AdviceSan Francisco

Prop Q Will Exacerbate San Francisco’s Homelessness Crisis

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A homeless woman, her possessions, and her dog on Division Street. Image from Orange County Register

This op-ed is written by Jennifer Friedenbach, Executive Director of the Coalition on Homelessness

A version of this originally ran in the SF Examiner Thursday August 18

A young African American man I talked to recently shared how he is living in an encampment near the now cleared Division Street. He came up out of foster care, can’t afford housing, and has no access to accumulated wealth.  Like all people, the young man wants nothing more then a safe and decent place to call home, the security of locked door, a soft bed, and more then anything he would like to get some rest, so he can get on with building a better life for himself. He, quite frankly, is tired. He is tired of trying to find a safe place to sleep, so he doesn’t bother anyone, and doesn’t get persistently woken up by police, street crews or anyone else. He needs a home.

The reality is that most likely, a home is out of his reach because San Francisco has not invested in truly solving homelessness.  We spend less then 3% of our budget on the most important issue facing SF.  Meanwhile, policy makers connive flam initiatives to deceive voters and fail to address the true causes.  This November, voters will be deciding on the most cynical homeless measure to date, and believe me there is plenty of competition, where Prop Q proponents argue for “housing, not tents” and then initiate a tent ban and include no provision for housing in the measure.  Getting someone off the streets with an offer of one night in shelter can only be called make believe.

Every few years, a politician puts yet another anti-homeless measure on the ballot, stirs up the fear and the hatred, in a twisted SF brand of Trump contrivance . San Francisco’s homeless policy and the broader debate has been primarily focused on enforcement of anti-homeless laws. Last year, we gave out over 27,000 citations to homeless folks, of which 14,000 were simply for resting.  We have 23 laws, the most in the state, that meet the legal definition of “anti-homeless” laws.  According to the Budget and Legislative Office, we spent $20.6 million on this enforcement last year and it has been a resounding failure. Homelessness has not only increased, but the population itself is saddled with fine derived debt and deteriorated mental and physical health. As individuals are ticketed, and their property is confiscated, they lose medications, survival gear and no longer quality for housing. The reason is obvious; we cannot address homelessness through enforcement – only housing solves the problem of a lack of a home.

dream house

The irony is THICK! Homeless people being cleared out from a Division Street encampment beneath a billboard boasting about a “Dream House” in San Francisco.

Tents of course are already illegal under state law, and police also use local laws such as sit/lie, obstructing sidewalks, health codes and others to cite people camped on the streets. Frequently, police just force people to move. The result is a sidewalk shuffle, from one block to another and back again. From local Police Captains to the Department of Justice to republicans in Texas – everyone agrees, you can’t ticket your way out of homelessness. Yet that reality has not stopped multiple ambitious San Francisco policy makers from riding into higher office on the already sore backs of homeless people.

Prop Q is particularly delusional. With multiple year waits for public housing, and over 700 people on waitlist for shelter, the city will likely hold shelter beds empty to ensure they have beds to offer encampments, exacerbating shelter waits further and sending more to the streets. This initiative calls for 24 hour notice, which of course no way can all the barriers to getting off the street be overcome in such a ridiculous time period. The city could not even get someone the required TB test in time to qualify for shelter, as results medically take three days.  In a particularly wicked twist they require city outreach reach workers to disband the encampments, eroding critical trust they have with their clients and ensuring they cannot locate them when a housing placement is ready.

The discourse around homelessness must focus on solutions. As long as policy makers continue to devise false solutions, resources and energy are diverted away from systemic change, the public gets more frustrated, and anti homeless sentiment is incited further. Homeless people have nowhere to go – shelters are full, housing is too expensive and unless we change our priorities, only the very lucky are able to escape the cold hard reality of residing on unfriendly sidewalks.

homeless woman

A San Francisco homeless woman and her tent. image from Mother Jones

The newly formed Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing has the opportunity to resolve encampment issues. But this November measure, developed with no input from community stakeholders and most importantly, homeless people themselves, will tie the hands of the new department. It would relegate their efforts to having to carry politically motivated nonsensical policy that can only be changed by voters.

The issue of homelessness in our community requires thoughtful, strategic public policy that focuses on exits from homelessness to permanent housing. This effort must be led by those who have experienced homelessness and those working on the front lines to address it.  There is no reason this should be on the ballot, worse, it is bad form to use people experiencing homelessness as political pawns. Of course, so many of us are fighting like mad to get people out of tents, out of shelters, off the streets and out of the parks in to housing. We have two ballot measures that would ensure the revenue necessary to do just that, but it will take years for the housing to come to fruition. This initiative would exacerbate that crisis. As far as the young man I referred to earlier, he is already being moved from place to place, and he can tell you, at best, this initiative will only make it a whole lot harder for him to get off the streets.

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