Callaway underscores a basic problem with our city's homeless policy for the past 30 years. Very few of the major homeless policy initiatives have had any input from homeless people — a major blunder we are visibly reminded of every day on the streets of San Francisco.
Homeless people have the most experience with the system — they know what works and what doesn't. They are experts on homeless policy and they know what needs to change. After all, they are the ones living this every day.
The same could be said for the front-line service providers working in the trenches to solve the crisis. Rarely are any of them consulted. Nonetheless, through the Coalition on Homelessness and the Homeless Emergency Services Providers Network, they have developed tangible solutions including dignified housing and homeless prevention efforts that are thoughtful, well-researched and proven effective.
On the morning of May 13, the Mayor released a $29 million proposal to address homelessness. While the attention to homeless issues was met with applause, aside from the medical shelters funded at about $6 million, none of the solutions developed by the homeless community were included. There was an extension of the navigation center, more support services at residential hotels, and funding existing residential hotels.
All of these are good if politically driven, but none of the dollars went to the fastest growing segment of the homeless population, namely children. Worse still is a stunning $2 million proposal to buy bus tickets to send homeless people out of town.
The way the program works is that mostly police officers approach homeless people and ask them if they want a ticket out of town, and police officers we know have been pressured to ensure they give a fair number each shift. The homeless person is often coerced into accepting the ticket, and must give a phone number of a person who will receive them.
The City does not follow up to see what happens to the person — to find out if they made it to their destination, if they remain homeless, or if they return to San Francisco. In no other city program is there such a lack of outcome measurements. Yet, The City calls it a success and, in stunning Orwellian fashion, a family reunification program.
This of course is sheer public relations at it's most foul. It promotes the false idea the homeless people are flocking to San Francisco, pandering to conservatives who simply want homeless people to disappear, not caring what happens to them. It also actively and forcefully pushes poor people that politicians would like to hide out of town and is public policy at its most irresponsible.
Worse is what could be done with that funding instead.
I recently met Marcelina Garcia, a homeless mother of two, who said, “I have been homeless with my children for 3 years and I have no hope to get a safe and decent place. They treat animals better than us.”
That $2 million would give Garcia a whole lot of hope. She could use part of it, along with 124 other families, for housing in below-market-rate units or private housing through our local subsidy program. The funding could keep about 1,000 San Franciscans housed by staving off displacement through legal defense and back rent.
If someone had bothered to ask her what the priority for our local homeless dollars should be, she likely would not have said a bus ticket. She would have told them her needs were simple — a safe and decent place for her children to live.
Jennifer Friedenbach is executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.