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Gary Kamiya | Photo: Mark Mahaney | February 28, 2015
For more than 30 years the homeless have roamed San Francisco’s streets. Are they destined to suffer here forever?
It’s 10 a.m. on a bright December morning in North Beach, and I’m walking down the pedestrian pathway east of the new library on Columbus Avenue. Approaching its northern end, I come upon two shabbily dressed, unshaven, gray-haired men. The first, standing up and loudly holding forth about something or other, looks oddly familiar. He has a strong face and a formidable nose, like a working stiff in a Truffaut film. The other guy has a big gut and a bushy beard and is sitting on a low ledge. Both are holding 16-ounce cans of malt liquor. A third man is fast asleep under a blanket a few feet away.
I ask the two men if they’d be willing to talk to me about being homeless. “Sure,” says the guy with the prominent nose, his eyes a little fuzzy. “What do you want to know, sir?” His breath reeking of booze, he tells me that his name is Mark Morgan and that he’s a dancer. “I dance every night up on Columbus and Green,” he says. That’s where I’ve seen him—outside the bank, tap-dancing to a boom box for coins. He’s got a board and tap shoes and everything. His street name, he tells me, is Tap.
I ask Tap if he sleeps around here. “Yeah. The North Beach area.” Do the police roust him out? “Oh yeah, they do sometimes. But generally they’re pretty nice. Actually, unbelievably nice. If you try to sleep outside in Santa Rosa, San Rafael, or something, they mess you up. They make you move around, follow you around. But San Francisco’s great. I dance on the street. I used to do it down at Fisherman’s Wharf, but there’s one bad cop down there, so I just moved up to Columbus and Green. Otherwise, the city’s cool. You can be whoever you want to be.”
Tap tells me that he came to San Francisco 12 years ago. “I’m from Santa Rosa. I could live in a big house there—a friend’s house; he owns a construction company. But I choose to be here because I can dance every day here. That’s why I’m here—because I’m a dancer, and that’s what I do.”
“If you had a place to stay inside,” I ask, “would you prefer that?”
“I don’t like sleeping on the streets,” he answers. “But you know what I like doing? I just love dancing. Everything else is secondary.”
“If the city offered you a place to stay and you could keep dancing, would you take it?”
“Well, let me tell you the truth about that,” Tap tosses back. “As soon as you put your shit in the house”—a shelter—“somebody is going to rob you. That’s why I left the last shelter. Because I’m an alcoholic. Yes, I am, sorry to say that, but yes, I am. They stole all my shit, and I left. But you know what? I’m not mad. They ain’t all good apples—unfortunately, I got one bad one. But I can dance like a motherfucker. You want me to dance for you right now?”
I say “Sure,” and Tap goes over and starts fumbling with his boom box. “We’re low on batteries,” he says, “so I don’t know if it’s gonna play too hard.”
While he cues up the music and gets out his tap board, I start talking to the other man, who introduces himself as Floyd Griffith. His skin is unhealthily sallow, and his belly protrudes like a bowling ball under his shirt, but his face is sincere and his story fairly lucid.
“I’m a United States Navy veteran,” Floyd says. “I did my time in Orlando, Florida, RTC/NTC. I had some AWOLs on my record, because I had a girlfriend who was pregnant, and I wanted to come back and get things right with her. So I came back to Santa Rosa. I’m a lead singer—I sang live over the air on KMPX up in Lakeport in 1996—and I’m a portrait artist. And when I was a real young man—you can’t tell now because I have cirrhosis of the liver—I was a boxer. I qualified for the eliminations for the Junior Olympics in 1973. I was a featherweight, 126 pounds.”
I ask Floyd how he ended up homeless. “After I got out of the navy, I went into prison. Originally I went in because I hit an ex-cop in the nose and busted his nose and ended up in jail over a battery.” He relates a confusing story about how he worked as a runner for a jailhouse crime syndicate but “had to escape every time. I’d skim half of the profits, but eventually it cost me. I went to jail at Vacaville, Jamestown, Susanville. Eventually I ended up doing time with my own father at Tracy, at DVI [Deuel Vocational Institute]. They used to call it gladiator school. And after that I came back again in 1998 from Santa Rosa. I jumped bail and have been living here since 1998. Always in North Beach.” He wanders off into a story about George Foreman and some big Russian guy he fought, and Tap breaks in: “He’s rambling.”
Floyd keeps going. “When I was young, what I was really good at was literature and arts. I would write stories. And I was really in tune with the times, the athletes, the presidents, what was going on during the decades. There’s this song that Dion did after he split from the Belmonts...” He begins to sing:
Has anybody here seen my old friend John?
Can you tell me where’s he gone?
He freed a lot of people, but the good, they die young.
I looked around, and he was gone.
His voice is weather-beaten but still true, and in those unexpectedly clear notes I can hear the singer and the man that he once was. Looking at his ravaged, yellow face as he sings about a man lost to time, I find myself on the verge of tears.
The boom box starts playing—Tap is on his board and tapping away. His feet are quick and staccato, and he’s got the moves down. “I can’t sing,” he crows, “but I can dance!”
To meet men like Tap Morgan and Floyd Griffith, to hear their stories of addiction, loss, misspent years, and wasted talent, is to come face-to-face with one of the great disgraces of American life. In one of the richest countries in the world, hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of men, women, and children sleep on the streets every night. They suffer from hunger, disease, mental illness, and alcoholism. They are attacked, robbed, and sometimes—as happened last November to a 67-year-old man named Tai Lam on Sutter Street—beaten to death as they sleep. In many cities, they are treated like medieval lepers—shunned, shamed, and driven outside the walls. Even in the most tolerant places, like San Francisco, they provoke frustration, weariness, and anger as often as compassion—when their existence even registers at all. The truth is, we have grown jaded about the homeless in this city and this country. Over the last three decades, they have become part of the urban scenery. Yet this standing army of misery and despair is a visceral refutation of everything our society claims to stand for.
