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The Real State of Homelessness in San Francisco

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On December 19, 2005 Mayor Gavin Newsom gave his second annual state of homelessness address-to another room packed with of lots of people paid to be there.

His speech was rosy, charmingly self-deprecating, and filled with mind-boggling statistics on how wonderful the city is doing. For many urban mayors, homelessness is a seemingly intractable problem if you are only one little city in a huge country bent on messing poor people over. But not our Gavin. He’s Bob the Builder: Can we build it? Yes we can! No really, we don’t mean to poke fun… well, yes we do.

We at the Coalition love seeing our Mayor say homelessness can be solved. We believe it can. It’s just for homeless people in San Francisco, who are still stuck on the streets and in shelters, the situation is not nearly as rosy.

The media tells us some of Gavin’s solutions are “controversial.” What that really means is that his initiatives are hurting vulnerable populations, they are not progressive, and they cannot really be called solutions. What we will attempt to do here is break down what Newsom has done over the past year, give you a little depth behind the sound bites, and more importantly, what is being purposely left out of the speeches.

Blaming the Feds

The Mayor started out blasting the federal government for their failed response on homelessness. This is a favorite pastime for San Francisco politicians and bureaucrats. Especially when the Republicans are in charge and there are only three or four of them in San Francisco. However, this critique is correct. The federal government is to blame for homelessness. They created it. They now increase it every month. Bad feds… Bad!

Housing the Houseless

Gavin states he has housed over 1,800 homeless people in supportive housing. OK, let’s see: First of all, 295 of those units were already in the pipeline before Gavin rode in on his white horse. Fair enough, all Mayors take credit for what comes into existence under their authority.

What Gavin is really talking about, however, is the 1,100 units through “No Care, No Cash” program. (No… no… NO—we are not born again CNC believers.) The way this “model” program works is to cut almost 3,000 people’s public assistance and then use the savings to house only a third of them in unaffordable housing (i.e. you pay 85% of your income for rent and are left destitute). The housing previously housed poor people anyway—housing that is owned by a private slumlord.

As our charming Mayor observed in his speech, “I remember my critics.” So we hope he remembers this: Housing is not affordable unless you are paying 30% of your income or less! Privately owned Single Room Occupancy hotels are not supportive housing!

No Care, No Cash—No Fooling

Well, we already mentioned the worst of it. Let us also point out some other areas of concern. Mayor Newsom claimed only 6% of CAAP recipients are now homeless, down from 27%. That is not surprising, considering over 2,000 of them have lost benefits all together. It’s also not surprising because almost all homeless resources in San Francisco have been reshuffled to favor welfare recipients at the expense of homeless seniors, veterans, families, working homeless people, disabled homeless people, and immigrants! This includes housing. This even includes shelter, where beds are set aside for welfare recipients whether they use the beds or not. Other homeless people have to go through a big merry-go-round to get shelter for one night at a time, and often get left out in the cold while shelter beds sit empty.

Homeless Seniors

In last year’s address, Mayor Newsom promised every homeless senior would be housed by that summer—the summer of 2005. (Great Shishkabobs, one hardened homeless advocate even applauded.) Like Gavin credited Angela (Alioto) with saying, “It is wrong to have seniors living without dignity in shelters,” or something like that. Well, that didn’t quite happen. But San Francisco still loves him anyway, because he is truly sorry. Truly.

In this year’s address, Newsom stated that every homeless senior had been contacted, and 50% have been housed. He indicated that the City would have housed all of them but they turned it down. It turns out that our seniors LIKE living in shelters where they have no peace, no privacy, and no dignity. No, he actually copped to the real problem—the housing offered to seniors was unaffordable to them, what with medical and food costs. They can not pay 85% of their retirement income on housing when it only leaves them with a couple bucks a day to live on.

Good thing too, because if all the seniors said “yes” to the housing Newsom would have been in a real conundrum, given he only has less then 200 units to offer by summer of 2006. Gosh, it’s great to have a Mayor like Gavin Newsom, who is greeted with applause even when he breaks promises!

