Like most San Franciscans, you probably don’t know that the majority of homeless people in San Francisco were living in The City when they became homeless. That is right. It is San Franciscans who become homeless, not moochers coming for our fabulous services from another land far away.
There are a lot of myths surrounding homelessness — for example, that there are no homeless children, that homeless people are all drug addicts, that there are enough shelter beds, that people choose to be homeless and many more.
We didn’t dream up these myths. We believe these myths because they were deliberately told to us by politicians, and then repeated by city officials, whose quotes were then printed in major media stories. This happened with relentless repetition until suddenly we believed.
This perfect fable was created to let our local elected officials off the hook. It succeeded in turning the public wrath away from the very entities who created homelessness and toward the very people suffering from it. It has a secondary benefit to the powers that be, which is to have a reliable scapegoat that can be used as a political wedge to draw conservatives to the voting booth. Like immigrants, welfare moms and fear of Muslims, homeless people have been the perfect political football for politicians and the financial interests behind them. Their favored candidates can run on the backs of homeless people who already have sore backs from sleeping on concrete.
But for 15 years, the antidote has been Street Sheet. Our local street newspaper is not only the longest continuously published one of its kind in the U.S., but it also has the largest circulation, is available completely free to vendors who keep 100 percent of the proceeds, and it is written and produced by homeless and former homeless people.
The newspaper has a slant — truth directly from the source of people experiencing poverty and homelessness. The paper does not at all try to pull on heart strings, just simply state the factual information from real sources and present a reality that is markedly different from the perception of most housed people in San Francisco.
Let’s take a look at the “homeless people coming from elsewhere” theory. Its origins are of course political. Local politicians can’t offer more help to homeless people or others will flock to The City. Residents don’t have to have sympathy because those folks can just return to where they came from.
Every major city in the United States believes that it is a magnet for homeless people, and plenty of small cities and suburbs to boot. The issue has been studied endlessly and never holds up. Las Vegas believed that homeless people flocked there for mild weather in the winter, and they contracted with Applied Survey Research to study it, which then found not basis to the theory. If you look at San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Oakland or Berkeley, the same results abound. The majority of homeless people became homeless as residents of those same cities. For those who didn’t, they came for much the same reason as anyone moves. They move for family, they move for jobs. Services in a particular city are negligible in reasoning. But yet, the myth prevails, hampering attempts to create constructive solutions.
In reality homeless people are not that different from anyone else, except that they are too poor to afford a place to live. The major difference is that the longer they are on the streets, the more rapidly they are to see their health decline. In fact, the life expectancy of someone who is homeless is a full 20 years shorter than his or her housed counterparts.
This myth also promotes the idea that if you just make it uncomfortable for homeless people they will simply disappear or go back to where they came from. This notion has led to a complicated shelter system in San Francisco, forcing shelter seekers to spend entire days trying to secure a bed.
Cutting public benefits and mass criminalization of homeless people for being in public with the same idea — make it uncomfortable and they will go elsewhere.
These efforts have been wildly unsuccessful. We now have more homeless people than ever.
It is in everyone’s best interest to end homelessness. In order to do that, we must stop dreaming that people are choosing to live out in the rain and face reality. Whatever your feelings on the issue, in the end, calling in the police, blocking programs from coming to your neighborhood or voting for anti-homeless measures simply will not work, and likely will just exacerbate homelessness. Collectively we must ensure that the United States house every man, woman and child in our country.
We did it after the Great Depression and we can do it again, even better You can start this holiday season by reading Street Sheet, informing yourself and taking action.
Jennifer Friedenbach is executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.