On the Homeless Front

Providing comprehensive services for street people is morally uplifting -- and, as shown in New York, good policy

But then, Gov. Mario Cuomo and Mayor David Dinkins signed an agreement that had the government build nearly 5,000 units of housing for the mentally ill and homeless. Four years later, with the permanent units in place, the homeless population was down to 6,100. An overhaul of the emergency shelter system created smaller, more humane housing, scattered throughout the city. Now, New York is cited as a model of humanity toward the homeless -- a shocking notion given my memories of its homelessness heyday.

According to Markee, San Francisco is about where New York was 10 years ago: Thousands of people sleep on the streets, the citizenry is alarmed, and nobody seems to know what to do.

In keeping with the fashion established by my peers at the Chron and the Ex, I've been examining the scene outside the window over my desk at SF Weekly. To the left, there's the Lefty O'Doul Bridge, where, on Oct. 17, 1997, Darlene James was bulldozed out of her home at 7 a.m., just before she was supposed to be admitted to a homeless-addict rehab program. Under the benefit of Zyprexa, an anti-psychotic drug, James had managed to refrain from using speed for a couple of days, as stipulated by the rehab program's admission rules. But she became stressed out upon seeing her belongings bulldozed into a pile. She did a couple of hits of methamphetamine; needless to say, she didn't get into rehab.

James and the three dozen other residents of the China Basin meth-addict encampment moved to the empty lots surrounding the Bladium, an indoor skate park framed by my desk window. But the speed freaks were run off long ago -- the Bladium was torn down last month to make way for an office development -- and they've spent the past two years navigating California's dysfunctional system for the disturbed, addicted, and homeless. They go to rehab centers, where they're told treatment is not available to the severely mentally disturbed. They proceed to a mental health center, which requires them to have stopped taking drugs. To collect their senses enough to shake drugs, they apply for a dry place to lay their head -- and given the lack of shelter for the indigent in S.F., often as not, they fail.

"The level of institutional barriers in the system was so high that I got kind of dizzy watching Darlene kind of bouncing off them," says Lonny Shavelson, author of the book Hooked, which follows James and other addicts through San Francisco's utterly disjointed system of drug treatment and mental health and homeless services.

As Shavelson describes it, the system is so poorly coordinated that it would require a collective act of will of New York proportions to make it function effectively.

We spend millions of dollars annually on the homeless, yet have only a few hundred of the permanent, "supportive housing" units that Markee describes as the best solution for helping mentally disabled people get off the street.

San Francisco rates better than many California cities in attempting to deal with the less fortunate. But lately our collective reaction to the increasing street population contains as much contempt as compassion. Many locals, with the mayor as cheerleader, complain that we've become a welfare magnet, and that increased indigent services do little more than produce more street people.

I tried this idea out on Dan Delaney, founder of Sacramento Loaves & Fishes, the Smithsonian Institution of California homeless facilities. This sprawling complex runs one of the state's largest food kitchens, has a school for homeless children, a shelter for homeless women, a drug and alcohol recovery unit, a medical clinic, an AIDS hospice, a mental health treatment center, and myriad other services.

Delaney doesn't think compassion is drawing people to the streets of Sacramento, San Francisco, or anywhere else; he thinks a housing shortage is pushing them there.

"California experiences growth of homelessness in certain areas, then it stops and grows in other areas. Right now, Sacramento is the growth leader, and Fresno is really growing now, too," Delaney says. "It used to be that the least responsible among the homeless could bounce around the crappy apartments we had around town. As the population grows larger than the supply in those crappy places, the owners fix them up, and they require references. So starting from the bottom up, those people are eased out into the street."

Perhaps if the term coined to describe people forced to live on the street had been "houseless," the connection would be easier to see: Thousands of people are living on the streets of San Francisco because San Francisco needs tens of thousands more apartments. For the past 20 years in California, 80,000 fewer homes have been built than needed, and builders have fallen 800,000 units behind. During the late '90s, San Francisco created seven new jobs for every unit of housing built; the housing deficit, already between 30,000 and 75,000 units, is expected to grow at 12,000 per year -- indefinitely.

In past columns I've criticized city laws that empowered anti-housing neighborhood groups, on the basis that such laws contribute to the homeless problem. As it happens, there's some good news and some bad news on that front. An awful anti-housing law passed last May -- a law that allows anyone to appeal conditional-use building permits already approved by the Planning Commission straight to the Board of Supervisors as long as he can obtain four supervisors' signatures -- will be allowed to expire, Supervisor Aaron Peskin tells me. In its place, renters will be allowed to sign affidavits stating they live in the same neighborhood as a disputed construction project. This will give them the right to request that building permits be reconsidered by the board. Previously, only property owners could file such appeals. By adding yet another layer of appeals, the law created another hurdle in the arduous process of getting apartments built in San Francisco. I'll be glad to see it go.

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