Why San Franciso Has a Homeless Problem

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sfhomeless_nov16_pubDespite decades of trying, or at least talking about trying, to tackle the problem, there are at least as many homeless individuals in San Francisco as there were 30 years ago – a few of them the same people – and very likely more.  There’s no single answer as to why this is the case, though lack of political will is a notable factor.  To “solve” the challenge – if it can be – we need to clearly see what’s causing it.  Nine significant factors are influencing the size of the City’s street population, the recognition of which suggests a different set of possible solutions than typically discussed. 

Family exodus: San Francisco has added roughly 90,000 people over the last 65 years.  About 80,000 dwelling units were constructed during the same period, many of them studios or one-bedrooms.  Supply has roughly met population growth, though demand is likely significantly higher.  This suggests that insufficient housing stock may not be the primary problem.  A more powerful contributor is probably shrinking household size.  In 1950, about three people lived in a given home on average; down to two today.  The major cause of this decline is a steep drop in the number of children in the City, from almost 160,000 less than 18 year-olds in 1950 to fewer than 60,000 today.  Bringing back families would create a cascading set of benefits, including, potentially, more efficient use of existing housing, not to mention a great deal more silly laughter on the streets.  The solution:  construction of family-sized homes and excellent public schools would attract families and graduate individuals less likely to become homeless, a twofer.

Lockstep housing:  Recent talk about “micro-units” – which used to be called “tenements” – and modular homes should be the beginning of a comprehensive discussion about how to unleash lots more housing style density and diversity than currently allowed.  With existing required minimum characteristics and construction prices – upwards of a half-million dollars a small unit – we’ll never be able to afford to build enough homes for everyone.  Instead, we need a ladder of housing possibilities, as well as a few stepping stools.  Manufactured home parks, sanctioned camping facilities, dormitories, boarding houses, houseboats, even teepees should be on the table.  The solution:  more flexible building codes and creative land use.

Unengaged relatives:  Back in the day, particularly for recent immigrants, we took care of Uncle Bob, even though he was a little odd, getting him a part-time job at the hardware store, and letting him live in the attic or basement.  Not so much anymore.  Bob is now on the streets, with no one who really cares to look after him.  The solution:  foster care payments for caretakers of adults, separate from disability, the funding of which could be offset by reduced spending on “professionally-provided” housing services.

Insufficient public transportation:  For the last 65 years we’ve largely outsourced our transportation needs to privately-owned cars, investing in a vast array of roads and highways on which to ply our hurry boxes.  For a while this strategy indirectly worked to address homelessness; those who couldn’t afford to live in San Francisco moved to the East Bay or Central Valley, and commuted in.  With freeways now insufferably clogged, not to mention such pesky items as global warming, the era of car dependency is over.  The solution:  massive investment in a diversity of public transportation modes, including fixed rail, buses, vans, ferries, and water taxes. 

Economic dislocation:  To hijack the Peter, Paul, and Mary song, “Where have all the Blue Collar jobs gone, long time passing? Where have all the manufacturing jobs gone, long time ago?”  The steady bifurcation of incomes, into the unbelievably wealthy and the barely able to make it paycheck-to-paycheck, has hollowed out the ability of men, in particular, to afford a home, much less a family.  This is a hard challenge to solve.  Government isn’t so good at creating high-wage employment, outside of its direct hires – and excessive over-timers – or such programs as the Works Progress Administration (WPA).  The solution:  mini-WPA, focusing on by-design manufacturing made possible by 3D printing, high end landscaping and maintenance of public spaces, the creation of art, and newfangled package delivery methods, including drone production and deployment.    

Drugs and alcohol:  It’s safe to say that many homeless individuals got where they are, and stay there, because of drugs and/or alcohol.  It’s hard to keep a job when using, much less a reliable set of family or friends.  Managing substance abuse requires a plethora of approaches.  The solution:  needle exchanges, “wet” houses, on-demand access to effective counseling and programs, paid for through higher taxes on alcohol and (medical) marijuana. 

Compassion gap: For many of us, our initial reaction to seeing a sidewalk tent, or homeless person, is “ick.”  We wish they’d be gone, or at least out of our sight.  We don’t invite them into our homes, offer a ride to the nearest shelter and only occasionally hand them a sandwich, or spare change.  There are few “HoboSigns” indicating that a down-on-their-lucker can sleep in the hayloft, or camp in a backyard.  This may be prudent; we don’t know who these strangers are.  We have a choice, though:  we can become like India, and accept, even embrace, people living in cardboard boxes outside our glass-clad skyscrapers; or we can nourish our desire to provide people who are on hard times with something better.  The solution:  look in the mirror.      

Bad government.  For better or worse, former mayor, now lieutenant governor, Gavin Newsom met with his homeless point person daily.  Our current mayor deigns to do so weekly.  We can hope that the new consolidation of municipal homeless services improves things, but we should also verify that it’s doing so.  The solution: democratic vigilance and engagement.  We have to hold our politicians’ feet to the fire.

San Francisco’s awesomeness: The City’s gorgeous topography, placement between the ocean and bay, first rate cultural institutions, compelling weather – which is becoming more of a sanctuary, as triple digit heat waves regularly hit the rest of California – and interesting architecture make it darn attractive.  We’re a kind of world heritage site. The rich want to live here, or at least own a piece, and everyone else wants to visit, driving up the cost of everything.  We could become less awesome, by neglecting homelessness and keeping the streets filthy, but that doesn’t seem like a compelling strategy.  The solution:  recognize how lucky we are to live here, and recommit to doing the right thing, whatever that is for you.