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Mayor Farrell’s words on homeless are misguided, lacking empathy

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Mayor Mark Farrell and members of the Department of Public Health, including Director Barbara Garcia, right, walk down Natoma Street looking for discarded needles on Monday, April 23, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

We are profoundly disappointed in both Mayor Mark Farrell’s words and approach to San Francisco’s homelessness crisis. In particular, we take issue with his recent comments regarding tent encampments on our sidewalks.

Farrell was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle as saying, “We have moved as a city from a position of compassion to enabling (unacceptable) street behavior.” We do not believe we, as a city, acted in compassion by allowing our streets to sink to current conditions, nor do we believe we have enabled unacceptable behavior. Rather, our leaders have failed to address the crisis. “Sweeping” human beings off the street, only to see them reappear a few blocks away, is not compassionate. It is not humane and it is not effective.

As co-chairs of the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club, we believe the mayor’s words are inconsistent with our community’s values, and Alice’s policy platform on this issue is clear: We object to enacting or enforcing policies that function to criminalize homelessness.

SEE RELATED: ‘They don’t have a place for us’: City clears out Mission tent encampments

Not only do we find Farrell’s comments to be lacking in empathy, but they are also misguided. He said definitively that he will “have a dedicated team to make sure they don’t come back,” but offered no specifics as to how our strategy as a city is changing. Forcing people to give up their tents without realistic alternatives or supportive services has only led people to set up new tents elsewhere.

Farrell also claimed The City has “offered services time and time again and gotten many off the street,” and that if a person living in a tent “resists everything we offer them in counseling, housing and other services, they shouldn’t be allowed to keep tents on the sidewalk.” Yet as of today, there are more than 4,300 unsheltered homeless individuals sleeping on the street every night, and 1,000 people on the Shelter Reservation Waitlist.

Navigation centers were a highlight of the previous administration’s approach, but they have never been adequate to meet the overwhelming need, with only a handful offering a total of just a few hundred beds. Alice believes in expanding the general navigation center model, but it’s not enough. With so many of those living on our streets facing severe mental illness and struggling with substance abuse, we do not see navigation centers alone as the answer.

SEE RELATED: Farrell calls for homeless sweeps in Mission District

Alice in no way favors tent encampments as a solution to homelessness. In 2017, our club adopted a platform that includes a range of specific policies that we believe would make a measurable difference in addressing this crisis. These policies include dramatically increasing the number of shelter beds to meet the demand, funding new supportive services to help individuals meet basic needs so they can focus on getting rehoused, and providing housing subsidies based on need to help individuals become and stay housed.

We must think more holistically about how to address homelessness than the mayor’s statements would suggest. The crisis we face has been ongoing and complicated, and we believe it is essential to approach those in need with the dignity and respect we all deserve, regardless of their circumstance.

Mayor Farrell’s tenure lasts only another several weeks. This is his opportunity to be remembered as a leader who enacted bold and creative solutions, or he can continue more of the same and be remembered for an aggressive and counterproductive crackdown.

Eric Lukoff and Gina Simi are co-chairs of the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club, the oldest LGBT democratic club in the nation.

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