Homelessness is not a uniquely San Francisco problem. Other cities — New York, Seattle, San Diego — have arguably worse homeless situations. But people sleeping on the streets and in tent encampments has long been a defining characteristic of San Francisco. In few other cities are the deprivations of the homeless so painfully visible and the effort to house people or provide adequate shelter seemingly so broken.
It is a national shame that in this country 564,708 people were homeless on a given night in January 2015, according to the most recent U.S. Housing and Urban Development report. Of that number, 206,286 were people in families. About 15 percent — 83,170 — were “chronically homeless” individuals. In San Francisco, according to the same report, the homeless population was estimated at 6,775. Such numbers, of course, represent an inexact estimate of one moment in time, but they give a rough idea of the enormity and the fluidity of the problem.
In San Francisco, a city that exhibits so much pride in its values and image, the inability to house and provide care for the thousands who live among us without homes is a disgrace. For many visitors, the overwhelming specter of homeless in public and some of the more menacing manifestations — aggressive panhandling, mental instability, drug use, filth — is an unexpected and unwelcome shock. For longtime residents, by contrast, the daily display of human destitution can become something to grow inured to, to almost no longer see in the settled routine of days.
In these pages, we have over the years extensively documented the ongoing struggles the homeless face in San Francisco as well as the political machinations that have aimed, with decidedly mixed results, to either help, corral, shove aside or offer opportunities to this troubled population. We have written that the measure of a city’s heart can be taken in how well, or poorly, it cares for the most vulnerable of its inhabitants. And on that scale, we, as a city, can do much better. We are failing too often in this most basic measure of care and compassion, and we are all impoverished by these failures.
Today, the San Francisco Examiner joins with more than 70 other local media organizations as part of the SF Homeless Project, publishing stories about homeless issues in the Bay Area. Some of us in the project are focusing on offering solutions, others on detailing the confounding complexities of the issue or highlighting new trends in the decades-long crisis. No matter our individual editorial perspectives or concerns, it is the hope of all of us in the project that the diversity and breadth of dozens of news outlets working in concert on this one issue can have an impact on our readers and viewers, on our policy makers and civic leaders. We all speak, thankfully, with diverse and varied voices. But today, we join together to amplify our work in the hopes that doing so will make a difference.
Earlier this week, several local business leaders — in the tourism, hotel and restaurant industries — met with the Examiner to say they are fed up with The City turning a blind eye to worsening levels of crime and lawlessness on our streets. They said they were hopeful The City’s new Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, opening on Friday, was a step in the right direction. They called on The City to provide more mental health services, more police patrols and more supportive housing. They were frustrated, they said, that existing laws designed to provide safer streets were not being enforced. Such conditions are bad for business, of course, they told us, but their primary concern was how unacceptable it feels to see so many people living exposed in extreme distress. Such frustration is a collective one in The City; we all feel more must be done.
This problem has vexed generations of civic leaders and advocates, many of whom have worked diligently with pure intentions to solve the seemingly intractable problem of housing those without housing. At this moment of tremendous prosperity for San Francisco, it is particularly maddening to see such poverty and need. In the decades that The City has targeted addressing homelessness as its most dire civic priority, the number of homeless in this city has barely budged.
The City’s efforts to end homelessness have, up to now, not been worthy of the crisis.
The premise of the SF Homeless Project is that, collectively, media outlets shining a bright multi-angled light on the problem of homelessness at this moment can compel change. We, as project participants, felt it was time to say in one chorus — a collection of multiple voices — that what has been tolerated up to now is no longer tolerable. Our city is fundamentally impoverished by the poverty not only of those living on the streets but also of the paltry response we have, up to now, been able to muster.
There is, we realize, a degree of presumption in thinking that a collection of journalists, by choosing a day to write stories, can somehow affect this. But we believe in the transformative power of the press to hold elected leaders accountable, galvanize public interest to address social problems, and tell stories of the place in which we live. We hope the SF Homeless Project — this day of focused attention, and our collective ongoing coverage — lives up to that goal.