San Francisco’s Intractable and Increasing Homeless Problem

Written by Ralph E. Stone. Posted in Homelessness, Opinion, Politics

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Published on April 24, 2016 with 5 Comments

Seventy-one percent of homeless persons in San Francisco are foremerly housed San Franciscans. File photo by Luke Thomas

Seventy-one percent of homeless persons in San Francisco are formerly housed San Franciscans. File photo by Luke Thomas

By Ralph E. Stone

April 24, 2016

My wife and I arrived in San Francisco in 1971.  Since at least that time, getting the homeless into housing or shelters has been a “concern” or a “priority” for every administration.  Yet, the number of homeless keeps increasing, from about 6,248 in 2005 to about 6,686 in 2015.

San Franciscans are concerned about homelessness, too.  According to a new San Francisco Chamber of Commerce poll, 51 percent of respondents show homelessness to be a major issue facing the City, compared with 35 percent last year, and 29 percent in 2014. Homelessness has overtaken affordability as the No. 1 concern among San Francisco residents.

True, in the past two years, San Francisco has housed 1,629 homeless people and sent another 1,614 home to relatives or friends out of California.  According to a 2016 survey,  29% of the San Francisco homeless migrate here from another state or another California county.  Could it be that as fast as we find housing or temporary shelter for some, new arrivals take their place?

However, 71% of the homeless were living in San Francisco when they lost their housing for several reasons, among them the loss of job (25%), alcohol or drug abuse (18%), divorce (17%), argument/family or friend asked person to leave (12%), and eviction (13%).

Are these polls so high because homelessness is so visible?  I see the homeless everyday in tents, in doorways, on the street and in our parks.  If we increase the number of Navigation Centers (shelters) and bring most, if not all the homeless, into these centers, the homeless problem would not be so visible — out of sight, out of mind.  If homelessness were not so noticeable, would the poll numbers go down.  If they did, would this take the pressure off this administration of providing permanent housing for the homeless?

A homeless person can get a one-night emergency shelter but anything else — supportive housing, longer-term shelter beds, mental health care, substance abuse service — requires a waiting list.  Although the waiting list may be closed when the list has becomes too long, single-room-occupancy hotel rooms now cost as much as $1,500 per month.

Rental assistance is available.  It is a type of housing subsidy that pays for a portion of a renter’s monthly housing costs, including rent and tenant-paid utilities.  This housing assistance is available under the Section 8 program and HUD Section 202 and 811 properties.

For many rental assistance programs, however, there are minimum rent regulations requiring recipients to make a minimum payment of between $25 and $50 per month, no matter how low their income.  Presently, the San Francisco Housing Authority (SFHA) is not accepting Section 8 project-based voucher waiting list pre-applications.  The SFHA Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher waiting list is also currently closed.

San Francisco implemented the Care Not Cash program in 2004. Simply put, it cut General Assistance money to about 3,000 homeless in exchange for shelter and other services.  A certain number of shelter beds are set aside for Care Not Cash homeless.  Later, an amendment called “Real housing, real care,” was voted upon by the Board of Supervisors. It was created to ensure that the “Care” element of “Care not Cash” was in place; that is, to mandate a certain level of housing and services to be available before the city cut General Assistance payments.  Yet, for every homeless person sheltered or housed, it seems like two more arrived to take their place.

Until then, because of a lack of supportive housing, the  “housing first program,” or finding permanent housing for the homeless, is unrealistic in San Francisco.  Why has this happened?  Because San Francisco has become the bedroom community of Silicon Valley and gentrification has spread throughout the City.   Let’s face it, even those earning a low or moderate income have problems finding affordable housing to buy or rent in San Francisco.

In the meantime, the best we can do is expand the Navigation Center Program, which provides one-stop help for the homeless, and offers temporary shelter, if not permanent housing for the City’s homeless. Until the Navigation Program is expanded priority should be given to the severely mentally ill, families with children, homeless veterans, seniors, and only lastly to young, relatively health men.

Presently, there is a veterans resource center, a collection of resources exclusively for veterans.

Laura’s Law was implemented in San Francisco in November.  Laura’s Law is an assisted outpatient treatment program that allows court-ordered, intensive outpatient treatment for people with severe mental illnesses who refuse medication because their illness impairs their ability to make rational decisions. I realize it may be too early to tell, but how is the program working?

Project Homeless Connect tries to connect the homeless to the resources needed.

San Francisco Homeless Outreach Team (SFHOT).  SFHOT is a collaboration between the Department of Public Health, Human Resources Agency, SF Public Library and the non-profit Public Health Foundation Enterprises that serves individuals on the street who are severely disabled.

San Francisco Supervisor David Campos has called for the Board of Supervisors to declare a state of emergency on homelessness to help speed up the opening of additional Navigation Centers.  Whether there is a “state of emergency” or not, Campos’ call has put Mayor Ed Lee on the hot seat forcing him to speed up the expansion of Navigation Centers.  Clearly, there is a need for more shelters and services for the homeless.

Mayor Ed Lee intends to create a Department on Homelessness that would bring all the housing, health, employment, counseling and related programs that serve the homeless under one roof. This is a much needed step. However, the Navigation Center in place now has a capacity for 75 individuals whereas the number of homeless is more than 6,000.  Thus, it will take many Navigation Centers to even begin to shelter all of San Francisco’s homeless.

Even Gavin Newsom, former mayor of San Francisco and proponent of the Care Not Cash program and the 10-year plan, was pessimistic on ending homelessness in San Francisco:  “There’s a mythology that you can — quote unquote — end homelessness at any moment, but there are new people coming in, suffering through the cycles of their lives,” he said. “It’s the manifestation of complete, abject failure as a society. We’ll never solve this at City Hall.”

After the ’10-year plan’ to end homelessness, which ended in 2014, new ideas and seeing some successes, the homelessness problem seems as intractable as ever in San Francisco with a highly visible crisis on our streets juxtaposed with million dollar homes and booming downtown technology companies.

Ralph E. Stone

Ralph E. Stone

I was born in Massachusetts; graduated from Middlebury College and Suffolk Law School; served as an officer in the Vietnam war; retired from the Federal Trade Commission (consumer and antitrust law); travel extensively with my wife Judi; and since retirement involved in domestic violence prevention and consumer issues.

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  • Richmondman

    Bullshit on this line – “finding permanent housing for the homeless, is unrealistic in San Francisco. Why has this happened? Because San Francisco has become the bedroom community of Silicon Valley”
    This problem existed long before Twitter, Uber and Lyft. Long before the dot com boom/bust over 10 years ago. It exists because the people who run the City of San Francisco have continued to allow it. I am all in favor of a zero-tolerance on camping on city streets and parks. Period.

    • Dave Merrick

      And I am in favor of zero tolerance of uninformed morons like you being allowed online. Period.

      • chris12bb

        Your comments prove that only you and the other smart and informed people are the only ones privileged enough to be allowed on the internet.

  • MemyselfandI

    Round them up put them behind a tall fence barb wired at the top. Then if the bleeding hearts want to go in clean up their poop and urine and pick up their needles bully for them. But the taxpayers are now paying 50-60K per homeless person times that by almost 7,000 of them. They are disgusting they urinate on people and have sex in public etc…. If they don’t care why should we? Seriously top enabling these people who cannot be asked to leave! This is insanity! All we do these days as give give give to the criminals etc and then put down law abiding citizens.

    • Tina CRACKA Vane

      you better preach it