The defining characteristic of 2006, the third year of the Newsom administration, is perhaps its return to the old and tired tough-guy approach to homelessness. Although the administration continued to spin its housing first model, it has failed to bring to bear the resources needed to make good on its promises. It has become manifest that the City officials, led by the Mayor, are increasingly frustrated by poverty’s continuing visibility in San Francisco daily life.
The Newsom administration has found itself a hostage of its own overreaching promises, which set unreasonable expectations on the ability of the local government to effectively end homelessness without a sincere reallocation of resources. Downtown businesses, law-and-order voters, the tourism industry, and the mainstream media invested their political (and financial) capital in the Mayor’s promises. Running out of time to make enough advance before next year’s election, Mayor Newsom’s speeches and public statements have begun to talk more and more of “cleaning up” parks and improving the “quality of life” of our city—both well-known euphemisms for increased harassment and massive displacement of homeless people.
But while fretting about the mysterious continuity of homelessness in the city, the Mayor has refused to take the steps necessary to alleviate the problem. There may be no clearer indication of the priorities of a government agency than the budgets it requests from legislators. When the City discovered a $40-plus million windfall, the Mayor’s Office requested that it be spent on capital expenditures such as new planters for medians, rather than in replenishing social services funding that had been decimated during the previous year. It took a lot of work by the Board of Suprevisors to bring the money to where it was most needed.
With Care Not Cash funds now almost completely depleted, but with many of its recipients still unhoused, and the leasing and renovation of SRO hotels slowing in pace due to a variety of factors, the City cannot continue to place the so-called “chronically homeless” in hotel units at the same rate as in Care Not Cash’s first 18 months.
It is no coincidence that Homeward Bound—yet another example of PR newspeak—the program that ships homeless people out of town with a one-way ticket to anywhere-but-here—took off around the same time. Because Homeward Bound is not affected by the lack of resources that plague all the social programs, it quickly became a very popular resource for the City’s outreach teams, now conveniently reinforced with 32 police officers who will ensure prompt compliance by those targeted for removal. The upshot of this approach is that the City has now ejected almost as many people as it has housed.
A National Problem
Of course, solving homelessness is an impossible task for a local government, even were it to commit every available penny, especially when the much larger and richer Federal government seems bent on pushing more and more people into the streets.
In 2006, cuts to Section 8 and other Federal programs put thousands of people in the Bay Area at risk of homelessness. Although the local officials acknowledge the extent of the upcoming crisis and are taking steps to deal with it, the fact remains that San Francisco can do very little to alleviate the severity of a problem originating in Washington.
In November, the Coalition on Homelessness, together with five other organizations from the West Coast, made public a report of the Western Regional Advocacy Project that finally offers a true diagnosis of the causes of massive homelessness in the United States. (Read at www.wraphome.org.)
Perhaps the upcoming Congress, led by a Democratic Party that rode a wave of discontent to a landslide victory in the recent election, will begin to listen to the voices of those who are working to solve the problem from the grassroots and promote a true paradigm shift, not a repackaging of old soundbites and underfunding. But if the government does finally solve homelessness by creating housing for low-income people, it will only be as the result of community organizing and voter demand.
The Politics of Hate
In San Francisco, elections always seem open season for the most despicable, hateful, anti-poor propaganda. This year was no exception, with Rob Black’s failed campaign to unseat District 6 Supervisor Chris Daly bringing the bashing of homeless people to new depths. Yes, we know, those nasty mailers were not approved by him, as the disclaimers stated, but one is left to ponder the origin of those clearly posed pictures of candidate Black…
The campaign for District 6 was yet another indicator of the increased frustration of some of the most radically conservative and powerful constituencies with the failure of poor people to simply disappear. It added the final touch to a Fall season that started with the Mayor’s Central Park epiphany that unleashed yet another attempt to forcibly displace homeless people from Golden Gate Park (as every one of the past five mayors tried and failed to do). No real alternatives were offered. And let us not forget that the increase in homeless residents at the Park was a direct consequence of the previous campaign to remove them from the Central City areas.
The problem with authorities’ using homelessness as a scapegoat to the city’s “quality of life” problems is that it creates the perception that homeless people are criminals whose situation is a result of their own doing. That perception inevitably leads to stereotyping, prejudice, and ultimately hate.
