Supervisors to finally get the measure passed and a second navigation center just opened in June. Mayor Lee was there to cut the tape.

Concrete solutions to begin solving our homelessness crisis clearly exist (There’s also a potential November ballot measure that will ask tech companies to pay a 1.5% surtax on payroll that could generate $120 million annually for housing and the homeless.) Some of the solutions are more radical than others, but that’s the thing with crises – they come about when old practices stop working or never worked at all. Fixing our homelessness problem won’t be easy and will require real political will. The question becomes whether or not the mayor, the Board of Supervisors and hopefully voters too, are willing to help do it.

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  1. Solutions need to come from the state level. Anything else gives incentive for homeless to move to SF, while giving SF taxpayers incentive to turn them away.

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