To anyone who’s dwelt here for a number of years, it’s clear that San Francisco has a chronic and humiliating homeless problem. Even as the city undergoes another of its seismic transformations, with new skyscrapers piercing the horizon, gleaming apartment buildings popping up every month, and startup companies sprouting from every crack and corner like sour grass, one thing has not changed about its landscape: the homeless. For more than 30 years, they’ve been as permanent a part of San Francisco as the cable cars or the Golden Gate Bridge. The question that many of us continue to ask is: Why? Why can’t we treat this disease? Why are our streets eternally haunted by the vulnerable, the helpless, and the sick?
It’s not only a sense of altruism that provokes these inquiries, but also one of pride, and, more depressing, of shame. Here, far more than in most American cities, the homeless are spectacularly visible—found not just in some blighted skid row, but in our most vibrant neighborhoods: Union Square, Fisherman’s Wharf, mid-Market, the financial district, the Marina, North Beach, and the Mission. The sheer number of destitute, desperate people on the city streets has created the common belief (ask any tourist) that San Francisco has the worst homeless problem in the country.
It doesn’t—not even close. “San Francisco is not by any stretch of the imagination the homeless capital of the United States,” says Jeff Kositsky, executive director of the nonprofit Hamilton Family Center, which provides housing and social services for homeless families. “We don’t have any more homeless, either families or single adults, than other cities.” The latest available numbers bear out his assertion: According to federally mandated “point-in-time” homeless surveys—city-specific audits conducted every other year on a single night in late January (and an admittedly controversial metric that many experts insist undercounts the true number of homeless people)— San Francisco had 6,436 homeless in 2013, out of a population of 837,442. By comparison, other large cities with exorbitant costs of living fared even worse. Washington, D.C., had a greater number of homeless, 7,748, out of a much smaller population of 646,449. Honolulu had 4,712 homeless out of a population of 374,658. Closer to home, cities like Los Angeles (34,393), San Jose (7,567), and Seattle (8,949) all tallied more homeless people than did San Francisco, though those numbers represent countywide, not citywide, totals.
The reason that San Francisco appears to have a more serious problem with homelessness than other American cities is simple: They exist in plain sight—we don’t run our transients out of town. The most telling comparison is with New York. The nation’s largest city has by far the biggest homeless population in the country—a staggering (and increasing) 67,810. Yet, as anyone who has been to Manhattan can attest, far fewer indigent people are visible on its streets than in central San Francisco. Under the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations, the police began taking a harder line on the homeless, rounding them up and enforcing “quality of life” laws. Current mayor Bill di Blasio has sounded a more tolerant note, but policies have not changed significantly. Other cities have essentially criminalized homelessness, passing laws against feeding homeless people and making it illegal to sit, sleep, beg, or camp in public. Their homeless, unlike ours, are out of sight and out of mind.
But even if San Francisco’s homeless crisis is not worse than those in other large cities, it is still very much a crisis—one that has endured for more than three decades. Here in this city of almost inconceivable wealth and privilege, the glittering hood ornament on the Ferrari of America’s resurgent economy, more than 4,000 people were sleeping on sidewalks or in parks or encampments every night in 2013. Another 2,000 were sleeping in shelters, treatment facilities, hospitals, or jails. Untold numbers of others, not deemed homeless in official counts, were doubled up, sleeping on couches and scrambling for indoor shelter. Perhaps most shocking, an SFUSD count in 2014 found more than 2,000 homeless students in the public schools. (This figure includes 485 children in shelters or transitional housing and 1,300 children living in motels or doubled up.) And the city’s numbers may have worsened: Some anticipate that thanks to soaring housing costs, the recently completed 2015 point-in-time count will show a significant increase in homelessness.
And yet, no one can accuse San Francisco of ignoring the problem. Indeed, some experts consider the city a leader in responding to homelessness. It has spent about $1.5 billion on homeless programs in the last decade and has six times more supportive housing units per capita than cities like New York, Los Angeles, and San Jose. It can point to significant accomplishments: In the last 10 years it has built 2,699 units of long-term supportive housing. It has permanently housed 11,362 formerly homeless people. Its Homeward Bound family reunification program, which gives homeless people free bus tickets and a route back to a potentially supportive household, has taken another 8,000 off the streets. And the number of chronic homeless has dropped from 4,039 in 2009 to 1,977 in 2013. (The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the federal agency responsible for addressing homelessness, defines a chronically homeless individual as someone with a disabling condition who has either been continuously homeless for one year or more or had four or more episodes of homelessness within the last three years.) But these positive outcomes can’t mask a singularly devastating fact: The total number of homeless people sleeping on our streets is essentially the same as it was in 2005, when then-mayor Gavin Newsom launched his 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness. There were 6,248 homeless then, and there were 6,436 in 2013 (the results of the 2015 point-in-time count won’t be released until later this year). Indeed, the homeless total hasn’t really budged for 25 years: In 1990, there were about 6,000 homeless.
How, after all of the city’s investments, can it be faced with a virtually identical situation a quarter century later? Interviews with dozens of people involved with every aspect of homelessness—advocates, heads of nonprofits, elected officials, city bureaucrats, mental health professionals, social workers, private individuals, and homeless people themselves—make it clear just how difficult winning the battle against homelessness has been and will continue to be. The foremost problem is one that most San Franciscans are achingly aware of: There’s more demand for housing than there is supply. And whatever housing we do create specifically for the homeless soon fills up—in part because hundreds of new indigent people appear here every year. Some are from San Francisco or elsewhere in the Bay Area, others from around the state and the country. This Sisyphean situation has led to increasing frustration among citizens and politicians alike. “We can’t keep pushing the same policies and programs and realistically expect to have a different result,” says District 2 supervisor Mark Farrell, who has made addressing homelessness a personal crusade. “We have to change the status quo.”
