It was just over a decade ago that they first appeared, in their dirty clothes with their outstretched hands, at the margins of the modern American mind. Hard to imagine, now, that there was a time when they weren't here, when the city's streets and parks were streets and parks, and not living rooms, or bedrooms, or bathrooms, or tombs.
The question is: Are they ever going to go away?
That is, are there long-term solutions to homelessness? Or is what you see now what you'll always get?
In the wake of the police sweeps of Golden Gate Park homeless encampments, which raised the perennial questions of whether those without homes should be pampered or punished, or neither, or both, what seems clear is that the debate about homelessness is changing — although it is still ferocious.
A decade ago, the difference between the homed and the homeless was seen as one, primarily, of access to real estate. Give the homeless homes and they'll take care of the rest, the reasoning went. But now things aren't that easy. Now the thinking goes something like this: Some of the people out there just can't take care of themselves. Put them in the Taj Mahal and they'd find a way to wind up back on the streets. So if you want to get people off San Francisco streets, you're going to have to come up with a lot more than four walls and a roof.
And in fact, San Francisco has an ambitious five-year plan, currently making the rounds at City Hall in final draft form, to do just that — to provide prevention, treatment, employment, and “supportive housing” for the homeless. That's as opposed to warehousing people on high-turnover shelter beds. The goal of the plan is to actually reduce homelessness in the city by unifying services, building more housing, and including services with the housing until people get back on their feet. About the only thing that's missing from the Continuum of Care blueprint is the money necessary to actually make it work.
“We need to develop a revenue-generating plan,” says Liz Resner, who is coordinating the Continuum of Care plan for the city. “We have to identify what will be the funding sources. It's a very critical gap.”
In 1993-94, San Francisco spent some $56 million serving the homeless and near-homeless. Another $23.8 million was spent by the various nonprofit agencies that help the homeless. Almost half of that money came from the city's general fund, another one-quarter came from the federal government, 3.8 percent came from the state, and the final quarter came from private sources.
Of the money that the city spent, most of it went to fund shelters, voucher programs, medical costs, and substance abuse treatment. Just under $1 million was spent on rehabbing or constructing housing. By contrast, $8 million went for drug and alcohol treatment.
The Continuum of Care plan calls for the construction of 1,245 units of supportive housing — that is, with services provided in the same building — between 1996 and the year 2000, at a total cost of $68.5 million. “The housing production plan is based on an estimate of what is possible under the most optimistic of circumstances,” the plan says. That optimism includes a $15 million bond issue for affordable housing passing muster with the voters of San Francisco.
“The spirit of the plan is to encourage economic independence as much as possible. There are many people the system will have to care for, but there are many people who could live independently,” says Resner. “Just housing isn't sufficient for many people. People need support services, they need links to the community, they need kinship systems.”
Over at San Francisco State University, Beverly Ovrebo, professor of health education and a founder of the university's homelessness program, has kind words for the Continuum of Care plan. “That is an excellent document,” she says. “It really is seen as the model around the country.”
But not everyone who is working on homelessness has exactly the same point of view on the problem. Over at S.F. Neighborhood Legal Assistance, attorney Steve Bingham has a slightly different take on what can and should be done to alleviate homelessness.
“One of the failures of the whole homelessness issue is to begin using that word at all,” says Bingham, who represents people facing eviction, and who is seeing his organization stripped of its federal funds. “People who are homeless should in fact be viewed as people without income.”
In the last 10 years, San Francisco has lost 30,000 jobs, Bingham says. And, he says, the national economy benefits from unemployment, which discourages inflation. But, he says, “the tying in of welfare issues to employment issues almost never takes place.”
Asked what might be effective in terms of getting those who live outdoors indoors, Bingham reels off a four-part idea: making public toilets and showers available, to allow the destitute to clean themselves up; making sure hotels where the homeless could live are accessible and inviting; making disability benefits more available to those who need them, thus providing a ready source of money that could help prevent homelessness; and getting money from the rich to help pay for the poor.
“I think the time has come to go to the major corporations downtown and say, 'You got the government you want, we want $10 million from the corporate community to help us build affordable housing,' ” he says. “The money has to come from somewhere.”
Well, that should be possible, other advocates say.
“We are the richest fucking country in the world, and we should be able to treat people decent,” says Paul Boden, coordinator at the Coalition for Homelessness. In the early '80s, Boden himself was homeless. “The shit that is working is never talked about. It's more long-term. What you have to do is community-based development and permanent housing.”
But Boden, for one, doesn't like the idea that people who live out-of-doors are inherently different from people who sleep in beds.
“What right do you have because I'm homeless and poor to assume that I'm fucked up?” he says. “If you're not focusing on education, employment, treatment, and housing, you shouldn't be in the fucking business.