Friday, November 18, 2011

Homelessness in SF: Groundhog Day


Every few years, someone in the city's media discovers the homeless issue and raises the alarm: Hey, there are still homeless people on our streets! Panhandlers downtown are bad for tourism!

The Examiner's Melissa Griffin is the latest to rediscover homelessness in SF: "Residents and tourists alike fed up with homelessness and panhandling"! Griffin cites the two polls I wrote about in the previous post and then knocks the candidates for mayor for not coming up with an "innovative plan" to deal with homelessness:

It certainly seems like the candidates for mayor are treating homelessness like the weather---something that is part of The City that we must simply endure. The “plans” put forth by each of them may differ slightly, but at the core they are the same: more shelter, more housing, more treatment, more of the same. After this election, when 15 candidates sit and think about what they did wrong, I hope they consider the total failure of imagination and public communication on the issue of homelessness in this election.

Griffin ends with a cry of despair: "No one seems to care"!

Griffin seems unaware of the history of the homeless issue in SF since Gavin Newsom's Care Not Cash passed by city voters in 2002. In 2004 Newsom appointed Angela Alioto to lead the commission that reviewed the city's homeless programs and issued the Ten Year Plan, which laid out a new approach to the issue emphasizing getting people off the streets as quickly as possible and then dealing with issues that may have led to their being homeless in the first place.

The previous approach tried to address issues the homeless had with drugs, alcohol, or crippling psychological problems before providing housing, which, as Alioto's Ten Year Plan pointed out, resulted in the homeless being shuffled in and out of jail and hospital emergency rooms, an approach that not only didn't get them off the street but was very expensive. Getting the hardcore homeless off the streets as quickly as possible is not only more humane, but it's much cheaper in the long run (the best account of this policy issue is still Malcolm Gladwell's 2006 account in the New Yorker: Million Dollar Murray).

Last month, before Griffin's cry of despair, the Examiner had a front-page story: "Hopeless with Homeless," bemoaning the fact that "San Francisco's homeless population remains high" in spite of all the supportive housing units the city has created in the past seven years:

However, city officials insist programs are effective and blamed a variety of factors for the persistence of the homeless problem, such as the bad economy...Human Services Agency Director Trent Rhorer said supportive housing has resulted in providing accomodations for 8,500 people since 2004. "Think what the homeless population would look like if we didn't do anything," Rohrer said.

(Angela Alioto wrote a letter to the Examiner objecting to the tone of that story and in defense of city policies.)

The Chronicle's Kevin Fagan---who wrote the excellent "Shame of the City" series on homelessness---in an article earlier this year on the homeless count---explored the nature of homelessness now compared with the problem several years ago. The big difference, not surprisingly, is the Great Recession, which has prevented the city from reducing the numbers overall, while still having some success in reducing the number of hardcore homeless.

One wonders about the institutional memory of the SF Examiner, since in the past it's published articles examining these issues.

Beyond the most serious recession since the Great Depression, there's the fact that San Francisco always attracts not only high-end tourists but the marginal, the alcoholic, and the psychologically fragile from all over the country. These people keep on coming to SF for a variety of reasons, and they often end up living on our streets and in our parks.

Since our city will never be able to house everyone who turns up homeless on our streets, my favorite city homeless program is Homeward Bound, which gives many homeless a bus ticket back to where they came from. This is the most cost-effective program, and to date it's taken more than 4,000 homeless people off the streets of San Francisco.

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