Homelessness has becoming a rising issue in San Francisco lately, although it always has been here. The Financial Crisis of 2008 has led to an ever growing number of homeless people, but despite our economy coming back to a somewhat normal state, things aren’t getting much better. Social views on the homelessness seemed to have gotten better and more tolerant after the financial crisis, but maybe that’s because it was happening more and more to middle class people who have lost their jobs and ultimately lost their home, car, and relationships.
So, before I delve into what homelessness means to San Francisco, what is homelessness in the first place? The word itself is pretty self explanatory, but the National Health Care for The Homeless Council defines it as “extreme poverty coupled with a lack of stable housing”. There are different types of homelessness too, according to the National Coalition for The Homeless. The most common type that you’re likely to see on the street is chronic homelessness, which refers to people who stay homeless for an extended period of time. These people actually make up a smaller population of homeless compared to other types. There is also transitional homelessness, which usually means that the person in question, for any reason, hasn’t had a place to go home to for a while. The last type is episodic homelessness, in which people regularly become homeless then go back to another form of housing, usually because of substance abuse or mental instability. The loss of a significant other, a job or even mental illness not treated (or not treated correctly) can lead to homelessness. Nobody is homeless by choice, and the sooner we as a society realize that the closer we are to having a solution for it.
The number one reason homelessness occurs is because of a lack of affordable housing, a problem which obviously is not caused by the homeless or by any average citizen themselves. Lack of affordable housing is something many people from San Francisco know all too well, however many members of the upper and middle class can still afford adequate housing. According to The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), “the 2014 two-bedroom Housing Wage is $18.92. This national average is more than two-and-a-half times the federal minimum wage, and 52% higher than it was in 2000”. A two-bedroom in any location is a luxury, and obviously does not completely relate to most single homeless people without a spouse or children, and certainly doesn’t pertain to San Francisco, which is known for its painstakingly high rent costs. According to a San Francisco rent average report in 2013 by Priceonomics, the average cost of a one bedroom apartment is $2795. They also state that the Tenderloin was a cheaper, more affordable area with an average cost of a one bedroom at $1800. I remember looking at Craigslist back in the summer of 2013 for an apartment in the Tenderloin, and that estimate seems to have been accurate back then. However, looking at current prices for an apartment in the Tenderloin, you’d be lucky to find a studio with its own bathroom and kitchenette for $1600. You can see from this data that in San Francisco it is much harder to find affordable housing than in most other locations in the United States.
There are 6,406 homeless people in San Francisco according to the 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report. I personally don’t think this report is accurate, as their methods of a “head count” don’t seem efficient or reliable. I believe the true number must be much, much higher. One reason the “head count” method may be ineffective is because many homeless people hide themselves away at night, usually for a safety precaution. There are 48 shelters that house homeless people, which also includes the county jail and 6 hospitals. The 2013 Homeless Point in Time survey used these shelters for their count . This same study also states that 48% of the 952 people who took part in their survey were experiencing homelessness for the first time that year. As most know, San Francisco is very expensive to live in. 55% of the people who took the survey said they couldn’t afford rent, while 23% reported that they simply couldn’t find housing. These seem like strange questions to include in a survey on citywide homelessness, since at least in my opinion it seems to be quite obvious that if you can’t afford housing then you can’t find suitable housing and vice versa. In addition to those statistics, however, there are also new ones which prove that homelessness is worsening everywhere: an alarming piece of data from the Point in Time survey states that in 2013 17% of homeless people’s previous living situation was a vehicle. The 2011 statistic for that same issue was only 2%.
Unfortunately, many military veterans are homeless as well. According to the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans, there “49,933 veterans are homeless on any given night” . Lack of affordable housing, mental illness and substance abuse all attribute to veteran homelessness. The rate of PTSD is also high among veteran homelessness due to the grisly parts of war they may face and then fail to receive adequate treatment for.
The original idea I had for this project specifically was to compare the wages of San Francisco County workers, and relate that to the homelessness that surrounds our area. It’s almost infuriating to see nicely dressed city workers walk through Civic Center and act disgusted by the homeless people around them. According to an SFGate article, the average pay for a city worker is $90,000 before receiving any benefits . Many city workers also make an effort to rake in a lot of overtime, resulting in more money for salaries and less to spend on social services. I also learned that this pattern doesn’t apply to just city workers. The San Francisco Chief of Police, Greg Suhr, made $307,450 in 2014. This number doesn’t even include his benefits, which together totaled out to be $91,172 . These numbers are staggering, and seem very unfair. Why does anyone need that much money, let alone a police chief? Mayor Ed Lee doesn’t even make that much; he makes $281,537 which is still a hefty amount. Reading this might make you believe this is why we can’t afford services for the homeless. But after researching more on what the city spends on improving homeless services, I discovered that it’s quite a huge number. The proposed budget for homeless services for the 2014-2015 years is $167 million. About half of that is spent on housing services. Most of the housing facilities fail to work, because many require regular drug testing and therapy to get in. Drug addiction is high in the homeless community so a lot of people simply aren’t able to get in. And even if most did want to give up drugs and go to therapy, there still wouldn’t be enough housing for all of them.