Hate of homeless people showed its ugly head a few times in San Francisco, from the attacks with pellet guns in the SoMa district to the widely broadcasted beating of a homeless man in Chinatown. If it is okay for police officers to harass, cite, and arrest homeless people for infractions that are consistently tossed by the courts, if it is okay for aspiring politicos to equate human beings with feces in their electoral ads, if it is okay for the Mayor to say that the way to clean up a park is to remove homeless people from it, then it is just a matter of time until some citizen vigilante takes the task into their own hands and beats the crap out of a sleeping man—possibly until death.
Unfortunately, the preventable death of homeless people continues to be a fact of life in San Francisco. In some cases, death occurs inside or at the doorsteps of our shelters. The conditions in the shelters have worsened in recent years due to funding cuts, the closure of some facilities, and the increased difficulty for the majority of people to access a system that seems more devoted to erecting barriers than to removing them.
Many of San Francisco’s shelters are unsafe and unhealthy. The extent of the problem has been made public by the Shelter Monitoring Committee, which in its first full year of activity has helped uncover the systematic abuse of human and civil rights, including health and safety code violations, that plagues the shelter system.
The management of some of the shelters with the worst and most consistent violations has turned around to attack the legal protections of homeless residents. For years, San Francisco’s shelters have been subject to a Uniform Grievance Procedure that ensures the right of due process for residents against unjust evictions and denials of service.
Claiming that due process poses a threat to the safety of their staff, shelter managers are trying to gut the Grievance Procedure and strip residents of the last resource they have to try to stay indoors in the face of abuses of power. This is trickle-down civil rights: If the Federal Government is increasing our security by shredding the first ten amendments, why not do the same in our shelters?
The Good News
The Street Sheet is sometimes accused of only printing bad news. Our response for seventeen years has been the same: Homelessness is a bummer. But to move forward in the struggle for social justice, we must count every victory, big or small, as a decisive win, because it is: Even when scarce and modest, these achievements offer a glimpse of what we would like to see, offer us a vision without which we could not progress.
Among this year’s good news, one of the greatest turns is the renewed effort of the Coalition on Homelessness to bring attention to a population largely ignored by policy-makers, pundits, and mainstream media: homeless families.
Working families are becoming homeless at a frightening rate in the United States. Family homelessness is an uncomfortable subject for talking heads and experts, because it simply does not fit the stereotype. While politicians can get away with blaming individuals for their homelessness, homeless families are a much touchier target; they represent the most glaring indictment of our nation’s failure to put its immense wealth to the service of the common good. It thus becomes more convenient to dismiss homeless families and sweep them out of sight.
Since its inception in May of 2005, the COH’s Housing First for Families campaign has piled up an impressive list of achievements: First of all, it has made it impossible to ignore poor families when discussing homelessness. The campaign has successfully reframed the issue, moving away from the reform-the-individual approach to one that acknowledges the need to deal with the root causes of homelessness: poverty and the lack of affordable housing.
By its own merits, this is a huge accomplishment, but the campaign has also had some very concrete victories, from new rent subsidies to help families move from shelters to housing, to the increase in funding for eviction prevention, which will help families remain housed and thus avoid entering or re-entering homelessness.
The campaign also encouraged the Mayor to launch a community process to redesign all the homeless family services provided by the City and its contractors. The long community process resulted in a large set of recommendations that will improve the way San Francisco deals with family homelessness. It also represents a departure from the top-down approach that usually sets the tone for homeless policy-making.
As the campaign continues to organize homeless families, it is now aiming at demanding the creation of hundreds of new permanently affordable housing units for low-income families.
Another example of a community victory over bureaucracy was achieved when the McMillan Resource Center, the only 24-hour drop-in center in San Francisco, was slated to close without any alternatives offered. When news of this potentially devastating closure was made public, homeless people and service providers responded swiftly, mobilizing for a public hearing that resulted in an agreement to keep McMillan open until an alternative exists.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that the San Francisco Community Land Trust, an organization devoted to placing land and housing under a public trust that will ensure its permanent affordability, acquired its first building: the Fong building, a Columbus Avenue landmark. We are proud of this achievement, as the SF Community Land Trust was initiated by COH organizers working under our Right to a Roof project.
All these victories are examples of the power of true grass-roots organizing. When oppressed communities come together to solve their problems, amazing things happen. Join us in furthering those victories into 2007.