San Francisco is not the only city grappling with the presence of tents on its streets and sidewalks. In Brussels, where approximately 2,600 individuals lack adequate shelter, camping tents are forbidden — but one canny do-gooder wants to help people make it through the Belgian capital’s wet, chilly winter with foldable, reusable cardboard tents manufactured at a prison.
That’s hardly an ideal solution in the long-term, of course, and no matter how cleverly it might be designed and packaged, cardboard makes for a less-than-dignified wall to keep out the elements. But it indicates the creative lengths people will go to to make life a bit easier for the unhoused in the face of municipal resistance.
Tents on sidewalks are illegal under California state law, and in 2016, San Francisco voters narrowly passed the punitive, redundant Proposition Q, which nominally offers tent-dwellers shelter in exchange for confiscating their personal property with 24 hours’ notice. It’s indicative of a contradictory approach by the city, which now spends $250 million per year — up almost 40 percent since 2011 — to house people even as various departments conduct humiliating, arbitrary sweeps. Throw in ferocious hostility among people who sleep in warm beds — the nauseating “Manpiles of SF” Facebook page caused a stir before its author took it down last July — and the net result is that an affluent city full of self-styled innovators grows more and more resigned to permanent encampments under freeway overpasses, their inhabitants despised.
However, San Francisco’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, organized in 2016, has goals to change this sorry state of affairs, and they’re more ambitious than distributing cardboard. After the 2017 Point-in-Time Count estimated there were some 7,500 people experiencing homelessness citywide — of which 2,100 were considered chronically homeless, i.e. “people who have been living on the streets or in shelter for a year or more and have disabilities or health conditions that make it difficult for them to gain and retain housing” — the department’s 68-page October report reiterated a few key goals.
“Our vision is to make homelessness a rare, brief, and one-time event,” it reads. “Our aim is a significant, sustained reduction in homelessness in San Francisco.”
To do so, the department breaks up the homeless population into various demographic components, with specific targets for each. Among the notable ambitions are a commitment to making sure all families with children have shelter by December 2018 and permanent housing by December 2021, a 50-percent reduction in chronic homelessness by December 2022, and, perhaps the loftiest, eliminating large-scale street encampments by July 2019. There are other, more inward-facing goals as well, such as “Implement performance accountability across all programs and systems by December 2019.”
Admittedly, it’s not quite an equivalent of Vision Zero’s sweeping objective of eliminating pedestrian fatalities altogether by the mid-2020s. At first blush, the report sounds slightly like a bureaucrat’s calculated strategy to drastically under-promise and narrowly over-deliver — but in fairness, the sheer magnitude of the task would be daunting even with limitless funds at hand.
Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, says the city has done good work on a few fronts so far, particularly in finding permanent housing for veterans, although funding commitments from Obama administration helped.
“The percentage of veterans who are experiencing homelessness has dropped down considerably,” she tells SF Weekly. “In the 2013 Point-in-Time count, there were 260 homeless vets, and in the 2017 count, that was brought down to 137.”
The refurbished Auburn Hotel on Minna Street in SoMa welcomed 58 veterans at the tail end of 2017, so that figure is likely to go down further in 2018’s count. Private landlords have also stepped up with a greater willingness to rent to veterans with Section 8 vouchers, Friedenbach says.
Another area where the city has made strides is in the expansion of shelter beds — particularly in the Homeless Navigation Centers.
“They’re setting up shelters where people can come and go as they please and there’s not the same kind of institutional strict rules,” Friedenbach says. “They’re able to bring property and stay with their partners and have their pets with them.”
When it comes to encampments, San Francisco’s overall approach has become more sensitive. But not every department adheres to the homeless-outreach team’s humane standards, which include giving three weeks’ notice before dismantling a tent community. Notably, Philip Alston, the U.N.’s special rapporteur for extreme poverty and human rights, visited an encampment at San Bruno and Division streets at the southern edge of SoMa with his entourage in early December, and mere hours later, the Department of Public Works swept it not once but twice in advance of a photo-op the following morning with the mayor and several department heads, ostensibly to thwart embarrassing headlines. Without housing at the ready for the encampment’s inhabitants, they tend to disperse — often into residential neighborhoods where homeowners report them to the city. That can lead to a cascading series of property confiscations and other confrontations with authority.
Contrasting the department’s actions with a report released by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, Friedenbach singles out “rogue sweeps that are done in a really brutal way” in lieu of engaging with residents to determine feasible solutions, temporary or otherwise.
“We’re constantly getting calls: ‘This area’s getting swept, that area’s getting swept,’ ” she says. “It’s complaint-driven. Somebody with a modicum of power is calling whoever they’re calling and then a sweep happens without any thought at all. It’s really traumatizing for people.”
In spite of the political upheaval Mayor Ed Lee’s passing brought about, Friedenbach is confident that the city’s Navigation Centers are here to stay. (Or, rather, the concept is here to stay even if the individual centers are temporary, as they’re set up through agreements with developers on parcels that are slated for development.)
“From our perspective, any pre-development land that’s just going to be sitting there for a few years — let’s use it so homeless people have some safe and dignified space to be able to sleep,” Friedenbach says. “We need a diverse system. For some folks, the more institutionalized shelters are very comforting for them. They like having security guards, that feels really safe, they like having all the structure. It can feel more relaxing. For other folks, that feels really oppressive, and it’s not going to work — and the looser structure of a navigation center is better. And we just need more capacity in terms of beds.”
There is also concern that, as the July 2019 deadline for getting rid of large-scale encampments looms, pressure could mount to simply sweep them away for the sake of the timetable. Friedenbach notes that the city struggles with the minority of unhoused people who are severely mentally ill, and for whom neither shelters nor navigation centers are viable options. Still, the department report lays out in great detail the investments the city is making to meet its goals, which includes a “Housing Ladder” that consists of temporary shelter, followed by rapid rehousing and rental subsidies, and permanent supportive housing until individuals are able to stay housed on their own.
It’s important to remember that the United States is now in the middle of a period of economic expansion that is quite long by historical standards. Clearly, San Francisco’s struggles with keeping everyone housed stem in large part from the mind-boggling prosperity the 2010s have visited upon the city. But if the next recession forces as many people out of their homes as the 2008-09 economic contraction did, we might face a tsunami of suffering and depleted city coffers simultaneously. For now, San Francisco recognizes the severity of its situation, and it’s taking action.