Distressingly, there is not even consensus on whether we as a city are making progress or losing ground. Some see the past decade of essential stasis in homeless numbers as evidence of a calamitous failure; others point out that considering that places like New York are doing worse, the plateau in San Francisco’s numbers is nothing to be ashamed of. Nor is there agreement about whether we’re fighting homelessness the right way. Critics say that San Francisco’s present system, in which two different city agencies overlap with a network of nonprofits, is opaque, redundant, and in need of an overhaul. Others insist that it’s the best system in the country, its flaws due to the fact that providing social services to the homeless is a messy, all-too-human enterprise and not an easily tweaked algorithm. Finally, there’s the question of resources. Advocates say that the city has reneged on its commitment to the homeless and needs to ramp up its funding. Others, including some progressive activists, retort that the homeless have already sucked up enough of the city’s resources, and that the government needs to turn its full attention to helping the beleaguered middle class and working poor.
Of course, San Francisco didn’t create the contemporary homeless crisis. Many factors led to it: loss of blue-collar jobs, deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, widespread drug use, the rise of an urban underclass, and the return of traumatized Vietnam vets in the ’70s. But the most critical factor was drastically reduced federal spending on low-income housing. Cuts began under the Carter administration in the late ’70s and were drastically expanded by Ronald Reagan, who also slashed crucial social-safety-net programs. We’re still grappling with the consequences of those decades-old decisions. Short of extraordinary changes at the federal level to reverse those long-standing cuts, there is no magic solution to ending homelessness in San Francisco—one city cannot single-handedly solve a national problem. Even so, experts say, there are steps that could be taken locally to produce an immediate positive impact. While the homeless may always be with us, we need to ensure that we are helping them in the most effective ways possible. For the city named after Francis of Assisi, a nobleman who gave away everything he had when he saw a poor man on the street, nothing less is acceptable.
At 5 p.m. on a mild winter afternoon, the ragged line of humanity on Bryant Street stretches around the corner and 50 yards down Fifth Street. Some of the people are sitting against the wall, others stand. Most are middle-aged or older; a few are talking to themselves. They have lined up to get a bed or a mat for the night, or a bed in another shelter, or just a chair in which they can sit upright all night long until they are sent back out onto the street the next morning.
This is MSC-South, the largest shelter in Northern California: 200 beds and 145 one-night mats. It’s a helter-skelter place, both a survivor of a failed progressive plan to end homelessness and a key part of the functioning but inadequate system that we have now. And its story sheds a harsh light on San Francisco’s long, seemingly unwinnable war against homelessness.
When the homeless first began appearing on the streets of San Francisco around 1982, Mayor Dianne Feinstein, like every other American politician, was caught off guard. Perhaps understandably, she saw their presence as a short-term nuisance sparked by a recession and did not expect them to stick around forever. She introduced a program labeled Hotline Hotel, in which the city rented squalid single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotel rooms in the Tenderloin and stashed the homeless there for nightly or weekly stays. This Band-Aid approach did nothing to solve the worsening problem.
When Art Agnos became mayor in 1988, he promoted a more comprehensive approach, called Beyond Shelter, that combined housing with supportive services. The centerpieces of this program were two highly touted “multiservice centers” that provided both beds and counseling. The centers were the precursors of today’s more sophisticated “centralized-intake” or “single-intake” centers, walk-in facilities that offer screening and services in one place. But conditions in the shelters (one of them MSC-South) were dreadful, the staff was insufficient, and the centers did not live up to expectations. Agnos was never able to fund the rest of his ambitious program to fight homelessness, and in 1992, the issue cost him his job: Weary of a homeless encampment in Civic Center dubbed “Camp Agnos,” San Francisco voters dumped the incumbent in favor of former police chief Frank Jordan, who had run on a clean-up-the-homeless platform. Under Jordan’s Matrix program, police issued tens of thousands of citations to homeless people for violating quality-of-life laws against sleeping in public, public drunkenness, public urination, panhandling, trespassing, and so on. Matrix succeeded in removing many homeless people from the streets for a while, but they came back.
In many ways, the fate of Agnos’s and Jordan’s plans encapsulates the entire history of America’s response to homelessness: Budget-strapped municipalities, without access to the vast resources necessary to solve the problem and facing heat from voters and business interests, decide to simply make the homeless go away by essentially declaring them criminals. San Francisco eventually rejected Jordan’s enforcement strategy—the program was scrapped by incoming mayor Willie Brown in 1996—but since then the city has only succeeded in treading water. MSC-South, still encircled by long lines of homeless people 25 years later, stands as a soul-crushing monument to the gap between high hopes and harsh reality.
When I visit MSC-South, the first person in line is an old woman sitting on the sidewalk, mumbling to herself and eating Chinese food out of a takeout container. Behind her, a middle-aged, bearded man with a bone-tired face and a distant expression nods wearily when I ask him for an interview. He gives his name only as Sean and his age as 50 years. Conversing with Sean feels like talking on a long-distance phone line with an intermittent three- or four-second delay: At times he stares off into space and doesn’t react to what is said to him; at other times he seems alert and answers quickly.
I ask Sean how he became homeless. “I’m on disability,” he says. “It’s my back. I’ve got scoliosis. It’s been like this for 10 years—I’m pretty much in chronic pain. Not much they can do about it.” He tells me that he used to work for PG&E, but lost his job at some point and then, a little over a year ago, fell behind on his rent. “I couldn’t find a place that was cheaper. My friend put me up for a while. Then I started staying in shelters, and I applied for low-income housing.”
What did that entail? “You gotta pound the pavement,” Sean says. “You gotta go to the places you haven’t applied and get on the 311 list,” a waiting list that allows homeless people to call and reserve a place in a shelter. He has just finished the maximum 120-day stay at Next Door shelter (the former MSC-North) and is seeking another placement. “It usually takes four weeks on the waiting list to get a 120-day stay,” he continues. “That’s where I am now, doing one- to three-night stays in shelters while I wait. I’m also on a different waiting list for permanent housing.” He has gone through this whole process, he tells me, three or four times in the last year or so.
