Opinion: Why San Francisco can’t and shouldn’t follow New York City’s stance on homelessness

Mayor Eric Adams’ has more power, a bigger police force and an openness to cruelty

Last Friday, New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced that his government will no longer allow homeless people to loiter or engage in misconduct in the subways and subway stations. Adams spelled this out plainly and, unlike Mayor London Breed, was able to talk tough without using profanity.

“No more smoking, no more doing drugs, no more sleeping, no more doing barbecues on the subway system … The system was not made to be housing,” said Adams. “It’s made to be transportation.”

At its best, the New York City subway system is a fast, efficient and affordable way to get around the country’s largest city. At its worst, the subway is like the Tenderloin on rails. The conduct Adams described has been common for decades. The mayor also could have added to the list drug use and using the subway as a toilet.

Adams’s plan should sound familiar to San Franciscans, because it is not unlike what Mayor Breed is trying to do in the Tenderloin, though faster and more ambitious. Police will force people to leave the subway trains when they reach the end of their route. Homeless individuals will then be offered various forms of help, and the city has pledged to make more shelter beds available.

There are two immediate questions that arise from Adams’ plan. The first is why New York City can move at this pace and San Francisco cannot. The second is whether it’s a good idea.

The first question — how a mayor in his second month in office can make such a decisive move — reveals something about how the two cities are governed. First, although San Francisco’s mayor is powerful compared to most West Coast mayors, she does not control city government the way New York’s mayor does.

Breed must contend with a Board of Supervisors, who are politically to her left and can thwart her initiatives, and an executive structure that dissipates power. New York’s mayor has unified control of the executive branch of government and a relatively weak city council. Some have called the New York City Council a rubber stamp, but as former City Councilman and later Parks Commissioner Henry Stern pointed out, “You can’t really call the New York City Council a rubber stamp because a rubber stamp leaves an impression.” Stern made that remark decades ago and it still applies.

Another reason Adams can move to clean up the subway with a short announcement is that, even per capita, New York City has a much bigger police force than San Francisco. Adams can easily deploy the estimated 1,000 police officers needed for his plan.

New York City has roughly 36,000 police, while San Francisco has just over 2,000. That is a ratio of 18-1, which is much greater than the population difference between the two cities, which is closer to 7.5-1. For San Francisco to have as many police per capita as New York, The City would have to add another 2,800 police officers.

This is more than just an issue of numbers. It goes to the core question of how The City is governed and how problems are addressed. If you have a 36,000-person police force and the mayor, like Adams, is a former police officer — it is easy to see all problems, including homelessness, as public safety problems requiring police fixes.

So New York can sweep homeless people out of the subways in a way that San Francisco cannot remove people from the Tenderloin. But whether this is a good idea is a totally different question.

On the one hand, getting homeless people out of the subway will improve conditions for commuters. On the other hand, pushing homeless people out of the subway doesn’t address the problem of homelessness or help the unhoused.

If Adams’ plan is implemented, it will contribute to criminalizing homelessness and poverty at a time when wealth inequality is defining life in NYC just as it is in San Francisco. The policy will also almost certainly mean more overtime for police in New York, so the NYPD’s share of the budget, which is approximately $10.4 billion, will probably go up.

Adams intends to start the program soon, presumably while it is still winter in New York, so there is an element of cruelty here that should not be overlooked. Homeless people don’t go to the subways because they like trains. In the winter, they go there to keep warm.

Like Mayor Breed, Adams has spoken of the need for more support, treatment, shelter and other services for homeless people, but until those services are in place toughness could translate into cruelty.

For the moment, all Adams has is a plan. We don’t know if it will be implemented effectively or at all. But if it is enacted, the contrast between the two cities will be stark.

Author Lincoln Mitchell has written numerous books and articles about The City and the Giants. Visit lincolnmitchell.com or follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.

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