Twice last month, Mayor Gavin Newsom gathered the faithful press to proclaim the good news: homelessness is down, the welfare rolls are down, and spirits are up in the fair city of St. Francis. As usually happens after these love-fests masquerading as press conferences, most of the stories in the media printed the rosy picture described by the Mayor, shelving that pesky old journalistic principle that used to insist that the official version be challenged, rather than uncritically parroted to the public at large.
To be fair, there was one grain of skepticism: A spokesperson for one of the tourism industry associations challenged the Mayor on the grounds that there were not fewer, but more homeless people on the streets, because San Francisco is providing too much for its poor, attracting more and more outsiders to take advantage of our “free-for-all” housing policy.
We shouldn’t waste much time debating such preposterous views, but they represent the perspective of the most important industry in our town—an industry that has been the hand behind the most nefarious legislative campaigns against homeless people’s interests, and an industry that has been a primary funding source for Mayoral election campaigns.
Let’s begin then with Mayor Newsom’s response to that comment: San Francisco is doing the right thing and until other localities wake up and follow suit (i.e., provide housing for the homeless) we should be proud of our generosity and embrace those who come here seeking shelter.
Now, that is an awesomely beautiful statement, and Newsom deserves a standing ovation, because this turns out to be one of the most hypocritical statements ever made by a San Francisco politician on the issue of homelessness. After all, this is the man who was elected on the back of his campaign to brutally reduce the income of the poorest of the poor, because San Franciscans needed to prevent outsiders from taking advantage of our “generous” welfare cash benefit.
You see, what we believe he meant to say is that we need not worry about the hordes of out-of-town homeless people descending on our city because we will send them right back with a one way ticket to hell-or anywhere else far enough away to discourage them from ever coming back.
While the Mayor preaches his compassionate gospel to the public, the City is on a quiet campaign to reduce homelessness by getting rid of homeless people themselves. The Mayor loves to tout the 1,300 homeless people housed the first two years of his administration. But he probably won’t talk about the 1,100 his troops have sent packing by means of constant harassment, diminished services, increased hunger, and, at this Calvary’s peak, a miraculous bus ticket to happiness in the company of long-lost loved ones.
What irks our tourism industry representative is this: Despite the fact that the city has successfully housed a good third of its so-called “chronically” homeless population, the number of panhandlers seems stable, if not increased. I guess it would be asking too much of one to understand the nuanced differences between homelessness, panhandling, and welfare receipt: It’s much more comfortable to fit everyone under the label of “those undesirables who ought to be removed from sight.”
And yet, when we fought hard against Care Not Cash, one of the chief concerns we expressed was that even if the measure could succeed in housing some small percentage of the homeless population, it would do so at the cost of severely increased poverty, hunger, and distress. When you tell a person-someone unlikely to be able to find full employment in the near future-that he or she is expected to live in San Francisco off $60 a month, you should expect this person to come up with some sort of supplemental income. For those for whom jobs are unavailable or who have a hard time sustaining employment, the most likely solution will be panhandling. Or maybe selling Street Sheets: It is not a coincidence that we have seen the number of people seeking to enroll in our vending program double from 400 in 2004 to nearly 800 this year.
When you cut a person’s income by more than 80%, there are going to be painful consequences. Ask at your favorite church, soup kitchen, or neighborhood clinic, and they almost unanimously will report that they are seeing more and more people come to them seeking the most basic of all needs: food. St. Anthony’s, one of the largest dining programs in the city, reported a 25% increase in demand for food within the first year of the implementation of Care Not Cash.
The Shelter System needs profound reform
Even though 1,300 people have been moved into hotel rooms over the last two years, demand for shelter has not been decreased at all. Meanwhile, we have lost 160 shelter beds through the closure of three shelters. Of course, the Human Services Agency has claimed that dozens of beds left empty every night are proof that shelters are no long necessary and should be phased out. The fact of the matter is that these shelter beds are left vacant because they are held for Care Not Cash clients, whether or not they show, and are unavailable to the rest of the city’s homeless population. Nevertheless, the HSA continues in its quest to destroy what was arguably the most popular shelter in town, St. Boniface, despite the fact that many are still turned away every night.
