After years of drought, all this rainfall feels wonderful, life-lifting and freshly healthy for our dry California earth. For folks forced to live outdoors, however, the rain feels as endless as watching a minute-hand move on a clock. Getting soaked means not only wet clothes, but no dry clothes to change into, as all your gear is soaked as well. There are no hot showers to go home to, no heater to turn on, no dryer if you are broke. Socks take forever to dry when they are inside wet shoes, corroding your skin. Colds turn into pneumonia, and there is no respite for those experiencing homelessness when they get sick.
It’s miserable out there.
Last week, our shelter waitlist for homeless people reached an all-time high, surpassing 1,200 souls — about equal to the number of beds we have for adult homeless people in San Francisco. Last year, there were a number of shelters that opened up for El Niño; The City opened up recreation centers in the South of Market area, in the Mission and in the Haight, and opened up a shelter at Pier 80. Even that was not enough; we still had only a fraction of beds for the 5,000 or so people living outdoors.
This year, emergency shelters are much harder to come by, as The City is only opening up 75 inclement-weather beds — and only when it rains solid for three days. The past two weeks of rain did not muster the opening of those beds. When they do open, notice is incredibly late and it is impossible to get word to homeless people who can benefit from them.
Under Mayor Gavin Newsom, we lost about one-third of our shelter beds and half of our drop-in center capacity. While Newsom was awful on emergency services such as these — also at the helm for a wholesale slaughter of mental health and substance treatment programs — he was very strong on supportive housing. Mayor Ed Lee, on the other hand, has been much stronger on emergency services; shoring up funding and opening up navigation centers, as well as refurbishing existing public housing. But the creation of supportive housing has taken a serious nose dive.
We only have a fraction of the units opening up each year that were enjoyed in the past — and this is taking place at the same time as a massive housing crisis that has eliminated access to more casual living arrangements. Housing options that used to be common and undesirable are now rare gems. Collectively, these factors have driven up wait times. What hasn’t changed between the last two administrations, and administrations over the past 30 years, is the lack of true investment in solutions to this crisis. We spend less then 3 percent of our city budget on homelessness. That more then anything demonstrates the low priority given to solving homelessness by The City.
Homeless people in San Francisco, not unlike most places, are disproportionately people of color (40 percent) and members of the LGBT community (30 percent). Our population is increasingly made up of people with disabilities — two-thirds of the population in the last homeless count identified as having a disabling condition. They are likely to lose 20 years of their life expectancy. As they are forced to spend longer and longer periods on the street, many are increasingly sick and traumatized. They are also more likely to be victims of violence, especially women.
The majority of homeless people (71 percent) were housed San Franciscans before they experienced homelessness. The number of homeless children in San Francisco has doubled, surpassing 3,000. While we like to blame homeless people for being on the streets as a way to make ourselves feel more comfortable, there are no housing units waiting for the thousands of people experiencing homelessness to move into, nor are there enough paying jobs for these candidates.
We are blessed with affluence in this city. We also have the visible presence of severe poverty reflecting the structural inequities in our grand city. We have chosen — at the local, state and federal level — to make those bad decisions that led us to this place, of having the most per capita wealth on the planet, while having thousands of destitute men, woman and children on our streets. If we want to end homelessness, we have to choose differently, and we can start by choosing to invest in housing, treatment and jobs for our poorest residents.
Clearly, we can no longer wait for the federal government. We must find strong revenue sources in San Francisco, double the number of housing units for homeless people and expand our emergency services, especially in underserved communities, while we are waiting for that housing to be created. We’ve got to stop leaving our fellow San Franciscans out in the rain.
Jennifer Friedenbach is the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.