Homelessness in San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area is an ever-growing crisis that needs to be fixed. It is something that is always momentary in our perception. We stare for a second, look away, and then forget as we step over a body lying recumbent on the sidewalk. We experience moments of compassion or sympathy, and then return to our routines. We must ask ourselves, why are we ignoring this issue? Despite many years of concern and millions of dollars used for investments, the problem persists. Homelessness occurs because many people cannot afford a place to live, are unemployed, are mentally ill or have a drug problem.
Whatever the case, homelessness in San Francisco doesn’t look much different than it did 20 years ago. In response to the rapidly multiplying homeless population, the city of San Francisco introduced its very first Homeless Count in 2005. It was conducted by Applied Survey Research (ASR), a nonprofit, social research firm that gathers a team of volunteers every two years to collect comprehensive counts of the local population experiencing homelessness. These reports are designed to imitate the Census, therefore providing detailed data about the homeless populations and their defining characteristics. A quick glance at these extensive reports confirms what many San Francisco citizens already know: the homeless population is slowly increasing with time and contains no signs of stopping. Why is this number continuously rising? Money has always been part of this perpetual problem, but little improvement suggests those dollars are not being spent with anything close to optimal effectiveness.
San Francisco has a proud reputation as a compassionate, caring, and tolerant city. Unfortunately, with all of its good intentions and different strategies, it is still unable to resolve the problem of homelessness. Every mayor since Ortega 21995 has allocated public resources and tax dollars towards the issue, but homelessness continues to be a complex social issue with highly charged political consequences. The primary cause of an individual’s inability to obtain or retain housing is difficult to pinpoint, as it is often the result of multiple and combined reasons. However, it’s no secret that most of the homeless population is made up of people with mental health problems or addictions to illegal substances. Because of these stereotypes, homeless people all over the country are the most unpopular group of needy Americans.
In fact, prior to Willie L. Brown Jr.’s term as San Francisco mayor, the city was considered one of the country’s toughest on street people. Police raids and clean up sweeps were common. A person during that time could have been convicted for violating a court injunction against feeding the homeless without a permit (Goldberg).
Because of this, Mayor Brown campaigned on the promise that he would create a more compassionate city before taking office in January of 1996. However, Brown soon learned that the homeless population was more complicated than his campaign rhetoric had acknowledged. Brown states, “ My only option was to manage — not end — the problem.” Citations for quality-of-life crimes, like sleeping in parks and obstructing sidewalks, dropped noticeably. In April 1995, they totaled 2, 610, while in the corresponding period in 1996 they were down 23 percent, to 2, 017 (Goldberg).
From 1995-2004, the Brown administration searched for innovative ways to fight the poverty that leads to homelessness. They established improved job training, added housing for the homeless, and funded neighborhood food and health care programs in San Francisco. Despite his efforts, Mayor Willie Brown ultimately, and famously, declared the homeless problem unsolvable (Placzek). One thing that stood out from Brown’s time in office was his compassionate approach to the issue of homelessness. It seems that most San Francisco Ortega 3citizens agree that while homelessness is a prevalent issue, a kinder and gentler policy regime is needed to help these troubled people. Without regard to this belief, Brown’s successor, Gavin Newsom, took the most aggressive stance yet toward tackling the issue.
In 2004, he announced a 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness (Fagan). The foundation for his plan was Proposition N. Approved by San Francisco voters in 2002 and implemented in 2004, Proposition N (better known as “ Care Not Cash”) meant single homeless adults lost their monthly county adult assistance program (CAAP) cash payments of $359. Instead they would receive in-kind services such as residential hotel rooms, mental and drug treatment and meals plus a monthly personal allowance of $59. Also included was retained medical care at general hospitals and other similar minor services (SPUR). Mayor Newsom claims that his target goal was to reorient “ the system of care away from managing the problem and toward solving it. We aimed to break the cycle of dependency and move people into stable living situations.