My father worked at a homeless center for 2 years, mostly because he was well acquainted with substance abuse from past experience and thus could understand most people’s situations there. The issue he came to be aware of, like many other workers of homeless shelters and homeless people themselves, is that shelters enforce very strict rules. Drug abuse is rampant in the homeless community, so sobriety is somewhat rare. Most homeless shelters are drug free, and the staff searches everyone’s bags and open and close the shelter doors at very strict hours. This isn’t beneficial to many potential shelter residents because work hours are also strict; getting out of work and finding that the only shelter available to you is closed can be disastrous to someone just barely managing to scrape by. After some Googling around, I also found out that bug and parasite infections are extremely high in shelters because of close living quarters with others and the people there generally not being the cleanest.
There are other options besides shelters, however. Housing First, a somewhat recent aid program for the homeless requires no drug testing or therapy. It simply offers low-rent housing that many homeless can afford because of their government benefits. It is meant to be a permanent housing solution, and even has leases for the homeless coming into the program . This provides a building block for getting out of homelessness. It provides a home, which is a necessary element for stability. There is no sense in forcing sobriety among the homeless if they don’t have a stable housing situation to be sober in. Having a home also opens up possibilities for work, as they can be more easily reached and can have a billing address. It’s one of the better homeless housing programs I’ve seen, and I hope someday it can be funded even more.
A big issue which perpetuates the lack of affordable housing is greed. The lack of affordable housing doesn’t just come from nowhere. Gentrification exacerbates an already difficult housing market, and unfortunately it’s inevitable due to the rising population and San Francisco’s growing technology jobs. The technology industry isn’t the only one buying up San Francisco’s property, either. Academy of Art University (AAU) is one of the city’s biggest landlords, owning a whopping 42 properties, coming in at almost 2 million square feet of land . They have bought cheap property and converted it into expensive dormitories. A lot of these properties aren’t zoned properly either, and AAU has ignored citations until they are fined a hefty amount. A lot of these buildings could have been used for affordable housing. While AAU has taken a lot of property for the wrong reasons, an organization called HOPE SF has taken an initiative to convert old and deteriorated public housing locations into mixed-income housing. These can benefit a lot of different people, from the chronically homeless to just poorer people struggling to get by on rent.
During the course of my research, I have come up with a solution of my own, which seems logical at least to me and could benefit everyone. City workers have no right to make claims that homelessness is awful and that they are trying to help it while simultaneously making a $100,000 base salary on top of their overtime and benefits package. I believe city workers that make over $100,000 should be taxed a small percentage in addition to normal taxes, and that that amount would then be put towards a social service. It could go towards public housing, schools for homeless children and adults, and outreach programs and advertising for these services. There are quite a few services that aren’t fully utilized, and letting more people know about them can greatly benefit everyone. This solution isn’t just money based, though. Absolute change is achieved by a population’s collective desire to change it. Another thing that we should do for the homeless is have a public supply of sunscreen. Skin cancer is much higher in the homeless population, and most homeless people have no way of testing for it . You see a lot of homeless people sleep in direct sunlight, with their skin burning for hours on end. Just like there are organizations to give out free jackets to the homeless during the winter, or Goodwill programs to sell their jackets at 50% prices during the winter, we should have an easy way of getting sunscreen and hats so that the many homeless people constantly in the sun may have some added protection.
If more people were educated about the homeless and their struggles, I’m sure more would help instead of just walking by them and thinking they're a nuisance and nothing more. Schools should give out information about homelessness, and show that it is a struggle. It’s still disgusting to hear people at school, on public transit or public places talk down about homeless people. To a lot of people I’m sure they believe that if the homeless person doesn’t want to be homeless, they can get a job and pay for housing. It just isn't that easy without services that allow you to bathe, get a good nights rest, have a stable shelter and maybe even enjoy some emotional relaxation. These are things many take for granted, including me sometimes. Having the water turned off in my building is already hard enough, and that only happens every once in awhile. I can’t imagine how it would be like to live without such necessities on a daily basis.
In the end, what it boils down to is empathy paired with an effort to comprehensively solve an issue rather than just throwing money at it.
All images and text were produced by me, George Buchholz.