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UN poverty expert investigates efforts to address San Francisco’s homeless

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U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights Phillip Alston stopped in The City on a two-week tour to investigate poverty in the U.S. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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A United Nations human rights expert met with San Francisco homeless rights advocates and service providers on Wednesday to investigate whether the U.S. government is upholding its obligations to eradicate poverty under international human rights law.

“I have [to try to] make the argument that a system that purports to respect civil and political rights, but does not provide any economic and social underpinnings — no rights to basic social protection — is not actually a system that is really protecting civil and political rights,” U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights Philip Alston said.

Alston started his “fact-finding tour” in Washington, D.C. on Friday and is scheduled to visit five major U.S. cities and Puerto Rico in two weeks.

In San Francisco, the two-hour forum in the Tenderloin explored how displacement, gentrification and the criminalization of homeless persons through a growing number of purported anti-homeless laws have decreased the standard of living for The City’s poorest residents, despite its growing wealth.

More than a dozen panelists spoke to the struggles of solving homelessness as The City in recent years has ramped up investments in technology, increased policing and punitive policies directed at the poor.

The 15 Business Improvement Districts in San Francisco — areas in which businesses pay taxes to fund maintenance projects — and over 500 laws that some call anti-homeless in 58 cities in California have been faulted for exacerbating the homeless crisis.

The Civic Center business district, for instance, gets “$3 million a year of our money, and 74 percent goes to hiring security guards to police our presence in our communities,” said Western Regional Advocacy Project executive director Paul Boden.

The City’s new computerized Coordinated Entry System, meant to streamline access to The City’s homeless services, came at the cost of $6 million but has resulted in shrinking the “actual need” for services “to create a false political wind,” according to Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition on Homelessness.

The definition of what constitutes a homeless family was “shrunk down” in the new system, disqualifying some families from certain services, she said.

Alston is expected to present his final report on his U.S. visit to the Human Rights Council in Geneva in June 2018.

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