” Undeterred by the benevolent nature, Newsom’s plan was met with bitter bias and backlash. A majority of San Francisco believed Proposition N was inhumane and re-established the non-compassionate strategies of solving homelessness. Those against Care not Cash said a person cannot survive on $59 dollars per month for their food and basic necessities (Wachs). Even now, thousands of people remain in shelters or on the streets because the city’s supportive housing program does not have enough rooms to go around.
Still, many were in favor of the initiative, claiming that it was an effective way to stop homeless people from spending their CAAP checks on addictions. They believed Care Not Cash was needed to provide services that would meet people’s basic needs as well as helping them to overcome their addictions and make progress towards self sufficiency (Buchanan). Although Mayor Newsom’s 10 year plan to end homelessness was not achieved, his Ortega 4tenure did impact the homeless population in a positive way. In 2005, the Homeless Count reported that the entire population of homeless individuals had decreased by 28% since 2002, cutting the total number from 8, 640 to 6, 248.
By the end of Newsom’s term in 2011, the total homeless population was 6, 455 (ASR 2011). Besides the inevitable constant influx of homeless people moving into San Francisco, Gavin Newsom stands out as the single mayor that was able to maintain the homeless population at a steady estimate. Today, despite the efforts of many mayoral administrations, homelessness is stamped into the city so deeply it has become a defining characteristic. Recently, in San Francisco, the vicious cost of housing is outpacing what people making minimum wage can afford. If they lose their jobs or their housing, they are at risk for becoming homeless (Knight).
The strong presence of Silicon Valley’s tech industry has led to a high number of people looking for a place to live all throughout the wealthy Bay Area. New homes and apartment buildings are being constructed and filled as fast as possible. San Francisco’s “ building boom” has forced the homeless out of once vacant and unused lots (Fagan). Several homeless have pitched tents and sleep on the sidewalk in broad daylight, and have expanded their presence into residential neighborhoods, such as Twin Peaks and Noe Valley. Growing complaints and concerns from San Francisco citizens forced the mayor to develop a course of action towards this never-ending dilemma. The late Mayor Ed Lee, who served from 2011-2017, understood that the Cash Not Care initiative alone was no longer effective for the current economic climate. In response, he created the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing in 2016 (Knight). Lee stated that the creation of this specialized department would “ end a person’s homelessness before it becomes chronic through coordinated, compassionate and high-quality services.
” The use of navigation centers, designed Ortega 5by Lee, were used to break down barriers that homeless people face when moving off the streets. They allowed 24-hour access to shelter and opportunities to bring their partners, possessions and pets with them. This approach allowed the city to stabilize the homeless and take care of their immediate needs (Lee). Once they were situated, an individual would be guided into focusing on a long-term plan for their lives off the streets. Lee assigned a budget of $275 million on homelessness and supportive housing in 2017, up from $241 million in 2016. That annual spending is projected to hit an eye-popping $305 million in 2018 (Knight).
The latest Homeless Count put the number of reported homeless at 7, 499 in 2017, which is actually an improvement from the previous year. Mayor Lee’s navigation centers were showing small advances since the year that they were initiated. As a matter of fact, he created San Francisco’s largest expansion of supportive housing in more than a decade (Lee). Before his passing in December of 2017, Lee’s ultimate goal was “ to end homelessness one by one, with the compassion and dignity that defines San Francisco.” San Francisco has struggled to address its homeless dilemma for more than two decades. With one of the highest rates of homelessness in the U. S. today, the city has failed to find an effective way out of the homeless crisis.
Considering that the quantity of homeless people is quickly enlarging year by year, we continue dealing with two seemingly inexplicable questions: Why isn’t one of the richest, most liberal, and idealistic cities in the nation able to solve homelessness? Will it ever be possible to see real change? San Francisco has tried various strategies and different approaches, but most of these fail or have no real impact on the fundamental problem. Understandably, San Francisco residents are tired of this worry, as homelessness plagues their quality of life. The truth is, finding an effective, long term-solution Ortega 6will be an even greater and expensive problem for the city of San Francisco.