Homeless Families

Again, in his uniquely Newsom-y way, the Mayor states, “Nowhere have we failed more that with homeless families. I am probably to blame.” Jeez, it almost makes us feel guilty for capping on him. After all, how can we criticize someone who is so hard on himself? But wait a minute—our homeless families met with him in August and he promised action within a week. GAVIN NEWSOM HAS NOT DONE SQUAT on this issue since. Besides sending out a press release, and to start talking up issues facing homeless families, he has not implemented any changes, or put in place any of our solutions. Nothing. NADA!

Meanwhile, families with children are still stuck in shelters, in a constant state of crisis, waiting for a response, for some help, for over six months! Worse still, Newsom claims there are only 200 homeless families in San Francisco. He is ignoring families on the wait list for shelter (100 families). He is ignoring families living in Single Room Occupancy hotels (1,560 family members). He is ignoring families doubled up with friends and relatives (Who knows how many!). So, Mayor Newsom is planning only 214 units in the next ten years for homeless families. AAAHHHHHHH!!!!

Yes, we can all agree: NOWHERE HAS THE MAYOR FAILED MORE THAN ON HOMELESS FAMILIES. Well, maybe on homicides, but that’s another issue.

Meanwhile here are a few facts on homeless families:

  • 62% of homeless families in San Francisco have been homeless for more than 2 years.
  • Homeless families are poorer, younger, more likely to be pregnant, from an ethnic minority, and less likely to have a housing subsidy. Homeless families are not more likely to be mentally ill, depressed or less educated. (Sources: Shinn & Weitzman, 1996; Bussuk et al., 1997). As a group, homeless families are poorer, not more “troubled.”
  • “Children that become homeless are at risk for many short and long-term problems. They have a higher rate of:
    • serious and chronic health problems (i.e asthma, hospitalizations),
    • developmental delays,
    • mental health problems (especially depression and anxiety, compounded by exposure to trauma and violence),
    • academic failures (includes grade repetition),
    • behavioral problems (i.e. aggression, poor social skills, difficulty with relationship building),
    • hunger and poor nutrition.”
  • Studies show that subsidized housing cures homelessness! (Rog et. al.) A 9-city study finds 88% remained housed 18 months post-placement. Two New York City studies find 93% remain housed 2 years post-placement whereas 38% of families without a subsidy returned to homelessness. (Based on NSHAPC, Burt et al., 2002; Rog, Shinn and Culhane, 2003)

Invest in and implement our three pronged recommendations immediately! We need 25% of homeless housing going to families, PLUS 120 new rent subsidies, PLUS increased homeless prevention funds—NOW!

Civil Rights

In case you haven’t heard… OK, you probably haven’t heard. Excepting the Street Sheet, you will not read it in the newspaper, or hear it on the radio. Here it is: The San Francisco Police Department is engaged in a full, all-out campaign of harassment, intimidation and jailing of homeless people in San Francisco. It is ugly folks. Here are some facts (real facts, folks-raw, unfiltered, unspun, and ready for consumption):

  • In the first 10 months of 2005, over 7,533 citations have been given to people simply because they are homeless.
  • In 2004, the first year of the Newsom administration, camping citations almost tripled.
  • In the first 10 months of 2005, over 7,533 citations have been given to people simply because they are homeless.
  • Each citation carries a fine of $76. An unpaid or unresolved ticket goes to warrant in 21 days and the fine doubles. Accumulated warrants result in incarceration.
  • Throughout San Francisco from 1993-2005, 167,074 citations were given out for so-called crimes such as sleeping and sitting in public (San Francisco Municipal Court, December, 1993-2005).
  • The Coalition on Homelessness assisted in the representation of over 13,619 people who have received homeless tickets between 9/95 and 12/05. The cases go through the normal judicial system, where almost 90% are dismissed due to improper application of the law. (Coalition on Homelessness SF, December 2005).
  • The Department of Public Works and the Recreation and Park Department each have created specialized units that work with the San Francisco Police Department to continuously identify, confiscate and destroy homeless people’s personal property.
  • Gavin Newsom fought for passage of Proposition M—an anti-panhandling ordinance. Contrary to campaign promises, the law has resulted in serious jail time. There has been no mechanism in place to refer offenders into treatment. Police instead use it as a tool to selectively hassle particular people they do not like. Ask for some alms and the City of St. Francis will toss you into the brig.