Unlike those too mentally ill, too addled by drugs or booze, or simply too alienated to cope with the bureaucracy, Sean grasps how the system operates and is trying to make it work for him. Here on this bleak corner in SoMa, San Francisco’s homeless infrastructure is functioning, after a fashion. Meanwhile, at the head of the line, the old woman with the Chinese carton is banging on the door and yelling, “Let me in! I need to go to the bathroom!” Sean snorts contemptuously. I ask him where he used to sleep on the streets. “I went all over,” he says. “Here and there.” Another vacant stare. “I kept trying to move. But you end up in the same shit.”
If San Francisco is ever to turn the tide against homelessness, it will do so one Sean at a time—by housing each homeless person and helping him achieve what he is capable of achieving. Sean is someone who might be able to hold down some kind of job. Tap and Floyd in North Beach might never be able to work, but they could use substance abuse counseling, medical checkups, and housing. Every one of the 6,436 homeless people in San Francisco has a different set of needs.
Who are the homeless? Some advocates and case workers argue that many are just ordinary people who’ve had a bad break. “Homelessness is not a clinical state,” says Jackie Jenks, executive director of Hospitality House, one of the oldest and most respected San Francisco nonprofits in the field. “It’s a state of poverty. It’s not because there’s something wrong with the homeless—it’s because they don’t have an option because of the market and because of other socioeconomic factors. It really could be any of us.”
But most experts, while agreeing that the homeless are not to blame for a situation rooted in endemic poverty, don’t buy the “homeless people are just like us” construction. One such authority is Peter Field, a social worker specializing in mental health issues who has worked with homeless people for almost three decades, first as a line supervisor for Conard House and other nonprofits in the Tenderloin and now as a case manager with San Mateo County. “The mythical client who had a spell of bad luck and just needs a little help to get back to being a normal working member of society, which is what he was before—maybe that client exists somewhere on the planet, but I’ve never met him,” Field says. “Homeless people’s problems are almost always a lot more complex than that. If your problems were that simple, your friends and family would take care of you until you got back on your feet again.”
Experts also point out that living on the streets takes a heavy toll even on high-functioning people. “Just being homeless is so traumatizing that it will exacerbate mental illness, or even trigger it,” says David Elliott Lewis, cochair of San Francisco’s Mental Health Board, which advises on the city’s mental health policies and reviews city-funded programs.
Other observers contend that the homeless are best understood as part of a permanent American underclass. Kevin Fagan, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle who has been covering homelessness both here and nationwide for more than 10 years, points out that approximately 30 percent of the country’s population is either at or near the poverty level. “When you have that kind of ingrained poverty, the people who end up being chronically homeless grew up without any support or chance for growth or underpinnings to begin with,” he says. “It doesn’t work to say, ‘Let’s help them get back on their feet,’ when they were never on their feet to begin with.” Lewis goes so far as to say that for some on the street, homelessness is tantamount to a natural condition. “Even if we have housing on demand, we will always have a certain number of homeless people on our streets who are there by choice,” he says. “A small percentage of humans are just naturally feral.”
Given the unstable nature of the homeless population, it’s not surprising that virtually every city across the country has struggled to contain the epidemic. In San Francisco, the system operates as follows. Homeless people may apply for various types of housing: bare-bones shelters; shelters with limited resources; transitional housing, which offers supportive services and allows stays of up to nine months for single adults and up to two years for families; or long-term supportive housing. About 180 units of rehabilitated public housing were also recently made available. In addition to city-run housing and services, which are handled primarily by the Department of Public Health (DPH) and the Human Services Agency (HSA), a crucial constellation of nonprofits, most located in District 6 (which includes the crime-ridden Tenderloin and South of Market), provide housing, food, counseling, and other services.
The problem with this system lies in the fact that there is neither enough housing nor enough supportive services. The waiting list is long for every type of housing—even the shelters, which are disliked by every homeless person with whom I spoke, are at 97 percent capacity. Bevan Dufty, the city’s respected, if insufficiently empowered, homeless czar, reports that he spends about a third of his time in direct contact with homeless individuals and families, often working the phones to find them places to sleep at night. Nor are there enough counselors and case managers. The counselor-to-client ratios at supportive housing can be as high as 1 to 100, instead of the 1 to 30 it should be. The city’s homeless outreach program, vital to encouraging homeless people to utilize housing and services, is understaffed; though Farrell was able to push funding through the Board of Supervisors last year to double the program’s personnel, only four to eight outreach workers are on the streets at any given time.
In fiscal year 2012–2013, San Francisco paid out $165.7 million (not counting the millions spent by nonprofits) to run this somewhat chaotic, ad hoc system, according to a report issued by the city's Budget and Legislative Analyst's Office. Later figures are not available (spending on homelessness is not a line item in the city’s budget), but it’s safe to assume that it’s spending that much, or more, this year. In one respect, at least, the outlay appears to have been effective: Homelessness has not increased dramatically over the previous decade—which, considering the housing crisis and the constant inflow of homeless people, may actually be a decent achievement. But if the city is ever to make real progress, it has to do much better: It must reduce the inflow, assist the existing population more effectively, increase the housing supply, and learn to help occupants of supportive housing muster the resources to eventually move out. If it doesn’t succeed, we’ll be stuck with the status quo, spending more and more money just to keep our heads above the ever-rising flood.
Kara Zordel believes San Francisco is capable of solving its homeless problem—permanently. “We have what we need,” she says. “We’re just not mobilizing it efficiently. That’s what’s so frustrating to me about this issue. Until we start mobilizing things differently, nothing’s going to change.”
Zordel is the founder of Project Homeless Connect, a nonprofit that five times a year holds daylong events during which the manifold needs of homeless people—from teeth cleaning to eyeglass fitting to job counseling to housing assistance—can be handled at one time and in one place. The events are staffed entirely by volunteers: “One in 27 San Franciscans has either volunteered or donated to PHC,” Zordel says. “You always hear ‘San Franciscans don’t care,’ and that’s wrong. They do care. They just don’t know what to do to fix things.”
