A white jogger throwing a black homeless man’s property into Lake Merritt.
A well-dressed man kicking a sleeping man’s face so severely he was hospitalized.
The owner of a local club circulating death threats to homeless people and chasing a camper with a gun.
These are just some of the publicized events. Of course, people forced to live outdoors face this and worse on a regular basis.
As homeless people’s health deteriorates, these same victims of decades of housing divestment are blamed by our city leaders. Hateful perspectives are validated by policymakers’ insistence on perpetuating the myth that those on the streets are choosing to be there, and only find salvation when they finally accept services.
This great fable has permeated our collective psyche and appears in almost every piece written about the issue in San Francisco. It serves as a salve to our guilt: our sorrows for our destitute, our feelings of impotence, our inability to turn the crisis around. This great fable permits our policymakers to brag about a well-funded system that attracts denizens from afar, to elude accountability in the face of visibly severe poverty lived out in public view each day. The reality of true human suffering directly contradicts this tale of a carefree lifestyle rich with offers of a plethora of services from a generous city. If only, if only, they chose to accept them, but no.
A fairytale homelessness is not.For those forced to sleep on our streets, the reality is a nightmare.
In the words of Jesse, spoken with tears in his eyes outside his tent, “You want to wash the streets, and wash us away. But we are still here. We wish we wasn’t. This ain’t living.”
There are very few pathways out of homelessness. Over a thousand people compete for shelter beds while thousands more compete for housing, with only those with more than 20 years of documented homelessness in this city getting lucky.
Over half of San Francisco’s homeless population becomes homeless before the age of 25 – but often have their lives and their health destroyed before an opportunity at stability presents itself. Enforcement is at full tilt. Over 10,000 citations are given annually, but more typically homeless people are chased from block to block, frantic to hold onto their last meager possessions.
Homeless people and their allies in community-based organizations, business community and neighborhood groups are working hard to turn this crisis around and recently took a giant step forward to do just that.
A bold measure is heading to the ballot, as a groundswell of over 500 volunteers turned in twice as many signatures as needed to quality for the November ballot. We have a powerful grassroots movement building.
“Our City, Our Home SF” would take a nominal amount of revenue from the earnings over $50 million of the largest San Francisco businesses (only the largest!) and transform the streets of San Francisco and the lives of those forced to live on them. It would provide rental assistance to keep thousands of San Franciscans from being displaced each year, when they get sick, when they lose their jobs, or when their fixed incomes don’t keep up with rising rents.
It would house 4,000 households; families with children, youth and the most impaired of those on the streets. It would eliminate the shelter waitlist. It would dramatically rebuild our mental health and substance abuse systems. It is carefully crafted to ensure every dime is accounted for with maximum results laid out in a best practices plan.
Those cynics among you who don’t believe anything can be done — rest assured and take in this large breath of hope.
For those who say we are spending too much already, I say yes, we are spending too much, millions on emergency health care, and policing, that could be saved if only we housed the same people costing so much!
For those who say, just put the police on them, make them change their behavior and leave, I say we do that already and they land on your doorstep, and complaints only go up. A push for more policing of homelessness is simply a push for the status quo — a failed response that only fattens the dog chasing his tail.
As vicious and cruel as that man’s kick to another’s face was, aren’t we kicking homeless people each day when we don’t take action?
As vicious and cruel as throwing that man’s property into the lake was, don’t we do that every day, San Francisco, in city sanctioned sweeps where property is dumped?
Aren’t we threatening lives as those without homes die prematurely living in abject poverty?
Good people, I implore you: get behind common sense, stop complaining and start problem-solving. Get behind Our City, Our Home SF and turn this housing crisis on its head.
Jennifer Friedenbach is executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.