Violations of homeless people’s human and civil rights in San Francisco was conspicuously absent from the Mayor’s speech. But he has 32 full time police officers assigned to “deal with homeless people.” Given the increase in homicides, we find this a huge waste of resources—funds could be better spent creating jobs, and housing for poor folks.

Tickets Out of Town

The Mayor is very excited about the program to give to homeless people tickets out of town… to other cities. He has managed somehow to spin something that has been used by cities across the country to get homeless people out of town—something generally considered reprehensible—as (drum roll, please) FAMILY REUNIFICATION.

The city has given out 887 one-way tickets out of town. Wow. Now, a chunk of those are given out by community based organizations, and we take no issue with those. Some homeless people are seeking transportation back home, and before they would always have to get on public assistance first in order to get a bus ticket. This opened up that process. Fine. Good. Great.

But let’s talk about the other bus tickets. Imagine a big mean-looking guy with a gun comes up to you and says “Hey! You Want A Bus Ticket Out of My Town?” What are you going to say? “Yes, Officer… Yes Sir… Whatever You Say, Sir.” That has been our experience, homeless people tell us that they feel the bus tickets are part of the campaign of harassment. Another tool the police have to push folks around.


In the Mayor’s state of homelessness address, he made it a point to put McKinney grantees on notice—that funding will be moved to permanent housing.

The largest chunk of funds coming from the federal government to address homelessness is in the McKinney grant. The way it works is that we submit a grant as a city with a bundle of little grants inside it for various community-based organizations. In San Francisco, McKinney has funded mental health and substance abuse treatment, legal assistance, childcare, job training, housing in the form of a program called “Shelter Plus Care” and “SRO Mod Rehab”. The Local Homeless Coordinating Board (appointed by Mayor and Supervisors) go through a community process of scoring and prioritizing the proposals.

Last year, the Mayor and Department of Human Services circumvented that process and insisted on reallocating funds to permanent housing proposals that were in the conceptual stage. They called this part of the “Housing First” policy. They failed in this attempt, due to community organizations fighting back.

Housing First is a policy the Coalition on Homelessness has called for consistently during the past 10 years. What it means is that homeless people can be placed in housing directly off the streets, without first going through a “readiness process,” shelter, or transitional housing program. Housing First challenges popular beliefs in the social work field that you must have a “continuum” whereby homeless people must be “housing ready” before placement in housing.

What the Human Service Agency (DHS) and the Mayor did was twist that concept into meaning “Housing Only,” or, more accurately, “Welfare First.” You see, Housing First does not mean eroding all cornerstone poverty abatement programs to pay for housing. Housing First does not mean relegating homeless people to crappy unaffordable housing that offers neither kitchens nor private bathrooms. Housing First does not mandate curtailing legal services to poor people to pay for the housing. Housing First does not call for using homeless childcare funding to pay for housing. Housing First does not recommend closing substance abuse and mental health treatment facilities to pay for housing.

Housing First simply relates to the practice of requiring a stay in shelters and transitional housing before going into permanent housing. Like we said: All homeless people are housing ready, but they are also poor. So they need the stuff all people have a human right to—education, childcare, treatment, legal services—so that hopefully they can stay healthy, and can bounce out of poverty.

So that’s the real deal on McKinney. What Newsom calls radical restructuring we see simply as robbing poor folks. Yes, Gavin—get the housing. But why not ask your downtown brethren who contributed so heavily to your campaign to pay for it instead?

In conclusion, there were some points of hope and agreement in the State of Homeless Address (like the planned respite center), but a whole lot more needs to be done to make it real. Halt Police Harassment. House Families, immigrants, and everyone else you are ignoring. Don’t pay for it with cuts to poor people. Solve homelessness along with poverty—don’t make people more poor!

And most important of all: Listen to Homeless People!


Author: Street Sheet Editor

The STREET SHEET is the oldest continuously published street news paper in the United States. Organizationally, it is the public education and outreach tool of the Coalition on Homelessness. Every month, the STREET SHEET reaches 32,000 readers through over 200 homeless or low-income vendors. Our vendors are charged nothing for the papers they receive, and keep all money they earn through STREET SHEET distribution.

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