Zordel, a former UNICEF staffer, speaks about homelessness with the infectious passion of an evangelist. “We say, ‘Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses.’ That’s bullshit! Because if you’re poor and tired and hungry, you’re sleeping outside! What do you mean, ‘Bring me your...’?” San Franciscans have been made increasingly cynical, Zordel says, by the failure of their city and its nonprofit organizations to solve the crisis. “People are really burned out,” she says. “I don’t think that the community trusts nonprofits anymore. We nonprofits need to change our way of thinking—we need to be results-oriented, not heart-oriented.” She proposes a new approach: “First, we need to coordinate services through some type of interagency database. Right now there are maybe 10 [agencies and organizations] working with the same homeless person. DPH might be seeing somebody in its clinic; S.F. General might be seeing him at its hospital; then he might be staying the night at the Gubbio Project; and he might be getting food at St. Anthony’s. If we have a way of coordinating the care so that we’re all giving the same message and people aren’t dropping through those cracks, that’s really going to make a huge change.”
“The second thing we have to do is to have a one-place-in-time homeless center,” Zordel continues, “where if somebody is homeless, he can walk in and get assigned a case manager who stays with him—it could be 20 to 40 years—from that day until the day he’s completely stabilized and housed.” Without that crucial permanent caseworker, she says, people fall off the radar. “The case manager is the single most important thing.”
In the end, both of Zordel’s main ideas for structural change in San Francisco’s human-services archipelago are aimed at one thing: creating a lasting relationship with the homeless person. “The first step is engagement,” she says. “You cannot just give someone housing and change his life. It doesn’t work that way. You have to create a relationship and understand your participant. It’s relationships that change people. It’s not money.”
While other experts agree with Zordel that redundancy, confusion, and poor communication among city agencies constitute a problem, most of them don’t see it as the most pressing problem. “I think that there’s a fair amount of coordination between the services,” says Dufty. He notes that although the city is working to upgrade communications, confidentiality laws prohibit the DPH from sharing client files with the HSA. “We’re not at the point where we have a dossier for every single homeless client and we know exactly all the services that they’ve been getting,” admits HSA director Trent Rhorer, “but we know much more about homeless folks than maybe some comments would indicate.”
“I’ve been around a lot of different conversations about databases and systems, and I’m personally just a little bit frustrated by that,” agrees Hospitality House’s Jenks. “I think systems could always be improved, but the more important thing is that there’s a supply issue. We are losing affordable housing stock in the market. People need to get off the street, and creating housing units for those folks is the crux of the problem, not how we shuffle people around an assessment system.”
In fact, the city is taking important steps toward the targeted, comprehensive, one-stop-shopping approach that Zordel envisions. In his State of the City address in mid-January, Mayor Ed Lee announced a pilot “Navigation Center,” to be located on Mission near 16th Street. The facility will provide temporary shelter to homeless people in the neighborhood—along with their possessions, partners, dogs, and carts—as well as intense support from a roving service team of master’s-level clinicians and nurses. Once people are stabilized, the city will try to find them long-term supportive housing. Toward that end, San Francisco has committed itself to adding up to 500 units of supportive housing, mostly in smaller SROs in the Mission and elsewhere, in the coming fiscal year.
The Navigation Center, which is being underwritten by municipal and private entities, is a localized, highly sophisticated version of the multiservice center that was first envisioned in the ’80s by Mayor Agnos. Its whole point is to attract people who refuse to stay in emergency shelters, like Tap and Floyd, into supportive housing—and if it succeeds, it will ease demand on a lot of city services: A homeless person living on the street costs the city somewhere around $60,000, compared to $20,000 if he or she is in supportive housing. Rhorer points out that the $40,000 is not a cash savings, but the value of freed-up time that service providers could devote to other tasks: Cops have more important things to do than breaking up homeless encampments, and a doctor treating a homeless person for acute alcohol poisoning is a doctor who’s not fixing a kid’s broken arm.
Advocates for the homeless, while encouraged by the recent actions of the Lee administration, believe that they’re not nearly enough. They argue, correctly, that the only lasting solution to homelessness is the creation of more housing. But in San Francisco, that’s the most intractable problem of them all.
It's a tautology, but it’s true: The way to end homelessness is to get people into homes. But 30-plus years into this crisis, providing housing for all the San Francisco homeless who need it has proved an impossible task. Short of a tectonic shift in federal policies, a massive cash infusion from the private sector, and/or unprecedented coordination between financial institutions, private corporations, and governmental agencies, that isn’t likely to change.
The problem is straightforward: San Francisco doesn’t have enough affordable housing stock to permanently house the thousands of homeless people who are here now, let alone the hundreds (or thousands) who are going to appear on our streets every year for the foreseeable future. Most homeless people live in refurbished SROs, and there simply aren’t enough of those buildings left. “San Francisco has done an incredible job of maximizing its hotel SROs for homeless people,” says Randy Shaw of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic (THC), a nonprofit that for decades has contracted with the city to run SROs housing the homeless and the very poor. “But we’ve taken over so much of the housing. There are a few hundred more units available, but at some point we will reach the limit—literally. Every hotel owner who wants to lease a hotel to low-income people, veterans, whatever, will have done so.”
When the SROs run out, the astronomical cost of real estate in San Francisco will make the remaining housing options far more expensive. In 2014, the city spent roughly $80 million on more than 6,000 long-term supportive housing units, mostly in SROs leased by the city and run by nonprofits—which works out to about $13,000 per unit a year. (The city, however, has no equity in the housing—Shaw laments Dianne Feinstein’s failure to buy cheap SRO hotels back in the 1980s.) Construction of a single new unit in today’s market would run at least $150,000, probably closer to $200,000. At that rate, creating enough units to house our 6,500 homeless would cost over a billion dollars—more than 12 percent of the city’s entire annual budget. In other words: not an option.
But Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the longtime advocacy group Coalition on Homelessness, says that if San Francisco had the political will, it could go a long way toward solving its homeless problem. First, it could save enormous sums by housing its homeless on city-owned property. “The shipyards, the place where they took down the Fell Street freeway—all of that is city land” that could be repurposed for housing, she says. Friedenbach is convinced that making use of this city property—combined with investing $60 million in housing and spending more on anti-eviction programs and shallow rent subsidies to prevent vulnerable people like seniors and those with AIDS from losing their apartments—would turn the tide.
While praising homeless czar Dufty—“He’s very hardworking, which is certainly a first”—Friedenbach blasts his boss’s budget priorities. “Mayor Lee has moved away from his commitment to housing homeless people in a big way,” she says. “Under [previous mayors] Brown and Newsom, the Mayor’s Office of Housing was aggressively committed to making sure that a large percentage of units went to homeless people, and under this mayor, that’s definitely come to a halt. City-funded housing has shifted rather dramatically toward affordable from homeless. It’s going to mean huge increases in homelessness over the next few years.”
In response to Friedenbach’s charges, Dufty points out that the homeless units created by Mayor Newsom were paid for with a massive cash surplus (now exhausted) stemming from implementation of his Care Not Cash program, which drastically cut cash payments to homeless recipients in favor of providing guaranteed housing. Asked why the city isn’t allocating resources to acquiring new homeless housing, Dufty kicks the question upstairs: “The Mayor’s Office of Housing builds housing. I don’t build it. I go out and I tie it up,” he says. HSA head Rhorer denies that the Lee administration is spending less on housing the homeless, and adds that the city also has a responsibility to help poor and working-class people affected by the housing crisis. “OK, there are 6,000 homeless in San Francisco,” he says. “How many people in need of affordable housing are there? How many single adults and families do we think are struggling with acute housing needs or are doubled or tripled up? A lot more than 6,000. So do the math. Does that argue for a higher allocation of public resources toward that [not-homeless] population? I think you could make a sound public policy argument that it does.”
Even some of Friedenbach’s fellow progressives don’t believe that the city’s top housing priority should be the homeless. “You have to look at fairness and balance of resources,” says the THC’s Shaw. “We’re looking at more than 2,000 people permanently housed through Care Not Cash. It’s a huge number of permanently funded units. And then look at people who have a job, who make $30,000 or $35,000, and how many units are we helping them on? It’s barely anything. We need to house that population. I would not say that it’s the best use of city money to continually focus it on the poorest of the poor when we’ve done a lot already.”
Supervisor Farrell also points out that the city’s budget has to pay for more than just housing. “It’s very easy to look at our budget and say, ‘Well, let’s just slice off a few million here or $60 million there,’” Farrell says. “But those people are not sitting in my office, chairing our budget committee and realizing that we are responsible for everything—from funding our parks, paving our roads, and creating housing for the homeless to making sure that we have a water system and an airport that are operational and efficient. Our residents rightfully expect a great deal from our city government, but it isn’t as easy as just saying, ‘Fund 100 percent of this one problem in spite of everything else that people are advocating for.’ It doesn’t work that way.”
Beyond the limited resources available for homeless housing, San Francisco faces a unique geographical challenge: Most of the housing and services for its poor and homeless are concentrated in one small area of downtown—the Tenderloin—and, to a lesser degree, the Mission district. For structural reasons, that is unlikely to ever change. Huge nonprofits like St. Anthony’s and Glide, which feed and serve thousands of indigent people a day, are not going to relocate. The SROs, where most homeless people live, are not going to magically move to the Excelsior or the Outer Mission or Hunters Point. And creating new housing outside of downtown can be tricky: The city’s effort to open a 100-bed homeless shelter in the Bayview has met with heavy resistance. However, while there are advantages to the concentration of services for the homeless in one area—it’s easy for people living downtown to get everything they need—they’re outweighed by the fact that the Tenderloin is overrun with drug dealers, street criminals, addicts, and the mentally ill.
Ronnie Goodman, a homeless artist whose work is rapidly gaining recognition, chooses to sleep under the James Lick Freeway near Harrison and 11th Streets rather than live in the Tenderloin. “Since I’m an ex–drug addict, I have to be careful about what areas I live in,” Goodman says. “They wanted to put me over there by Turk Street, but I turned it down. I’d rather be clean and sober and living on the street than living in a crazy place with 24-hour- a-day, seven-day-a-week drug use.”
The Tenderloin reality is a major reason that it would not be easy for San Francisco to emulate Salt Lake City, which has received national publicity for dramatically reducing its homeless population. The Chronicle’s Fagan, who has reported on Salt Lake City’s program, is among those who believe that a big part of San Francisco’s homelessness problem stems from geographic destiny, not political neglect. “San Francisco is doing all the right things in terms of the current thinking,” he says. “Salt Lake City essentially did what we do, but they put their housing outside of downtown. All of San Francisco’s main homeless services are located right downtown, so the same people are in the same environment. They may be housed, but they’re in the same crowd of junkies and people who don’t have a plan to get ahead.”
Making the situation on the downtown streets even more complicated—and also contributing to the perception that San Francisco’s homeless population is larger than it is—is the fact that many of the people who habitually drink, do drugs, relieve themselves, or just hang out downtown are not actually homeless. They’re poor people, many with the same mental health and addiction problems that plague the homeless, who have nowhere to go but their cramped SRO rooms. There is no obvious answer to this problem. Rhorer says that the city is aggressively looking to locate supportive housing units outside the Tenderloin, but that the supply is finite.
Compounding the housing shortage is the fact that many people who secure supportive housing don’t leave—ever. Most supportive housing is not intended to be permanent: Its recipients are supposed to “climb the housing ladder,” graduating to affordable housing and then, ideally, to market-rate housing. When few people leave supportive housing, housing the homeless becomes a zero-sum game: For someone to get in, someone else has to get out.
Not surprisingly, Mayor Lee, who grew up in public housing in Seattle, has made addressing this issue a priority; according to Supervisor Farrell, the mayor is working with him on ways to incentivize people to leave supportive housing. But many experts are skeptical, doubting that an extremely poor person in this very expensive city would choose to pay higher rent if his current housing were adequate. “The people who stay here at our hotels—you can’t expect them to transition out,” says Shaw. “You have unemployed people who are 55 years old. They’re not going to get jobs.”
