No San Franciscan sees encampments as a sustainable response to homelessness, least of all those living unsheltered during our winter months. But Proposition Q, a nominal encampment ban, will create several problems and solve none.
Prop. Q makes sidewalk encampments unlawful. It permits The City to remove encampments after 24 hours’ notice and an offer of services. Housing — defined as one night in shelter or a Navigation Center placement or “another housing option” — begs the question of whether any alternative housing exists in San Francisco’s current inventory. Services — defined as prepaid bus tickets out of town — prove the point that housing and shelter don’t exist to absorb our unsheltered population.
Our homeless response system is like a pipe: It can only carry water proportionate to available housing. By that logic, an encampment ban would be tantamount to a water main break, pushing thousands of people through a bursting pipe, where the street is still their final destination. An encampment ban doesn’t ban encampments as much as it asks The City to start a flood and then spend its resources to divert the flow of human suffering from one sidewalk to another. This is symptom-chasing, not problem-solving, and it would have bad policy consequences for our city.
The way we spend local resources should complement, not cut against, the efforts of the new Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. Launched in August and helmed by Jeff Kositsky, who has a decade-long track record of executive leadership on homelessness, the new department’s plans include scaling the Navigation Center model with several new sites and creating viable housing alternatives on which that model depends. Rather than posting 24-hour “move on” notices from the outside — as Prop. Q prescribes — the new department wants to work with encampment residents from the inside, facilitating real solutions to help them into housing as quickly as available inventory permits.
There’s also the question of how we spend federal resources. Maximizing federal homeless assistance to San Francisco is key, but an encampment ban says to federal funders that we’re not serious about ending homelessness. HUD now awards competitive points to communities that pursue strategies to de-criminalize homelessness. Communities taking affirmative steps in the opposite direction lose these points, along with their competitive edge for funding. To the extent that HUD defunds any of San Francisco’s approximately $30 million in annual homeless assistance dollars, the local budget process will become a battleground for city General Fund dollars to fill the gaps. And it’s not just HUD, either.
In Bell v. City of Boise et al. (contesting Boise ordinances that criminalize public camping), the DOJ filed a statement of interest arguing that such laws violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. If people have no place to sleep but the street, then criminalizing sleep based on where it occurs functionally criminalizes homeless status. A public mandate for encampment removal in San Francisco would invite similar constitutional challenges. Although Prop. Q imposes no criminal punishment, confiscating tents without providing real housing alternatives creates unnecessary legal risk exposure for a measure that won’t work.
We already have poorly designed laws prohibiting sidewalk use by homeless persons, including Proposition L, the sit-lie ordinance approved by voters in 2010. Broadly speaking, such “quality-of-life” laws have no discernible effect on our sidewalks — 91 percent of the time, respondents cited by police simply move down the street or to another neighborhood — but these laws have counterproductive long-term effects on homeless persons themselves. They perpetuate the cycle of poverty and make incarceration a likelier prospect than stable housing. Those who persist in the street rack up fines they can’t pay, as well as add-on fees, arrest warrants, and other penalties that make them anathema to prospective employers and landlords — with the result that public systems absorb the costs of chronic homelessness in perpetuity.
To be sure, residents of encampments experience violence, as some have pointed out. But arguments that encampments harbor domestic violence miss the point that street violence, including violence against women, is a larger and more complicated problem. Where domestic violence is the proximate cause of homelessness, most survivors have already fled their abusers, and the sad reality is that street violence would occur with or without encampments to hide it. The solution to such violence is to provide survivor-specific supports and police felony-level criminal activity — not to prohibit basic human activities like sleeping that occur outside in the absence of a viable alternative.
It’s uncontroversial that encampments are not sustainable places for people to live, but Prop. Q will produce several inefficiencies by chasing symptoms in the short term. Real problem-solving requires a deep grasp of the issues and a sustained investment over time — and the new department is well-positioned for it. Vote no on Prop. Q and let the experts pursue real, long-term solutions.
Mary Kate Bacalao is director of public funding at Larkin Street Youth Services, one of 27 nonprofits comprising the San Francisco Homeless Emergency Service Providers Association.