According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the most common reason people find themselves living on the street is the inability to find affordable housing. In the United States, stagnant wages and skyrocketing rents have found people spending the majority of their income on housing, far exceeding the recommended affordability threshold of 30 percent.
Like most major urban cities, San Francisco’s homeless population has skyrocketed over the past two decades. Much of the blame for limited housing has been attributed to the influx of the tech industry seeking housing outside of Silicon Valley 40 miles away. Coupled with lax rent control and unscrupulous landlords, those with means are fleeing to outlying areas, leaving those without in the streets.
The issue is exacerbated by the sheer volume and limited geography. The latest homeless count in the city had nearly 7,000 people in shelters or otherwise unhoused. Only New York City has more homeless people per square mile than San Francisco.
Many organizations in the city are doing what they can, including lobbying city officials to expand funding for existing programs and new shelters. Yet, there is a strong undercurrent of disdain for the homeless among recent residents and it is reflected in officials’ proposed policies.
The current Board of Supervisors has a progressive majority and often clash with the newly elected “moderate” Mayor Ed Lee. Lee, who has committed to ending homelessness by the end of his term in 2019, has already shown support for approaches that are criticized by homeless advocates.
In November, voters will determine if the Board of Supervisors will maintain its progressive majority, as well as vote on several measures focused on the homeless situation. One of the proposals include amending the city’s 2010 “Sit and Lie” law which prohibits sitting or lying on sidewalks. The new ballot measure would give police greater authority to not only cite people, but to also remove them and any belongings.
Specifically, it would allow a complete removal of homeless encampments with just 24-hour notice. Police would also be required to inform the people being removed of housing options and services. The law could only be enforced if there is housing available.
The trouble is, there is not.
Part of Mayor Lee’s plan to house the homeless is to build more centers which provide temporary and permanent housing assistance, called Navigation Centers, as well as additional funding for a program called Homeward Bound.
There are currently two Navigation Centers in the city, with the Board of Supervisors having recently approved funding for six more within two years. The centers are able to house individuals temporarily while they help to find permanent housing. The population who benefit the most by the Navigation Centers are people who have trouble in traditional shelters due to having pets or the need to store belongings.
As reported by the San Francisco Examiner, a report on the first year of operation (March 2015 – May 4, 2016) showed that 468 clients have gone through the centers resulting in 142 placed in permanent housing. The average stay in the shelter was one night.
While the city touts Homeward Bound as a housing program and points to the 10,000 homeless that have gone through the program in the past decade as a proof of its success, critics claim it is not. Through the help of counselors, clients are offered a one-way bus ticket and a $10 per diem for food to leave the city. Counselors help identify friends or family that agree to take them in when the client arrives.
Part of the “success” numbers reported for the Navigation Centers include an additional 168 individuals who opted for the one-way ticket and were put on a bus to another city.
There are no statistics that show the program actually works. While there is a follow-up call to make sure the person arrived at their destination and a thirty-day phone follow-up, no data exists to determine if they remain housed or not. There is often no follow-up at all due to being unable to reach the client.
It is estimated that half of the housing the city claims they have found for the homeless are people that were removed from the city via the Homeward Bound program.
The expansion of the Homeward Bound program is what advocates of the encampment removal law mean when they point to increased funding for homeless services. Critics say this does nothing to solve the root cause of homelessness — the lack of affordable housing.
Supervisor John Avalos echoes homeless advocates that criticize the proposal as not a humane approach: “This is not housing. It is a political move.”