The first time I visited San Francisco two decades ago, I did what many tourists do. I indulged my wish that I had been born into an earlier era, and went to Haight-Ashbury to soak in the hippie and beat generation vibe.
After taking in a poetry reading in the cramped upstairs of City Lights Books, I ventured into Golden Gate Park. With no particular place to go, or schedule to follow— the essence of vacation — we wandered among the park’s paths.
Soon, I was jarred out of my laid back state of mind. I was stunned to see so many homeless people in the park, and sad to observe that most of them were young — in their teens or early 20s.
Growing up on the East Coast, I did not see homeless people every day. As a journalist, I knew they were there, of course, but because people with no homes were typically not in the suburbs, and had shelters to protect them from the frigid New England winter weather, the homeless problem was less in the forefront. Our newspapers at the time wrote about them mostly around the holidays, when suburbanites in a giving spirit went into the city to volunteer at soup kitchens.
Twenty years later, of course, it is impossible to ignore homelessness, both here and there. It is too easy to find homeless people sleeping on the streets of Northeastern cities, even when temperatures drop to 20 degrees, and those of us who live or work in San Francisco regularly walk past people without homes.
The visibility of the problem inspires some to seek solutions, but it makes others overwhelmed, frustrated or worse, complacent.
That is why keeping the issue in the forefront is crucial. This week we are doing just that. The Examiner is joining about 30 other news organizations in the Bay Area to participate in the SF Homeless Project. Each media organization has committed to reporting about homelessness for one or several days throughout the project, which is organized by the San Francisco Chronicle. The main day of reporting for most news outlets will be Wednesday, although many will have stories throughout the week.
Of course, our journalists write about homelessness regularly, but the stories we will roll out later this week by staff writers Joshua Sabatini, Laura Waxmann and Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez will delve a bit deeper. The collaboration is intended to show the many aspects of homelessness, and to hopefully offer some fixes.
Our journalists combine interviewing people with analyzing data for readers. Most recently, Sabatini broke the story that the latest homeless numbers in the 2019 SF Homeless Count & Survey are even higher than those highlighted in the report when one looks at multiple databases and considers various definitions of homelessness.
This type of reporting brings insights that I wish I had as a tourist so many years ago during my park visit. And, hopefully, it rights the many misconceptions of why people are homeless.
Then, I assumed that most homeless people were young people who had caught the Go West bug and traveled here, later to stumble. I also incorrectly figured that homelessness was a linear thing, not understanding that many people move in and out of homelessness, even as chronic homelessness trends upward, and lack of affordable housing stands out as an increasing reason.
The number of homeless people in San Francisco found in the 2019 count that Sabatini wrote about on July 5, at 9,784, makes me speechless. And that number has risen significantly since the last report two years ago, by 30 percent.
The majority of homeless people are also not young as I once assumed (only 19 percent are age 24 or under).
Still, many of them first experienced being without a home when they were young.
Of those counted as homeless in The City in 2019, a total of 15 percent reported that they were under the age of 18 when they first became homeless, and another 30 percent said they were between the ages of 18 and 24.
I have no way of knowing what eventually happened to those kids I saw in Golden Gate Park so long ago, but I do hope that there will be a day when a fresh-faced visitor to San Francisco arrives to find that the number of homeless people is dropping.
Our role as journalists is not to be the activists or the politicians trying to reach that goal, but nor is it to be complacent. Our job is to give readers the tools to understand issues like this, and, on our best days, to inspire them to work toward solving an issue that is even more stubborn today than that first day I set foot on California soil.
Thank you for reading, and please let us know what you think of our work on the project. As always, you can reach me directly with your comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org
The SF Homeless Project is a media collaboration, coordinated by the San Francisco Chronicle, intended to draw attention to solutions to end the crisis.
Deborah Petersen is the editor in chief of the San Francisco Media Co. which publishes The Examiner, SF Weekly and SF Evergreen.