Homeless Population Level the Same Despite Forty Years of City Policy

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By Chris Block and Steven J. Moss

“Encampments of people on City streets and in parks or long lines at soup kitchens are distressingly reminiscent of the Hoovervilles of 50 years ago.”  This statement serves as an apt description of Division Street in February, the Cesar Chavez-Highway 101 “hairball” today, or any number of places throughout Southside San Francisco, in which dozens of multi-colored tents huddle under freeway overpasses, spilling onto sidewalks.  But the quote is from Beyond Shelter:  A Homeless Plan for San Francisco published in 1989.

That report, issued under Art Agnos’ Administration, estimated the City’s homeless population at 6,000.  More than 25 years later, in 2015, the City’s unhoused population was projected at 6,686, roughly a 10 percent increase over the span of the Loma Prieta earthquake, DotCom crash, 2008 Recession, and current bio-technology-health care economic boom.  Nothing has changed and everything has changed.

San Francisco now spends almost one-quarter of a billion dollars annually on housing the previously homeless and providing services to those still on the streets. These expenditures have more than halved the proportion of chronically homeless people in the City, from 68 percent of the homeless population in 2009 to 31 percent in 2015.  In excess of 25,000 homeless individuals have found permanent housing since 2004.  Over the past three years, 1,500 units of supportive housing have been created and 9,000 bus tickets provided.   

Mayor Ed Lee wants to use the stub of 24th Street, east of Illinois Street, in front of Warm Water Cove, as the site of a third Navigation Center.  The location offers the potential for plumbing hookups for bathrooms and showers, with inducements for Dogpatch residents to accept the center potentially including a park renovation and access to kayaking facilities. 

Despite municipal efforts, year after year, since the City started counting the homeless, their population hasn’t much changed, hovering around 6,500.   According to Julián Castro, of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Public Affairs, San Francisco’s stubbornly high homeless numbers run counter to national trends that have unfolded for at least the last five years.  HUD estimates that 564,708 persons experienced homelessness on a single night in 2015. Since 2010, communities around the country cumulatively reported a more than 72,000 person drop in their homeless population, an 11 percent decline. Over the period veteran homelessness fell by 36 percent, chronic homelessness by 22 percent and family homelessness by 19 percent.  While San Francisco’s population of chronically homeless people dropped significantly over the past five years, the number of non-chronic homeless increased such that the overall population remains roughly the same.

Over the next several months the View will publish a series of articles examining why the number of homeless people appears to remain more or less the same year after year, while San Franciscans generally believe that the number of encampments has grown, as well as other issues related to homelessness.