A man in a wheelchair maneuvers through the crosswalk on a yellow light while drivers wait to enter the intersection at Leavenworth and Ellis streets on Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Homeless residents at high risk of death in traffic collisions

The City’s housing crisis and pedestrian safety problems go hand in hand

While The City struggles to eliminate traffic-related deaths, homeless people are increasingly and disproportionately among those dying in car collisions on San Francisco streets, city officials said Tuesday.

Five out of 23 people killed by traffic collisions last year in San Francisco did not live “at a fixed address,” according to the Department of Public Health. That’s up from only two in 2017.

To put it in starker terms, homeless people make up less than 1 percent of The City’s population, yet account for 22 percent of recent traffic deaths.

Though researchers are only beginning to look into potential causes and solutions, it is clear that homeless traffic deaths are on the rise at the same time that homelessness across The City is rising.

“Any San Franciscan will tell you homelessness is their deepest concern, and here you see it intersecting with our traffic policy,” Chava Kronenberg, an SFMTA pedestrian safety program manager and Vision Zero task force co-chair, said at a regular meeting of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors on Tuesday.

The City’s Vision Zero policy aims to reduce traffic deaths to zero in San Francisco by 2024. But, health officials said, as their efforts have increased, so too have the factors that increase the likelihood of traffic collisions, like increased traffic brought by a booming San Francisco economy.

San Francisco is not facing this problem alone, Tom Maguire, acting director of the SFMTA told the board.

“That’s also a huge concern of (departments of transportation) nationwide,” he said.

Health and transit officials began tracking traffic deaths of people without a fixed address in 2017, as a way to track homeless deaths by proxy, said Megan Wier, director of DPH’s program on health, equity and sustainability as well as a co-chair of the Vision Zero task force.

In 2017, two people without fixed addresses were killed on San Francisco streets. In 2018, five people without fixed addresses were killed on San Francisco streets. Three of those five deaths were hit-and-runs. In 2019 so far, two people have been killed in traffic collisions on freeways in The City were homeless.

In response to this over-representation in statistics, in mid-2019 the Department of Public Health’s street medicine and shelter health staff began coordinating with Vision Zero traffic response teams to develop new prevention efforts around homeless traffic deaths. The department is planning to publish a research brief later this year on the issue, Wier said.

Armando Garcia, human rights organizer with the Coalition on Homelessness, also has researched homeless traffic deaths.

Though the issue is complex, he said there may be at least one simple explanation for why homeless people are overrepresented in traffic collision statistics.

“They’d be more affected because statistically they spend more time on the street,” Garcia said.

Notably, a homeless man sleeping in a North Beach garage was run over by a driver and killed just last year, it was widely reported.

If those people were housed they wouldn’t be in the streets to be struck and killed in the first place, Garcia said.


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