Have we decided that widespread homelessness will just be a part of life in San Francisco? At times, it feels like City Hall has accepted that wait-lists for shelters, Great Depression-era tent encampments and families living in cars are just the way things are. The latest homeless count shows there are more than 4,000 homeless people living on the streets of San Francisco — a number that, shockingly, has not significantly decreased in a decade. Even though cities all over the world have effectively addressed homelessness, there is serious doubt among our residents whether the innovation capital of the world is truly up to the task.
Have we decided it is OK to abandon mentally ill or severely addicted people on our streets? Every day, truly sick people, who are unable to care for their basic needs, are released from The City’s overcrowded hospitals with little to no services. These human beings, often given nothing but hospital clothes, are left to wander in their own private hell looking for shelter and safety. Terrified and often in a constant state of flight or fight, these mothers, fathers, sons and daughters have to rely solely on the kindness of San Franciscans to ensure they are not a harm to themselves or others.
Have we also decided it is OK to shame our residents for being frustrated, scared and exhausted with the homeless crisis? Having empathy for families who have strangers sleeping in their doorways, human waste on their sidewalks and needles on their stoops, doesn’t mean that we do not also have empathy for people without shelter, restrooms or access to drug treatment. Asking City Hall to do its job and get homeless people off the street and into services should not get you called “anti-homeless.”
After 10 years of failed local homeless initiatives, we all must take action. We have to stop passing the buck and all of us have to start doing the work — even if it is not in our “official” job description. The reality is that homelessness touches every aspect of city government, from public works to public education. The combined resources of The City and its many departments are enormous, and it is the responsibility of every city official, from dog-catcher to mayor, to do this work.
As members of the Board of Education and of the City College Board of Trustees, we are announcing new initiatives for the San Francisco Unified School District and City College of San Francisco to require our institutions to take much bolder, sweeping action on homelessness.
This means growing our health care and food programs and providing robust, targeted support and resources to homeless students and families at school sites. It also means developing an urgent response system to immediately connect students and families with housing and using our land to build housing for families that are homeless.
There are 4,000 people who are currently homeless and living on our streets; 1,631 of them are homeless youth and families with children. Our new programs will put City College and the SFUSD on record as lead institutions working to find shelter, services, support and housing for homeless youth and their families. This will mean that 1,631 people are not solely relying on the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, freeing up resources to help end homelessness in San Francisco altogether.
San Francisco has never just accepted the unacceptable; we have always strived to tackle our big problems with big, creative and compassionate solutions. City officials during the homeless crisis will be remembered for either standing aside and saying it was too difficult, or taking action and doing the work. It’s up to us to decide which we want to be.
Matt Haney is a member of the San Francisco Board of Education. Rafael Mandelman is a City College of San Francisco Trustee.