As long as the demand for emergency shelter exists, we need to fix the horrendous conditions of the shelters we have. Every quarter, the Shelter Monitoring Committee reports to the Board of Supervisors, building a mounting case for profound reform of the shelter system. Meanwhile, the HSA and some of the most egregious violators of health and safety codes collude to avoid accountability and to prevent any meaningful changes in their failing programs. Despite the Shelter Monitoring Committee’s obvious improvements to the system – the termination of a staff person who sold beds for sex, an increase safety outside a resource center once notorious for the drug trade, the installation of cribs in a family shelter providing services to a large number of infants – the HSA continues to obstruct its proper functioning, and refuses to impose any sort of accountability on those who run programs funded with public money.
Homeless Connect – the show must go on.
Service providers who are on the frontlines every day of the year are now well aware that when Homeless Connect approaches, they are often no longer able to place their clients in some of the most coveted programs, for vacancies are being held to be distributed at the Mayor’s show.
If success is defined by the size of a single event and not by real, long-lasting impacts, then Homeless Connect is an absolute success: People are fed and clothed, hooked up with services, and occasionally even housed. The emphasis, though, continues to be on the participation of volunteers-it is an event designed to make volunteers feel good, not a plan to end homelessness.
An example of the core problem: Police give out thousands of tickets every month for the heinous crimes of homelessness-crimes such as sleeping on the sidewalk or in the parks. But these tickets can all be dismissed just for showing up at Homeless Connect. This is great, but if these citations are consistently dismissed-as, in fact, they are by the courts as well-why not simply order the SFPD to stop issuing them? What is the rationale behind the continued fining of people who can’t pay fines and who no reasonable person would want to do jail time just for being homeless?
Civil Rights is still an issue
Recently, the 9th Circuit Court issued a decision that limited the ability of the City of Los Angeles to issue citations against people for sleeping on Skid Row’s sidewalks. It rightly found punishments against homeless people for sleeping outdoors to be cruel and unusual punishment, and thus a violation of the 8th Amendment. Why are still doing the same here in San Francisco? How does this fit under Mayor Newsom’s statement about “doing the right thing?”
At the same press conference mentioned above, the voice of the tourism industry went on to say that more law enforcement was needed because homeless people were still committing these crimes. As if homeless people where the ones caught on camera beating up other citizens, and not the other way around. Meanwhile, what does the SFPD think about hate crimes against homeless people? Not much-they prefer to make light of homeless people’s lives through a video in which running over a homeless woman was supposed to be funny.
Here is a direct challenge to Mayor Newsom: Do the right thing and order the SFPD to cease its campaign of harassment of homeless people.
Who is homeless?
Unfortunately, the issues of homeless people’s civil rights is not the only one in which the Mayor has to be continually reminded of the right thing: In recent months, as the homeless families’ struggle has garnered some important successes through the Housing First for Families campaign, the HSA consistently fought against any attempt to use the City’s official definition of homelessness to determine who could benefit from changes in homeless family services redesign.
Of course, it’s much easier to address homelessness if one starts by paring down the term’s definition, regardless of the City’s laws. San Francisco officially defines homelessness to include people living on the streets and in shelters, but also families living in Single Room Occupancy Hotels, those doubled up, and others without a fixed address. Most perplexing-for a Mayor who so proudly proclaims the openness of San Francisco to all homeless people-was his Department’s efforts to exclude these latter groups from the homeless family system. What an embarrassment that in 2002 he was the co-sponsor of the legislation that introduced this definition!
What are the priorities?
Although we have welcomed the shift to a housing first approach to homelessness, this city needs to go beyond empty promises backed by limited real support, and to create and implement serious measures that will help alleviate the struggle of those facing extreme poverty and homelessness.
SRO housing sure beats shelters, but it cannot continue to be funded through cuts to other fundamental programs of San Francisco’s basic safety net, or by taking money away from the decreasing number of people receiving the county’s assistance. This administration has failed to address the underlying cause of homelessness-the housing crisis-and has created limited supportive housing by increasing poverty for other San Franciscans.
This administration has immense public relations prowess, but there is actually very little substance behind the photo ops. As poor people everywhere have shown time and again, only through sustained, organized efforts can their problems be addressed. Let’s continue to look beyond the headlines, into the streets, and this time, let’s get real.