Homeless People Make Local Wins In the Midst of a Divided Nation


Trump isn’t the only surprise winner this election season. Here in San Francisco, homeless people had a major win, despite all the trump style shenanigans coming from our local policy makers.  With San Franciscans top issue being homelessness, there was plenty of opportunity to determine the fate of our most destitute citizenry. The positive results may not be obvious on the surface, but let me explain.

Back in spring, homeless advocates were researching revenue options that would provide the funding to solve these critical issues. We saw this election as a great opportunity to effect change. This work was interrupted by Supervisor Farrell’s insistence on partnering homelessness with transportation and putting a split measure sales tax on the ballot. He insisted he had polling that showed it would win by a large margin. He touted that he had big tent support for the measure, and that this was the only one the Mayor would get on board with. He convinced many of his colleagues that this was the only option that would pass, and ushered people away from the progressive options that he stated would have great opposition. A large and very fragile coalition formed. But he never truly collaborated; he refused to show community members the poll, he never garnered input on how it should be structured from key allies, and then once it was on the ballot, he went on to kick down the big tent and ensure the defeat of the very same sales tax he sponsored.  

And kick down the tent he did: The sales tax, Prop K, lost with a massive thirty-point spread. He managed to alienate and anger potential allies quickly when he introduced alongside Supervisor Wiener two anti-homeless measures.  Important colleagues who would have supported the measure or taken a neutral stance were rightly pointing out the sales tax would lose if the anti-homeless measure moved forward.  Big tent coalitions are fragile, and when you go out of your way to push people out of the tent, the tent gets very small, and it falls down. It was clear to everyone that while his tent ban, Prop Q, was pure political posturing that would neither decrease the number of tents on our sidewalk nor result in any solutions, it would deeply damage other efforts. The anti-homeless measures diverted both the campaign chest and the volunteers needed to pass the sales tax. The whole point of a big tent is to have big-tent resources. Many on the ground who would have spent all their time on the sales tax were now forced to spend time defending homeless people against the attacks levied against them in Farrell’s Prop Q.  


This is the other way he guaranteed the sales tax demise. He not only put all his resources and fundraising efforts on Prop Q (bringing in over $700,000 to pass it), and did next to nothing for the sales tax measure (funded at half that without Farrells help), but put out two very distinct poisonous messages that killed the sales tax. One was the anti-homeless vitriol. His ads showed a picture of a woman shooting up (likely garnered without her permission) and declared tent encampments unsafe and unhealthy, had a merchant talk about stepping on a needle, focused on stolen goods, and even stooped so low as to use the rape of homeless women as an excuse to tear away their tents.  

Since tents themselves are incapable of such acts, you can only read this messaging as: homeless people as a class are unsafe, unhealthy, thieving, needle-waving rapists. Now, who wants to pay for their housing?

The second core part of his message was that there are enough services for homeless people. His rap was that shelter or housing would be offered, but the measure had no additional shelter beds or housing in it. He stated repeatedly that there were vacant shelter beds, failing to mention those beds were not available or only available for one night, and talked up the opening of six navigation centers and hundreds of units of supportive housing. All of this was stretching the truth of course—only two new navigation centers are going to open, and one of those is a replacement for the center that is closing. The hundreds of units of new supportive housing would run out after five years at best, and most of those will be for families with children and vets, still only serving a fraction of the 12,000 units needed. Beyond the lies, this messaging told voters that the city did not need the sales tax, and hacked away at the public’s support.  


While Farrell was kicking and punching the big tent he bragged so much about, the Mayor was also screwing our chances for real solutions. For one, he could have stopped Farrell from introducing the anti-homeless measures very easily and in fact gave tacit support for them. Beyond that, Lee put his top guy, Tony Winnicker, and all his money contacts into fighting against the perceived attacks on his power—Props M (creation of housing commission), D (special elections), H (public advocate), and L (MTA appointments), and virtually neglected the sales tax. It got very little priority and very little funding: Three hundred fifty thousand was spent on Props J and K compared to the $2.2 million spent to defeat M,D,H and L.

So where is the homeless victory in all of this? In spite of all this, homeless people and their supporters rose up and took some very powerful and surprising victories. In the end, San Francisco voters told City Hall that they do want the homeless population to be housed and they want a compassionate approach to homelessness. We had the massive defeat of the stinky real estate measures—Props P (32 percent support) and U (35 percent support)—one would have slowed down housing for homeless people and the other would have removed housing for working class San Franciscans. Proposition C passed with a whopping 76 percent and would allow a housing bond to purchase buildings where tenants are getting Ellis Act evicted. Most amazing for post-gentrification San Francisco is for the first time in over 15 years, a politician failed in their attempt to use homeless people as political fodder for their ambitions. Out of two anti-homeless measures on San Francisco’s ballot, one has been defeated, Prop R (neighborhood policing) and the other, Prop Q (tent ban), is too close to call, and certainly is in no way a voter mandate. Farrell’s Prop Q proponents spent almost $800,000 in funding from billionaires to take away tents from homeless people, and they expected to win in a landslide. Opponents, with only $8,000, managed to beat back both Propositions Q and R with a powerful people driven grassroots campaign. These results constitute a major shift in the public’s attitude. Back in 2010, the ban on sidewalk sitting or lying during daytime hours got 59 percent support, whereas Prop R, which would have permanently set aside 3 percent of police to criminalize homeless people and conflated property crime with poverty only garnered 45 percent of the vote.  


At the same time, voters did approve Prop J, which asks the city to set aside $50 million for homeless housing, while they chose to reject Proposition K, the funding mechanism. What voters said with this split vote is “We want homeless people to be housed.  Use your budget to pay for it!”. Also on the ballot was a voter-initiated proposition, Proposition S, which would have set aside hotel tax funding to end family homelessness. This measure was a clear voter mandate and received 63 percent approval, but failed to get the two-thirds voter approval required. This measure did not receive Mayoral support. However, the Mayor now has new instructions from the voters: “Find $67 million in your 8.6 billion budget and solve this crisis now!”

It is up to all of us to ensure he does.