Last spring, the mainstream news about San Francisco’s admittedly severe and shameful homelessness problem was decidedly upbeat. The focus was on the City’s newly adopted “Housing First” approach, with its emphasis on immediate housing for the most visible, “chronically homeless” people. The Mayor seemed both concerned and effective. The City had a task force, keys to hotel rooms were distributed to much fanfare, and Project Homeless Connect was rallying increasing corporate and individual support for the cause amid a flurry of media acclaim.
The only negative news on the homelessness front was sounded by what many seemed ready to dismiss as “the usual suspects:” service providers, community- and faith-based organizations, homeless and formerly homeless people, and the Coalition on Homelessness. Their message was simple: In the rush to get the most visible homeless off the streets (generally single adults with substance or mental health issues), families with children were being forgotten.
But that all changed during the third week in October, when the plight faced by homeless families abruptly became the focal point for the local media spotlight. The cause? Three events that took place during two days (October 19th and 20th)-events not entirely unconnected. Two were scheduled-though oddly enough, in reverse order. The third was an unscheduled and timeless tragic act. But cumulatively, these events resulted in a single message, clear, strong, and impossible to ignore: San Francisco must find a way to house its growing numbers of homeless families with children.
The event scheduled first, set for Thursday, October 20, was billed as “Hurricane Homeless Hits San Francisco,” an effort many months in the making that sought publicity for “The Forgotten,” as homeless families with children were designated in a report released by the Coalition on Homelessness last spring, which generated momentum for continued community organization and advocacy around the issue of housing for families.
The first event actually to occur took place the preceding day, Wednesday, October 19. It was a Mayoral press conference on the topic of homeless families’ place in the City’s overall policies on homelessness. More accurately, it was a pre-emptive strike, in which Mayor Gavin Newsom acknowledged that his initial policy focus on “chronically homeless” had been “appropriately… disproportionate,” but claimed that such policies arose “not out of neglect,” concluding his speech with vague talk of increased priority on housing families, and new efforts to seek increased funding for both eviction prevention and rental subsidies.
The Real Story
But it’s hard to steal the thunder from a crew of determined children and parents with a heartfelt message—and the statistics to back it up. So the Thursday afternoon rally, press conference, and vigil on the steps of City Hall had a kind of resonance that no hastily convened press conference could come close to matching.
Designed to call attention to the needs of San Francisco’s homeless families, it certainly did just that… leading off, appropriately enough, with a few words from those most affected: homeless children. Assembled activists and casual passersby alike applauded as the children, helping to hold aloft a banner proclaiming their needs, shyly muttered, “Every child deserves a home,” or boldly stated the concept that “No child should be homeless.”
Children, adults, and banner then disappeared into City Hall, in what turned out to be a somewhat confused attempt to deliver their message (and banner) to the Mayor personally. (He was, in fact, not in his office; though the difficulties faced by the families in attaining even a foothold in his antechamber had led them to believe otherwise, and the budding activists ages six months to 12 years got a kick out of their ultimately successful attempts at sneaking in their banner under cover of parental pleadings with various official personnel.)
Meanwhile, outside on the steps, Coalition speakers Jennifer Friedenbach and Maxine Pauson kicked off the informational segment of the afternoon with a statement of need that laid the groundwork for the speakers to come, and formal presentation of the following three recommendations as a first step toward dealing with the problem of San Francisco’s growing number of homeless families:
- Set aside 25% of the Mayor’s proposed 3,000 unites of housing for homeless people expressly for homeless families;
- Create 120 locally funded housing subsidies for homeless families at $500 per family per month;
- Triple the amount of funding for homeless prevention and broaden the criteria for qualification for this funding.
They were succeeded at the mike by speakers including service provider Sally Hindman, Hoi-Yee Chen from the Chinatown Community DC, homeless SRO tenant Agustina Dias, Sara Shortt from the Housing Rights Committee, the 6th Street Agenda’s Jen Yu, and John Watkins of St. Joseph’s Shelter, all of whom proceeded to drive home a twofold message: the sheer magnitude of the need and the utter unacceptability of funding the proposed initiatives through further cuts in existing services or programs. This was followed by an open mike session that produced more than one harrowing story of the hardships faced by people with children struggling to navigate the Byzantine barriers of bureaucracy standing between them and a roof over their heads. When the stories had all been told, the assembled group formed a circle, and candles were passed out to all and lit in remembrance of family members, friends, and acquaintances who had died on the streets before achieving that long-sought roof. After a moment of silence, the event’s coordinators then distributed hot chocolate and homemade hot tamales to help attendees ward off the increasingly bitter cold.
Amid the resulting warmth and camaraderie, talk tended to gravitate toward two topics: the third event alluded to earlier, the tragedy of the preceding day, in which a homeless woman living in a shelter-distraught and off her medication-apparently threw her three young children into the Bay to drown; and the fact that San Francisco is still regarded as a wealthy city with resources, the sort of place in which it seems inconceivable that a single child could lack shelter.
While it’s bitterly laughable to look for an upside in a situation in which a sudden tragedy served to illuminate an ongoing one, what follows is an attempt at exactly that. The potential positive? It seems at least conceivable that, cumulatively, the events of the third week of October may well mark a breakthrough of sorts: the beginning of more realistic reporting on the continuing crisis of homelessness in San Francisco.
Think about it. Under ordinary circumstances, it would have played out like this: Mayor holds press conference announcing new homeless policy focus on families; story is picked up by daily TV and print news virtually as outlined by Mayoral publicity staff, complete with visuals showing a concerned Newsom flanked by photogenic children. The following day, having just “covered the homeless families issue,” the same media give short shrift to the actually much more substantive story presented by homelessness advocates, failing to pick up on the impressive array of statistics documenting the extent of the need and the price of inaction, as well as the group’s to-date unsuccessful attempts to work with the administration toward tangible policy changes designed to save money as well as lives. In fact, the story returns to familiar, well-trodden territory: concerned, caring Mayor bravely attempting to deal as well as possible with a “tough, but gradually yielding to his determined efforts” situation; “usual suspects,” eternally unsatisfied activists, brashly demanding more.
But what outreach, surveying, documenting, and organizing have failed to accomplish in the past may well have been accomplished by that third event. Because, in the wake of that personal tragedy, it has become just that much tougher to report on homelessness as a sorry situation on its way toward extinction, that much less acceptable to accept vague talk of “looking into” new policies as progress. The face of homelessness in the news is shifting, from the “corner drunk,” sitting in the gutter, veins prominent, bottle aloft, to that of heart-breakingly vulnerable, wide-eyed and wider-smiling children holding their banners high.
At this point, in fact, the “usual suspects” are looking pretty damn caring themselves, not to mention hard-working, well-informed, and almost prescient. Progress of sorts, but at far too high a price.