A couple months ago I came home from a trip to find a little candle lit and sitting on the sidewalk at the corner of Folsom and Erie, a few feet from where the 101 freeway zooms over 13th Street. My girlfriend and I popped into ask the guys at the auto body place what had happened and it was exactly what we feared: Eileen had died.
Eileen lived in my neighborhood for as long as anyone could remember and everyone knew who she was. Each time I’d pass her on the street we’d smile and say hello to each other. Sometimes I’d stop and chat a little longer and other times I’d bring her something from the store. Even though she slept in a tent on Folsom Street she was still my neighbor and most importantly she was a person. One December, as if to prove this last point, maybe to herself, maybe to the world, she had a little bitty Christmas tree right outside the opening to her tent. Eileen was probably somebody’s mother and sister and definitely somebody’s child and she lived and died in a tent on Folsom Street. Just like the cars on the 101 above, all of us zoom by multiple Eileens every single day, trying to ignore those our system has utterly failed and doing our damnedest to forget that these are people too. Trust me, I do the same, it’s often the only way any of us can make it through the day.
That said, Mayor Ed Lee’s declaration that we must get rid of the homeless in time for the Super Bowl and The Chronicle’s recent war on the homeless is beyond callous, it’s a disgrace. It exacerbates the problem by criminalizing the people who need help more than anyone. You might hear that homeless people come from other cities. That they came to San Francisco for a free hand out. I plan on setting the record straight.
Here are some statistics from the SF Homeless Count and annual census of our homeless population. Prepare to be heartbroken:
• There are 7,539 homeless San Franciscans
• 71 percent lost their homes while living in San Francisco
• 1,441 are youth under 25
• 2,261 are LGBT
• 598 are veterans
• 226 are families with children
• 1,357 lost their home from a rent hike, foreclosure or eviction
• 1,583 were in foster care
• 2,260 were victims of domestic violence
• 2,110 because of divorce, break-up or family trouble
It’s a hell of a thing to look at the most vulnerable in our society, the ones who come from abuse, poverty, war, eviction or worse, and then blame them for having nowhere else to go but the streets.
There’s only one way to fix homelessness — give people homes. To get into a shelter in Ed Lee’s San Francisco, it requires waiting in line for hours every day. You’ll have to fill out tons of paperwork, and be completely sober. Imagine how hard it is to get sober when you sleep in a doorway. The last thing people who have lost everything need is more bureaucracy and red tape. Ed Lee’s uncaring system has failed. There are more homeless San Franciscans than ever before.
There is another way. Its simple, it works and it’s called Housing First. Housing First means that nobody who wants a place to sleep is turned away. Our shelters and public housing are open, even if you drink, even if you have mental illness, we’ll find a safe place for you. And in the morning after you’ve slept, we’ll start working on getting better, on getting you help.
Ed Lee said “the homeless are going to have to leave San Francisco before the Super Bowl.” Instead of pretending like this is someone else’s problem, let’s treat our homeless like human beings. We need to put more money and resources into Housing First programs that work like the Navigation Center and the Community Housing Partnership.
Even though these are people who sleep in the streets, they are still our neighbors. Let’s treat them that way.
Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, is a travel writer, TV host and poet. Follow him at BrokeAssStuart.com. Broke-Ass City runs Thursdays in The San Francisco Examiner.