A more unorthodox solution to the housing problem might be to create homeless encampments using pop-up structures—tiny houses like Home Depot sheds, or heavy canvas tents like those at Yosemite’s Curry Village. Las Cruces, New Mexico, has had success with a tent city, and Seattle is considering building one as well. A budget for onsite counselors and security would be required to prevent the encampments from devolving into lawless jungles. But each structure would cost only a few thousand dollars, making it theoretically possible to house every homeless person in San Francisco for less than $20 million.
The Mental Health Board’s Lewis enthusiastically supports the tent idea. “I would like to see homeless encampments, safe spaces for the homeless to congregate where outreach workers can go in and provide them with services and engage them in treatment programs,” he says. Critics, however, claim that the track record of such encampments is spotty—and city officials everywhere tend to regard a tent city as an admission of defeat. Homeless czar Dufty rejects the idea out of hand. “It becomes the new normal. You have families with children living in tents. It’s not good for an individual’s health or well-being.”
There is no single approach to rehabilitation that will work with every homeless person. But there are promising efforts.
At the Downtown Streets Team’s weekly “success meeting,” held on a January afternoon in a large room at All Saint’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, close to 50 homeless and formerly homeless people are seated in folding chairs, cheering as attendees rise to share their achievements. The vibe in the room, with its cargo of ragged-ass, beaten-up, undefeated people, is ebullient—part church revival and part 12-step meeting, with a little hiring hall and job fair thrown in. As people get up and tell their stories, they’re interrupted by shouts of “Go, Kevin!” and “Yeah!” Intermittently, a procession of clean-cut, impossibly cheerful staffers relay practical information about jobs, housing, and classes.
The moving force behind Downtown Streets Team (DST) is Eileen Richardson, a woman who is not your typical homeless-nonprofit head: The first chief executive officer of Napster, she became interested in homelessness nine years ago after walking into a Palo Alto food bank to volunteer. A few months later, she was the assistant manager. Next she moved to a program, sponsored by a downtown improvement group, that aimed to stop panhandling by giving homeless people work cleaning the streets, for which they were reimbursed with gift cards. There she came up with two key innovations: hiring counselors and holding weekly success meetings. DST, which she went on to start with only $50,000, now has a staff of 40 and a nearly $4 million budget. It operates branches in Palo Alto, San Jose, Sunnyvale, and San Rafael and is looking to open one in San Francisco. “We run it like a high-tech company. It’s the only way I know,” Richardson says. Key to this philosophy is paying the talent well: Entry-level employees at DST make about $44,000, considerably more than comparable staffers at many other nonprofits.
DST is a simple program that offers homeless people two things: work experience and hands-on, high-quality human support. When a homeless person joins up, he or she is given a distinctive yellow T-shirt and an assignment to clean up public areas with a team of fellow homeless people. Team members can work between 8 and 20 hours a week—for every two hours of labor, they earn $10 worth of gift cards and vouchers to pay for food, housing, and transportation. Meanwhile, DST staffers help them every step of the long, hard way up from the streets—with housing, with addiction, with personal issues, and with job applications. DST’s ultimate goal for its members is employment, and its track record is impressive: Of the estimated 1,500 people who have gone through the DST program since 2009, more than 300 have landed a job and held it for at least three months. A similar number have been housed.
An older man named Leonard Jackson stands up to share his recent success. “I got housed. Thanks to DST,” he says to rousing applause. “As well as getting housed, my friend offered me a driving position. I’m very thankful to everyone here for their support. I feel blessed, so blessed. I just love all of you so much there are no words. Without you I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Everyone cheers Jackson. He beams. It’s the snowball effect: The ball has tipped over the edge and is rolling downhill, and everyone in the room—counselors and team members alike—is getting behind it, pushing and shouting “Hallelujah!” A staffer informs the group that an apartment is accepting applications and has waived the application fee. Another staffer, an employment specialist, asks, “Is anyone interested in forklift training?” Eight men raise their hands.
After the meeting I approach Jackson. He tells me that he became homeless after his divorce. “I lost my job, didn’t care no more about anything. I used to be in the tow truck business. I lost my jobs, my house, my cars, I lost everything. I lived in the Jungle [the recently closed homeless encampment in San Jose]—I was doing drugs and drinking. I had no direction. I just gave up.”
Jackson spent 18 months in jail for assault. “After they let me out of jail, it was 9 p.m. I didn’t have anywhere to go, didn’t know anybody, so I went back to the Jungle. My parole officer told me that if I stayed clean, he could help me, get me my driver’s license back. He stuck with me and didn’t abandon me.”
Jackson stayed sober and started working at DST. When I ask him about the program, he says, “They’ve given me the chance to be”—he breaks into a wild, half-disbelieving laugh of mingled humility and joy—“awesome!” We both laugh, and he punches me playfully in the arm. “When I came to them, they said, ‘No worries.’ That’s their motto: no worries. I had never heard that. I’ve been on the team for seven months—I still can’t believe I stuck with this!” Again that infectious, disbelieving laugh. “No one in my life ever cared enough for me. DST got me to apply for jobs, they call you on the phone. The support I get from the other homeless people on the team—I can look back and see where I want to be and where I don’t want to be. It’s easy to fall and relapse. My mom passed away this year, they stuck with me; I wrecked my car, they stuck with me. Everybody stood by me. I owe it all to them.”
Ten years after San Francisco launched an ambitious, well-funded attempt to end chronic homelessness, we’re still grasping for ways to meaningfully reduce the number of destitute people roaming our streets. What can we do to ensure that in 2025, we will not be facing the same situation?
There are no silver bullets. But there are six steps that the city—meaning not only city hall but also the business community and private citizens—could take that would have a measurable impact on the crisis. These steps will cost something up front, but will reduce future expenditures by far more.
