Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Homelessness in San Francisco: Ten years later

Good two-part, front-page series on homelessness in the SF Chronicle last month, though the head on the hard-copy edition---"Why S.F.'s plan to end homelessness failed"---doesn't do justice to either the issue itself or the contents of the article (The head on the online version is a lot better: "A decade of homelessness: Thousands in S.F. remain in crisis").

In the first part, Heather Knight makes a big deal out of Gavin Newsom's wildly unrealistic promises about ending homelessness. (Recall that Newsom was also disappointed that as mayor he couldn't do much to end gun violence.)

A decade and roughly $1.5 billion later, the city has succeeded in moving 19,500 homeless people off its streets, roughly equivalent to relocating the entire Castro district. But despite that major effort, the homeless population hasn’t budged, showing that as one homeless person is helped, another takes his place.

Exactly. San Francisco isn't a city-state surrounded by walls or a moat. San Francisco is a destination not just for upscale tourists. The down-and-out and the marginal also head this way. This is not news (see this and this). Homelessness is a national problem. Mayor Lee understands that:

He[Mayor Lee] said San Francisco’s homeless problem would be far worse post recession if his administration had not been focused on it. He said the most recent homeless count’s findings that 39 percent were homeless somewhere else before coming to San Francisco points to the fact that the city attracts those seeking new opportunities---from the wealthiest tech titans to those most down on their luck.

Newsom is older and wiser now:

“There’s a mythology that you can---quote unquote---end homelessness at any moment, but there are new people coming in, suffering through the cycles of their lives,” he said. “It’s the manifestation of complete, abject failure as a society. We’ll never solve this at City Hall.”

Later in the story, Knight acknowledges that the city has had some success:

In some ways, the plan worked. In the past 10 years, 11,362 homeless single adults have been housed. An additional 8,086 people have been sent home to a willing friend or family member through the Homeward Bound program, which pays for bus tickets out of San Francisco and back to their hometowns.

Another sign of progress is that homeless deaths are down significantly from ten years ago.

Good too to see Knight acknowledging the important role that the Bush Administration and Philip Mangano played in encouraging the supportive housing approach to homelessness. Mangano was President Bush's point man on homelessness. Malcolm Gladwell featured his effort in an essay in The Tipping Point, which is a good introduction to the theory and practice of supportive housing and homelessness. Mangano was at City Hall in 2004, with Mayor Newsom and Angela Alioto, when the Ten Year Plan was introduced (I was there, too, and I was able to get a hard copy of the Plan.)

Gladwell followed that up with Million Dollar Murray a few years later.

The reality is that all this city---or any major American city---can do is continue to cope with the homeless problem with practical, humane programs.

My favorite and the most cost-effective: Homeward Bound, which gives a homeless person a Greyhound ticket back to whence he/she came. Of course Jennifer Friedenbach of the Coalition on Homelessness, sneers at this program. San Francisco is apparently required to provide housing for everyone who becomes homeless in the city.

Alas, the rest of the homeless population is more difficult and expensive to deal with.

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At 11:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jennifer makes her living from homelessness. Why would she want to solve a problem that makes sure she has food on the table and pays her mortgage?

At 5:08 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Yes, and she's now been unofficially made a member of the city "family," even though she's opposed every city policy that tries to cope with homelessness.


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