Monday, September 19, 2016

SF cannot be the provider for nation’s homeless

SF cannot be the provider for nation’s homeless

By C.W. NeviusJuly 6, 2016 Updated: July 6, 2016 4:20pm

Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle

Daniel Pledger rests against a building on Florida Street as he sits under blankets covering him on Friday, April 29, 2016 in San Francisco, California. Pledger says he's been homeless since last August.

What if we set a limit on the number of homeless people we were willing to help?

In The Chronicle’s weeklong coverage of homelessness in the Bay Area, all the experts said the same thing: We can end homelessness.

There’s just one requirement.

Money. Lots more than the $200 million we’re spending now.

We’re talking about housing and services for over 6,000 people, some of whom have severe mental and medical illnesses. And that’s not to say that more won’t show up.

Because as it stands right now, any person who comes to San Francisco and sits down on the street becomes our problem. We’re responsible for housing them, treating their medical issues and keeping them from peeing and defecating on the street, scattering dirty hypodermic needles and blocking the sidewalk.

Yet, we’re not making progress. We can’t even maintain the status quo. In 2013, the city’s biennial homeless count found 6,436 people with no place to stay. Two years later, after outreach, counseling and treatment, the total was 6,686, up 3.8 percent.

As Chronicle reporter Kevin Fagan wrote as part of the multi-news-organization SF Homeless Project, “Homelessness in San Francisco doesn’t look much different than it did 10 years ago. Or 20.”

Honestly, the real answer is probably that this is a nationwide problem in need of a federal response.

So far, San Francisco has poured money into a bucket with a hole in the bottom. We’re spending just enough to make ourselves feel virtuous but not enough to make a significant difference.

So I would say there are two ways to handle this. We can ramp up a major financial initiative to at least double what we are spending now, creating thousands of housing units and treatment centers. You can fix almost anything — at least temporarily — with hundreds of millions of dollars.

Or we can set a cap, or a ceiling on what we will do, how much we will spend and how many people we’ll help at a time.

We’ve proved we can’t handle the influx of homeless individuals into San Francisco. Shelters are crowded, housing is unavailable and mental health facilities are revolving doors.

What if we said instead, we’re going to take care of the thousands we currently have in our system (and the new plan to track and document them will help in this). If we can’t be all things to all people, let’s concentrate on a really terrific set of services and housing that works.

Isn’t that the idea anyhow? To transition the homeless through services and get them into supportive housing? This would be a way to do that. Not all at once, but as a process. And then, at the end of the year, we see how many have transitioned out and add those vacancies to the next year’s homeless plan.

Which leaves, of course, a considerable number of people still on the street. And they can’t stay there, certainly not in tents.

It’s always surprising to me to hear city officials — who are very sympathetic to the homeless — say about the tents, “Well, they’re against the law. We’re going to have to enforce the tent law — the encampments have to go.”

But the city has to do it right: Citation, follow up, second citation, court appearance and a stay in jail. It cannot be a ho-hum “we told you to pack up your tent and leave the neighborhood.”

So those are the choices. Dramatically increase spending on the homeless, which inevitably would take funds from transit, affordable housing for the middle class and public schools.

Or, set a limit on homeless funding and say: We’re willing and able to help homeless individuals, but there’s a limit. We’ll do our part, take care of the thousands we can reach.

But at a certain point, we’re going to have to say it out loud: We’re sorry, we cannot be the homeless provider for the rest of the country.
C.W. Nevius is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. His columns appear Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Email: Twitter: @cwnevius

Beyond Homelessness: Read online coverage from the SF Homeless Project at

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