A young African-American man I talked to recently shared how he is living in an encampment near the now-cleared Division Street. He came up out of foster care, can’t afford housing and has no access to accumulated wealth. Like all people, the young man wants nothing more then a safe and decent place to call home, the security of a locked door, a soft bed and, more then anything, he would like to get some rest so he can get on with building a better life for himself.
He, quite frankly, is tired. He is tired of trying to find a safe place to sleep, so he doesn’t bother anyone, and doesn’t get persistently woken up by police, street crews or anyone else. He needs a home.
The reality is that, most likely, a home is out of his reach because San Francisco has not invested in truly solving homelessness. We spend less then 3 percent of our budget on the most important issue facing The City. Meanwhile, policymakers connive flam initiatives to deceive voters and fail to address the true causes. This November, voters will be deciding on the most cynical homeless measure to date, and believe me, there is plenty of competition: Proponents arguing for “housing, not tents” and then initiating a tent ban and including no provision for housing in the measure. Getting someone off the streets with an offer of one night in shelter can only be called “make believe.”
Every few years, a politician puts yet another anti-homeless measure on the ballot and stirs up the fear and hatred in a twisted, S.F. brand of Trump contrivance. San Francisco’s homeless policy, and the broader debate, has been primarily focused on enforcement of anti-homeless laws.
Last year, we issued more than 27,000 citations to homeless folks, of which 14,000 were simply for resting. We have 23 laws — the most in the state — that meet the legal definition of “anti-homeless” laws. According to the Budget and Legislative Office, we spent $20.6 million on enforcement last year, and it has been a resounding failure. Homelessness has not only increased, but the population itself is saddled with fine derived debt and deteriorated mental and physical health. As individuals are ticketed and their property is confiscated, they lose medications, survival gear and no longer qualify for housing.
The reason is obvious: We cannot address homelessness through enforcement; only housing solves the problem of a lack of a home.
Tents, of course, are already illegal under state law, and police also use local laws such as sit-lie, obstructing sidewalks, health codes and others to cite people camped on the streets. Frequently, police just force people to move. The result is a sidewalk shuffle from one block to another and back again.
From local police captains to the Department of Justice to Republicans in Texas, everyone agrees: You can’t ticket your way out of homelessness. Yet that reality has not stopped multiple ambitious San Francisco policymakers from riding into higher office on the already sore backs of homeless people.
The tent ban that will appear on November’s ballot is particularly delusional. With multiple year waits for public housing and more than 700 people on a waitlist for shelter, The City will likely hold shelter beds empty to ensure they have beds to offer encampments, further exacerbating shelter waits and sending more to the streets. This initiative calls for 24-hour notice, and there’s no way someone can overcome all the barriers to getting off the street in such a ridiculous time period. The City can not even get someone the required tuberculosis test in time to qualify for shelter, as medical results take three days. In a particularly wicked twist, The City requires outreach workers to disband the encampments, eroding critical trust they have with their clients and ensuring they cannot locate them when housing is ready.
The discourse around homelessness must focus on solutions. As long as policymakers continue to devise false solutions, resources and energy are diverted away from systemic change. The public then gets more frustrated, and anti-homeless sentiment is incited further. Homeless people have nowhere to go. Shelters are full, housing is too expensive and, unless we change our priorities, only the very lucky are able to escape the cold hard reality of residing on unfriendly sidewalks.
The newly formed Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing has the opportunity to resolve encampment issues. But this November measure — developed with no input from community stakeholders and, most importantly, homeless people themselves — will tie the hands of the new department. It would relegate their efforts to having to carry politically motivated nonsensical policy that can only be changed by voters.
The issue of homelessness in our community requires thoughtful, strategic public policy that focuses on exits from homelessness to permanent housing. This effort must be led by those who have experienced homelessness and those working on the frontlines to address it. There is no reason this should be on the ballot, except to use people experiencing homelessness as political pawns. Of course, so many of us are fighting like mad to get people out of tents, out of shelters, off the streets and out of the parks into housing. We have two ballot measures that would ensure the revenue necessary to do just that, but it will take years for the housing to come to fruition. This initiative would exacerbate that crisis.
And the young man I referred to earlier, he is already being moved from place to place. He can tell you, at best, this initiative will make it a whole lot harder for him to get off the streets.
Jennifer Friedenbach is the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.