Again, while mining the STREET SHEET catalogue for a 15th Annivesary retrospective article, we are struck by how much our current raft of homeless “reforms” echo the failed policies of Mayors past. This article from the June ‘92 SHEET eerily forecasts the “innovations” of our current mayor’s homeless policy. And today we’re all well aware of former mayor Jordan’s stellar political career since he was voted from office after one term.
Mayor Gavin Newsom should be paying attention, because he can safely rely on the fact that we will.
On May 4, Mayor Jordan issued the first indication of his homeless policy at a speech before the Salvation Army. Jordan’s speech is more noteworthy for what it omits than what it contains. It offers no discussion of urban poverty, of why so many people are homeless at this place and point in time. There is no mention of the need for, or availability of, permanent housing, vocational and economic development, health care, education, or social services. Most strikingly, Jordan’s speech makes no reference to his own ‘92-’93 city budget, which proposes to eliminate existing homeless programs (Hotline Hotel, Homeless Referrals, and health services).
The focus of Jordan’s policy is not homelessness it is panhandling, which he has proposed to reduce through outreach vans, advertising, and law enforcement. His few proposals which actually address homelessness attempt to shift responsibility away from the city to the private sector and state and federal governments.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Three of the policies in Jordan’s speech appear to have as their objective to reduce the visibility of homeless people and the activities of panhandlers. (His speech does not recognize that not all homeless people are panhandlers, not all panhandlers homeless. The official City estimate is that 6,000 to 8,000 people are homeless on a given night; clearly, only a fraction of these people are visible on the street, or engage in panhandling.)
Mobile Outreach Units. Jordan proposes to staff two vans with a police officer, a social worker, and an emergency medical professional, who will “identify the chronically homeless—those furthest outside the social serve system—and get their consent to transport them to our shelters.”
But Jordan does not propose to expand the City’s shelter capacity, or create exits from shelters in the form of permanent housing and employment. He ignores that there have been 4,500 turnaways per month from full shelters in 1992, according to Independent Housing Services.
How are vans supposed to get people into a system that turns people away? Why is a police officer needed to transport people to shelters? One can only conclude that the van program will spend city resources to move homeless people from where they are visible to somewhere they won’t be seen.
Anti-panhandling public awareness campaign. Jordan “asks San Franciscans to discontinue giving to panhandlers” and to donate instead “to the Mayor’s Homeless fund or to providers such as the Salvation Army.” The advertising firm BBDO will donate its services to this campaign, which will “call on corporate citizens to match donations received from individuals.”
The objective of this policy is clearly to discourage the direct human contact of alms-giving. If people stop giving, life may become more difficult for those who panhandle. But an anti-panhandling campaign will do nothing to reduce the poverty and hopelessness that lead to panhandling.
Law enforcement. Jordan proposes that, while “begging may be protected by the constitution, intimidation and assault are not,” and he will “give law enforcement personnel all the support necessary to curtail the abusive activities of aggressive panhandlers where existing laws need to be changed to maintain civility and public safety without compromising individual rights, my office will bring every effort to bear to see to it that they are changed.”
It is not clear what is being proposed other than prioritizing prosecution of people who panhandle before assaulting someone, which appears to constitute selective enforcement. In the absence of specifics, one can only infer that “giving law enforcement personnel all the support necessary” implies diversion of publicly funded resources to harass panhandlers-something already done routinely and illegally by the SFPD.
Let Somebody Else Solve Homelessness
The other policies aim to shift responsibility for homelessness from the City to the private sector and the state and federal governments. But no strategies are described to ensure that these responsibilities are accepted by those entities, and no just abandoned altogether.
Not A “Homeless Policy” at All
The City cannot and should not be expected to end homelessness, but a city policy on homelessness should describe what the City can and will do. This, Jordan’s policy fails to do.
After a decade in which homelessness has risen to levels not seen since the 1930s, it should be apparent that homelessness can only be addressed through reducing poverty, not through “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” public relations campaigns. Until the Jordan administration increases the availability of housing, employment, health care, education, and social services to homeless people, homelessness will continue to rise. This does not bode well for those who are homeless, nor those who are housed.