First, San Francisco must hire more counselors, case managers, and outreach workers, and pay them better, as Downtown Streets does. The city is already taking steps in this direction: HSA head Rhorer says that his department is planning to spend $1.4 million to reduce its caseworker-client ratio. The business community should increase funding to the crucial nonprofit sector, so that service providers can also hire more counselors. Along with providing housing, hiring skilled and committed counselors is the most effective way to help homeless people. The city should also follow Zordel’s suggestion and look into creative ways to deploy the thousands of volunteers who have demonstrated their willingness to pitch in—an idea enthusiastically supported by the Mental Health Board’s Lewis.
Second, and inseparable from the first point, San Francisco must ensure that every single homeless person gets a permanent case manager. This will not be easy to do. It will require improving communication and coordination between agencies and nonprofit providers. It will mean hiring more social workers. It may require moving to a single-intake system. But however the system is jiggered, it’s crucial that no homeless person fall through the cracks. The new Navigation Center is a promising start.
Third, the city should open a trial homeless encampment of canvas tents or tiny houses, equipped with security and staffed by counselors. There’s no reason not to try this—the civic black eye that city hall fears is already a fact. What, exactly, do we have to lose?
Fourth, the city should support hands-on programs like Downtown Streets that have achieved measurable results in housing and employment. Startups like Hand Up, which uses web profiles to tell homeless people’s stories and crowdsourcing to fund individual needs, are also promising. It doesn’t matter so much what the program is: The key is sustained engagement.
Fifth, San Francisco should increase its already robust support for programs that prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place: rapid-rehousing programs, shallow subsidies that prevent vulnerable tenants from losing their apartments, and programs to end illegal evictions. A good example is Google’s recent $1 million gift to Hamilton Family Center, which will fund a rapid response team to fight homelessness in the public schools.
Sixth, new housing for the homeless must be dispersed across town, out of the Tenderloin. While difficult, it’s not impossible. Many of the 500 new units promised by Mayor Lee are not in downtown. Organizations like the Community Housing Partnership have successfully overcome NIMBY resistance and built supportive housing in middle-class areas of the city. The more that San Franciscans encounter formerly homeless people who are turning their lives around, the more likely they are to see homeless people as members of the community—and take steps to help them.
If the city takes these six steps, and continues to aggressively pursue funding for the thousands of additional supportive units needed to house those on the streets, it can achieve significant results. But it can never win this war by itself. Only the federal government, which was largely responsible for creating the homeless epidemic in the first place, can end it. Unlikely though it may be while Republicans rule the roost, Congress must someday take responsibility for this national disgrace by restoring funding to low-income housing, repairing the safety net, and raising the minimum wage. The America we live in today, where the poorest and most vulnerable are abandoned to squalor, misery, disease, and early death, is not the America we were promised. Creating that America means returning our society to one in which partially disabled people—for that’s what many homeless people are—are entitled to decent housing and jobs. A society where, when a roomful of downtrodden but undefeated people are asked, “How many of you are interested in a forklift job?” and eight people raise their hands, there are eight forklift jobs for them.
It’s Christmas Day, and I’m at Saints Peter and Paul Church in North Beach, which is readying its annual free Christmas dinner. The gymnasium is filled with long cloth-covered tables; the kitchen bustles with volunteers from the neighborhood and across the city, cooking and bringing out platters of ham, salad, and dessert. Marc Bruno, an old friend who’s been running the church’s homeless program for years—without pay—gives me and another volunteer our task: Walk down through North Beach into Chinatown, look for homeless people, and tell them about the dinner. We hand out the last of our flyers in Portsmouth Square—I had never realized that so many homeless people gather there—and return to the church.
Breaking off from instructing some helpers about decorations, Bruno introduces me to another volunteer: a fit, middle-aged man, clean and well-groomed, with a sensitive, worried-looking face. His name is Jeff Dotson—he’s about to turn 44, and he has been homeless for three years.
How did he end up on the streets? “Well, just bad decisions,” Dotson says. “I’ve been smoking marijuana since I was 12, and it’s just consumed my life.” Dotson tells me that he has been diagnosed with major depression with psychotic features and is taking antidepressants. Marijuana helps him deal with his anxiety, but he smokes too much of it. For a while, he says, he was in a program for people dual-diagnosed with drug dependence and mental illness, “but I couldn’t be in the house. It was so hard to live inside—very confining after being on the street for so long. It’s been rough, but I haven’t had to do anything illegal. The city has provided. There’s food at Glide and sandwiches here at night.”
“It’s been a lot of homeless nights,” he goes on. “There are a lot of things you see out here on the street that you don’t want to see. I’ve been attacked. Basically, I don’t sleep a normal night. It’s like one long day—you just sleep here and there, day or night, whenever you’re tired.” Dotson carries all his possessions in one bag and does his laundry once or twice a week, washing everything: “You have to do that, or you’ll get bugs.”
I ask him how he entertains himself all day long, with no place to rest and no place to go.
“I walk,” he says. “I can’t tell you the miles I walk. One day I had the GPS on my phone on, and I walked 17 miles, just walking around San Francisco. And that’s not that far off the average. Even if I want to stop, I keep walking because I just can’t stop. Hundreds of miles—I can’t imagine how many. Maybe that’s part of my mental health issues: a lot of anxiety, a lot of walking.”
Where does he go on these marathon walks?
“Everywhere. I walk from Castro all the way down Market, up on the Embarcadero to the wharf, down Van Ness to Market. I walk over Divisadero, Fillmore. I love the hills.”
When I think of the homeless people I have met, a thousand images come to mind. But the one that I can’t get out of my head is of Jeff Dotson walking. I see him moving across the city, in the mornings and the evenings, up the hills and across the valleys, walking in his neatly laundered clothes and his falling-apart sneakers, walking alone carrying everything he owns, past the tourists and the locals, past rich and poor, in sunshine and fog and the dead of night, stopping for a while to sleep, then rising to walk again.
Originally published in the March issue of San Francisco