“It’s not a lack of compassion, it’s a lack of action,” said San Bruno Avenue resident Gregg Stauffer, about the City’s homeless problem. Stauffer, along with other Hill residents, is concerned about a lack of effective municipal policies oriented toward homelessness.
There are roughly 6,600 people without permanent homes in the City, including those who sleep in shelters, residential programs, and resource centers, according to the 2015 San Francisco Homeless Count Report. However, the number of people living on the street – rather than in a shelter or other temporary domicile – has increased by 32 percent, to 3,500, since 2005. More people are on the pavement as a result of changes in the built environment, such as demolition of the Transbay Terminal, where many homeless use to cluster, and the fact the San Francisco’s stock of affordable housing and its shelter system is at or near capacity, according to Potrero Boosters Neighborhood Association president J.R. Eppler.
The wait list for public housing is huge: 8,000 people. The City has fewer than 1,300 shelter beds. Shelters can be a bad fit for some people; for instance, those who can’t take care of themselves or who have significant health issues, according to Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of SF Coalition on Homelessness. “There’s not an in between spot for shelter and hospitalization, and a high portion of people fall into that category,” she said.
The Hill appears to be attracting a higher number of homeless than other City neighborhoods in part because of the relative abundance of lightly-trafficked areas adjacent to, on, or under California Department of Transportation property. According to Eppler, these encampments are preferable to other places to sleep. “Unfortunately, they bring with them health, fire, and safety risks, both to their inhabitants and their housed and working neighbors,” he added.
Last month’s Super Bowl may have encouraged movement of homeless individuals to Southside neighborhoods because unhoused people were instructed by police officers to head to Division Street, which has natural shelter and draws fewer complaints due to its industrial characteristics relative to crowded Downtown spots. “That’s what’s being reported to us,” Freidenbach said. “The officials are saying that’s not what’s being talked about in big brass meetings, but homeless people as an end result are being squished into smaller and smaller areas. We’re getting reports of areas where the homeless were being threatened, where police were saying, ‘Move your stuff or we’ll throw it in the hopper.’”
The situation became all the more unsettling after various news outlets reported the presence of knives and guns at homeless encampments. One man threatened to stab KRON 4 reporter Stanley Roberts on air when he went to investigate the tent city that was recently removed from Division Street.
Kelly Keith, a Hill resident since 1992, had his own run-in at 100 Division, where he felt threatened. He’s become accustomed to homelessness after living in the area for so long, but said, “What scares me now is the drug addicts that are there. They’re shooting up and taking heroin and crystal meth. And there’s a criminal element because someone had to sell them the drugs.”
Keith acknowledged that there are many kinds of homeless people – people who chose to live that way, drug addicts or those needing mental help, and individuals who are down on their luck – and in fact has a friend on the street. These days though, he fears for his safety. “We shouldn’t be afraid to walk on our streets or step over someone on the streets,” he said. Keith noted that there’s been an increase in car break-ins and thefts; particularly of bicycles. “Why was there never a problem before?” Keith asked. “The variable is the homeless and the criminal part. With the amount of money the City spends on everything else, they’re not spending the money the right way.”
That’s a sentiment Friedenbach echoed. “Part of what’s so infuriating is we see messed up priorities. For the Super Bowl, the City spent $5 million. Yes, it brings in money for the City, but that money could have been better spent on housing.”
“I think being a good neighbor is important: introduce yourselves to each other, know each other, check-in on folks, make sure they’re alright,” Friedenbach said. She encouraged residents to get to know the local, community-based organizations working on homelessness, to volunteer, to read the homeless newspaper The Street Sheet, and engage in conversations about the problem. “When people start hating on your neighbors, start standing up for them,” she said. “These are systemic issues. There is a huge gap in income and rent; you don’t need to blame people who are victims of systemic disparities. And put pressure on City officials.”
“I’m surprised [Mayor] Ed Lee and Sam Dodge [director of the City’s Housing Opportunity, Partnerships, and Engagement office] haven’t done anything on this,” said Keith. “I emailed Lee for an appointment asking him to come down here and he never responded. He’s not doing anything.”
The mayor’s office didn’t reply to repeated requests for comment from the View either. However, San Francisco Board of Supervisor Malia Cohen held a hearing last month that focused on the City’s response to homelessness so far this year. She requested information from various City agencies, including the Department on Homeless Services, Homeless Outreach Team, Department of Public Health, and Human Services Agency. Cohen wanted to know the projected timeline and milestones from each of these agencies, and requested a report from the Budget and Legislative Analyst detailing the costs of managing and mitigating the impact of people living on the street versus placing them in permanent or supportive housing.
Last month, the City erected a new, emergency, winter shelter at Pier 80. The facility has 150 beds, and will remain open through this month. But, according to Friedenbach, the solution isn’t to build more shelter beds – although that’d help – but to invest in housing. “Pull the properties that are five to 10 years down the road from being complete and have 30 to 40 percent go to the homeless. Prioritize housing for people in homeless units,” she said. “It’s impossible to get well from a behavioral health issue if you’re still on the streets because you’re getting traumatized over and over again. If we get people in housing, it moves people closer to where they want to be in terms of health. Once in housing, then we can ensure access to treatment. Build up on our treatment side for sure, but it’s got to be housing first.”