Homeless: Live With It

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San Franciscans tend to approach social problems with a mix of expansive generosity, quasi-selfishness, and hubris.  We’ve lavished billions of public dollars on Laguna Honda Hospital and Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, facilities dedicated to serving the most vulnerable among us.  We loudly proclaim our desire to maintain housing for a mix of incomes, but teardown tired homes available at entry level prices as part of “redevelopment” in the Fillmore, and rely on landlords and developers, rather than the general fund, to control rents and produce a trickle of affordable units.  We delight in perambulating our view-soaked streets, past sellers of $5 cups of coffee, but are shocked, shocked to see an unwashed homeless man huddled in the doorway of a nail salon that not so long ago replaced a cheap eatery.

Our confusion of impulses is amply on display when it comes to caring, or not, for the homeless.  San Francisco has been a national leader in getting people off the streets and into housing, where they receive much-needed mental health services. Since 2004, we’ve put more than 22,000 people under roofs; we spend $241 million a year on homeless programs.  Yet by all accounts the City’s homeless population is roughly the same today as it was 30 years ago, in the neighborhood – generally ours or the adjacent communities – of 6,500.  And, under current policies, there’s no reason to believe that notably fewer people will be on the streets 30 years from now.

Jeff Kositsky, director of the freshly-created San Francisco Department of Homelessness, said as much to a small group of reporters last month.  Kositsky, who was previously executive director of Hamilton Family Center, described efforts to improve the City’s approach to rootlessness, including through better data management, more effective triage of homeless veterans, families, and the mentally-challenged, and creation of additional Navigation Centers, which reflect, despite higher hopes, a modest expansion in San Francisco’s shelter system.  However, without a significant infusion of state or federal funds – an unlikely occurrence anytime soon – Kositsky staunchly acknowledged that thousands of individuals will remain on our streets for the foreseeable future.

It’s worth stating it again:  the City has no plans nor intentions to achieve anything close to a homeless population of zero.  This, in a municipality with a fondness for getting to nothing, including loudly proclaiming a desire for zero disposal of unrecyclable waste, zero use of fossil fuel-generated electricity, and zero traffic-related deaths.  This, despite San Francisco voters endorsing Proposition Q less than six months ago, directing City workers to remove tents from streets with 24 hours’ notice, provided that the occupants are offered shelter or a ticket out of town.  During his term the current mayor has hired almost as many new civil servants, 5,100, as there are homeless.  A missed opportunity; perhaps he employed the wrong people.

To paraphrase a gay rights chant, the homeless population “is here, regardless of your fears, get used to it!”  Kositsky indicated that a clutch of municipal agencies – Public Works, Public Health, San Francisco Police, and Homeless departments – will do a better job of managing the neighborhood externalities that can be created by vagrancy, including crime, hypodermic needle litter, and (vocal) assaults on passersby.  How that’d be achieved and measured, other than an increased focus on mentally ill individuals, was still being thought through.  Certainly not, Kositsky said, through sanctioned and better managed encampment zones, as the city of Seattle has adopted.

The View asked Kositsky whether Mayor Ed Lee was onboard the not-getting-to-zero homeless policy.  He said he was; that the mayor’s dedication was to reducing homelessness to the extent possible, not necessarily eliminating it.  Kositsky did indicate that a report will be published next month outlining what efforts would need to be taken, and funds spent, to comprehensively tackle homelessness.  It seems likely that, under our current political leadership, that study will be quickly shelved.  Or perhaps, more suitably, distributed to the homeless to use as pillows to shield their heads from the hard sidewalk they will remain on for some time to come.