In a recent protest against BART police arresting people sleeping tucked up against walls for building code violations, members of the public lashed back against homeless activists. Some of that thrashing was general hatred of all people left destitute, but some pointed out that instead of fighting for people to sleep rough, activists should be fighting for housing.
Homeless activists are doing just that, and while this work gets little media attention, housing is the key solution to homelessness. Regardless of whether a San Franciscan hates the entire group we have labeled homeless or not, it is in all our best interests to make sure every human being has a place to call home. Forcing people to suffer on the streets (yes, we are forcing people to do just that through our policies) causes a whole host of problems for neighborhoods and costs cities millions of dollars.
Housing that BART sleeper would save these costs directly. In fact, cost studies in six states and cities found that supportive housing results in decreased use of social services, hospitals, emergency rooms, jails and prisons. In short, we either save money or break even when we house people.
However, this research has not resulted in a true investment by the federal government to solve homelessness. Instead, it has skipped from pet project to pet project, never kicking down the true resource needed by local governments to solve the crisis. Because federal responses to homelessness have been so ineffective, a growing number of localities are using policing to remove homeless people from public view. These punitive measures involve gross human and civil-rights violations. This nationwide pattern has escaped civil-rights protections because these ordinances are drafted very carefully to appear as if they apply equally to all people, but enforcement is very much impacted by people's skin color, housing, economic and mental health status.
We have been working hard collectively in San Francisco to increase the number of housing units that are affordable to homeless people — and have exceeded the 6,000 mark. Unfortunately, more San Franciscans are becoming homeless every day and we need double that number to house all currently homeless people.
We also have not yet stemmed the tide of future homeless people by jamming shut the entrance into homelessness through comprehensive homeless-prevention measures. This issue is barely on the federal government's radar, and the state gives very few resources in this direction. Sadly, we are a long way off from solving the homeless crisis. Until that happens, destitute people need to sleep somewhere and currently they have nowhere to go.
Homeless people in San Francisco face myriad exclusions that displace them from public space. Not only are waits for housing years long, and we only have one shelter bed for every five homeless people, but also sleeping outdoors itself can be illegal. Camping, sitting, lying, loitering and obstructing are prohibited at various times in virtually every public space. When destitute people do find a legal place to sleep, they are often rousted illegally and even jailed for engaging in the life-sustaining activity of sleeping. In the case of BART, it is arresting people for obstructing when they do not even closely meet that legal definition.
When homeless people get those citations, and cannot pay the $100 fine, they get warrants and are potentially jailed, but worse still, they are disqualified for housing. It is very common for homeless people to wait years for housing, only to be turned down before being offered a unit on a criminal justice check, which turns up a warrant. It doesn't matter what the original ticket was for, and people can appeal that decision, but tickets for such things as camping end up creating a massive barrier to getting into housing.
Human beings have to sleep — they physically cannot endure without it. Homeless people face a whole host of independent health risks because of their housing status. Not least of those health concerns is sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation puts people at risk for a host of heart problems, stroke and diabetes, not to mention impaired cognitive functioning. Sleep deprivation is even a common torture technique.
This next year, we along with organizations up and down the state, led by the Western Regional Advocacy Project, will call for the passage of legislation that acknowledges this fundamental human right.
Let's all keep working hard on solving homelessness, but meanwhile jailing and citing people is both mean-spirited and a waste of tax dollars. Until that day when every man woman and child has a safe and decent place to call home, all San Franciscans should enjoy a basic right to rest.
Jennifer Friedenbach is the executive director of San Francisco's Coalition on Homelessness.