The Guardian, April 14, 2021
By Vivian Ho
Mayor London Breed tells the Guardian the city is ramping up efforts to expand supportive housing for homeless people
San Francisco is poised to see a marked increase in funding and resources to address homelessness in the city, with local officials hopeful that the efforts will become a turning point in a longstanding crisis.
“We want to make sure that we get people off the streets into a safe, affordable place to call home. And we’re in a good place to do that,” the San Francisco mayor, London Breed, told the Guardian.
In a city of stark wealth disparities, where new tech millionaires frequently sidestep homeless encampments on their way to patio brunches, homelessness has been among the most stubborn and politically fraught issues, one in which housed voices often overtake unhoused voices in quality-of-life complaints rather than actual solutions.
Both the city and housing advocates agree that the new funding and resources provide an opportunity for change to truly take hold, but advocates warn that will only happen when authorities work with the population it is trying to reach.
Homelessness in San Francisco exploded during the pandemic, with more tents than ever popping up and more people dying in the streets in the first few months of the Covid-19 crisis than in previous years.
San Francisco met the emergency with efforts to house more homeless individuals. In a city with more than 8,000 homeless people at last count, 1,730 people are currently temporarily housed in hotel rooms and up to 260 people live at sanctioned encampments. From the hotel program, 204 additional people have transitioned into other housing options.
The city wants to build on those efforts. Breed has drawn up a Homelessness Recovery Plan centered on expanding housing options for homeless people. The plan provides for 6,000 placements and would see the city acquire 1,500 new permanent supportive housing units by the end of 2023. The plan would also provide rental vouchers for people who were recently homeless and spend 3o% of their total income on rent, allowing them to find housing throughout the city and the Bay Area.
Meanwhile, several funding sources are set to come through. Funds for homelessness services generated by a 2018 measure that taxes wealthy companies are finally available after lengthy litigation. The hotel room program that provided temporary housing for more than 2,200 individuals during the pandemic will be fully reimbursed by the federal government, and the state of California has made available funding to make some of that housing permanent.
As San Francisco ramps up its efforts for supportive housing, however, it is taking a more aggressive stance against homeless encampments.
“When we offer you an alternative to sleeping on the streets, we’re not going to let you be comfortable sleeping on the streets,” Breed said. “We’re not going to let you set up a tent and set up shop when we’re giving you a way out.”
The mayor went on to point at the industrial areas under the freeway and underpasses in San Francisco, where encampments once abounded but have recently been cleared. “Things are changing,” she said. “We have reduced tents to pre-Covid times. We don’t have large encampments.”
For many homeless people, though, the transition from an encampment to supportive housing isn’t always that easy, or clearcut. A San Francisco Public Press investigation found that nearly one in 10 of the city’s already existing supportive housing units sat empty, with Abigail Stewart-Kahn, the former interim director of the department of homelessness and supportive housing, placing the blame on individuals not accepting their placements.
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Breed told the Guardian that 15% of the people that city workers encounter encampments have hotel rooms, a number housing advocates have disputed.
But Jennifer Friedenbach, the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, said there were many reasons why an individual would refuse a housing placement. It might not be wheelchair accessible. It might separate that person from a loved one. It might not allow a pet that became like that person’s family on the streets. “When representatives of the system say people are service-resistant, what it should be read as is a system failure,” she said. “The system is failing to adequately serve a person.”
Linda Smith, 35, was allocated a hotel room at the end of November, grateful to have a place to shower and a bed in which to sleep. But the hotel has a 10pm curfew that she consistently has to miss if she wants to earn enough money making DoorDash deliveries. “I started working for DoorDash to get some kind of income to follow the steps to get permanent housing,” Smith said. “I tried to talk to my building manager about it and he said ‘nope, if you’re not back by 10 o’clock, you can’t get back in until 7 in the morning’. So what else can I do but pitch a tent?”
Hotel rules prevented her from receiving visitors, she said. She missed her friends at her encampment, and her boyfriend, who couldn’t get a room. “I’m very thankful that I have a roof over my head and I have somewhere to get rest when it’s needed, but it’s not an encouraging environment,” Smith said. “They’re making it hard to live a normal life. Do you want me to have a job? Or do you want me to sit in my room all day and do nothing?”
Smith frequently returned to the encampment where she previously lived to check on her boyfriend, Jay.
Jay died from an overdose in his tent in January. In the days before, he had seemed depressed and distant, Smith said. “He just felt like I was leaving him,” she said.
Distraught, Smith spent the next few days crying uncontrollably in their tent. “I wasn’t even able to really keep track of time,” she said. “I was just in denial. It didn’t even settle in that I had lost my partner. I just felt like if I kept believing it wasn’t true, then it wouldn’t be true.”
Smith was still in the tent when days later, a public works crew arrived to clear the encampment. “I hadn’t even gone through any of his things. I hadn’t gone through my tent. I was just stuck in disbelief,” Smith said.
With the help of other encampment residents, Smith packed Jay’s belongings on to a roll-away cart, and was wheeling the cart away when the man in charge stopped her. “He goes, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, where are you going with that’?” Smith said. “I said, ‘I’m trying to get my stuff away so you can clean’. And he said you’re not taking that stuff away. It’s all going in the trash’.”
The crew tore open her bags, she said, and threw everything into piles. “The whole time I’m hysterically crying, pleading with him, ‘please don’t do this, you don’t understand, I haven’t even had a chance to go through his things,’” Smith recalled. “And they just started throwing my belongings into the trash compactor.”
Smith continued: “One guy even had the nerve to shout to me, ‘Lady, you have to stay off the dope’ as to why I was crying hysterically. No, I wasn’t crying hysterically because I was high on dope. I was crying hysterically because you were treating me like I was nothing and you’re acting like you’re enjoying it.”
When asked about bad behavior during sweeps and how such bad behavior could lead to mistrust of the city and city services, Breed spoke highly of public works crews who had close relationships with homeless individuals and argued some unhoused people treat the public works crews poorly.
“When someone says, ‘Oh, I don’t trust the city’ while we’re offering help, we can’t do anything about that.”
She was also insistent that encampment residents displaced by sweeps were offered housing.
That’s not been the experience of every homeless individual affected by the sweeps. Brian Martin, 42, said he was never offered housing when he woke up to a crew slashing a knife through the tarp of his structure in March. Police officers handcuffed Martin and his tentmate while the crew took their belongings, he said, including an orthopedic leg brace he needs after six back surgeries and a cane. When he told them he needed his brace, “They told me shut my mouth,” he said.
With the help of housing advocates, Martin was able to secure a temporary shelter bed. But he still can’t walk. “I limp my way around,” he said.
Breed said she cannot celebrate any success while people still sleep on the streets. “When I see someone who is sleeping on the streets, whether I am mayor or not, I’m a human being. I feel really awful that this person is not able to walk into a room and sleep on a bed. My goal is to try to make that possible.”
Friedenbach of the Coalition on Homelessness said she hoped that the city could meet this moment for change. “We have an opportunity to really move the dial on homelessness, but it’s going to take political leadership to really be committed to it,” she said. “It’s going to take developing relationships with people on the streets to keep track of them so when housing opens up, you can move them in. It’s going to take hard work driven by love and empathy. That has to come through on all levels.”