San Francisco needs outside help with homelessness

One city, even one very wealthy and generous city like San Francisco, can’t afford to address, nearly alone, a statewide challenge like homelessness. That’s why we need California to declare a statewide emergency on homelessness so we can work as an entire state to address this growing statewide shame.

We should be very proud, as San Franciscans, that we have done so much to help our fellow residents in need. But the problem is so great, so costly and so complicated that the time has come to acknowledge we can’t do it alone. While we should not do less, it is time for the State of California to do more.

According to a recent report, San Francisco spends $241 million per year on funding homeless services — certainly a low estimate, because it does not include all city services frequently used by the homeless. If we include just how much time firefighters, police officers and paramedics spend providing services to the more than 7,500 homeless San Franciscans, the true cost is certainly much higher than the reported figure.

By some estimates, we could be spending up to one in 10 taxpayer dollars on caring for and housing the homeless (if we include affordable housing dollars, which are clearly connected to the challenge). Yet, we still have a growing and increasingly desperate homeless population. Change is needed now. While we certainly need to make sure every local dollar we spend in San Francisco is accounted for and spent wisely, we also need the state to step up and step in, because this is a statewide challenge.

During a count on a single night last year, over one-third of the nation’s chronically homeless individuals were in California. California doesn’t just have the highest overall homeless population; we had the highest percentage of homeless people counted in unsheltered locations (64 percent).

This is an issue confronting nearly every California community. Just as we would not ask Southern California to help address an earthquake in Southern California, or the Sierra Foothills to address a devastating fire alone, or Sacramento to respond to a major flood without help.

We should not let one community like San Francisco stand almost entirely alone during this emergency.

This issue, like so many others, we San Franciscans have stepped up generously when others refused to do so. This is particularly the reality on housing and homeless issues, where San Franciscans are paying hundreds of millions to subsidize affordable housing for workers, many of whom are not working in San Francisco but rather Silicon Valley and other suburbs. And while many of the homeless we justifiably care for are from San Francisco, many did not become homeless in our city. In fact, according to the 2015 point-in-time survey of the San Francisco homeless population, nearly 30 percent became homeless outside our city with many coming from other cities and counties in California.

Causes for homelessness are complicated and varied. In a recent census, 25 percent of the homeless cited loss of job for their homelessness, 18 percent due to drug or alcohol dependency, 13 percent eviction and 11 percent divorce, separation or breakup. The reasons the homeless cannot secure housing are certainly clear. Fully, 48 percent said they couldn’t afford rent, 17 percent said no housing was available, 13 percent said the process to secure housing is too difficult and 13 percent said they had no money for moving costs.

There are solutions out there, starting with the most successful of all: building more affordable housing. And we can make significant strides forward on the road to end family homelessness by immediately investing in rapid rehousing, rent subsidies and continued collaboration with the school district, so at least one segment of this diverse population is successfully housed as soon as possible.

This is not an insurmountable problem. We’ve already seen the success that resulted from federal resources being made available to cities to house homeless veterans, but dealing with this costs money, and the time has come for that money to also come from Sacramento.

Homeless San Franciscans come here from all over the state. Funds for the services needed to compassionately help and house the homeless should also.

Jane Kim represents District 6 on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

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