Interrogating San Francisco’s Approach to Street Homelessness

by Chris Herring

Summarized by Armando Garcia

The Bay Area is expecting a lot of rain mid May. For those of us which are housed, the rain might mean more evenings with Netflix under a warm blanket, or remembering to carry an umbrella when we go out. We might notice the deep green color of the hills across the Bay Area, or the flourishing flowers tucked into the edges of sidewalks, or blanketing the grass on open areas. Millions of us living here might muse at the interesting changes brought by the rain without ever needing to think of the rain as a major disruption or even an existential threat.

As it happens, for thousands of people in San Francisco, the cold wind and rain passing through the city brings grim news, even while they might want to enjoy it. The last few biennial counts of homeless persons in San Francisco have consistently found just over 4,300 unsheltered homeless persons. This number may sound high, but the actual number of unsheltered homeless on the street at any given time is widely thought by experts to be higher.

There are already not enough shelter beds for those who need them on any typical day in San Francisco. The city keeps a waitlist for shelter beds which often has over 1,000 people on it. Those on the list wait several weeks for access to a 90-day stay in a shelter. If an alternative arrangement has not been worked out by then, they end up back on the streets. Many get back on the waitlist to do it again.

One might expect there to be special measures taken in case of bad weather. San Francisco’s “cold snap” policy opens up just 75 more beds when certain weather conditions are met. As cold and wet as it has been throughout the recent storms, conditions have actually not escalated enough to trigger that policy. KQED reported that the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing made arrangements voluntarily to expand their capacity for the rains.

The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing’s acknowledgment of the need for action is certainly welcome, but this hardly seems to be an adequate solution. Kelly Cutler, human rights organizer for the Coalition on Homelessness, has said that people can be seen taking shelter in doorways along city streets. Her colleagues, Brian Edwards and Chris Herring, have both shared firsthand and anecdotal accounts of a spike in police enforcement just before and during inclement weather. Given that this type of enforcement can often mean confiscation of tents and other property, one must wonder if this is an approach that makes much sense for anyone.

Based on the language used by some city officials, it’s easy to assume that more city outreach in bad weather is actually a good thing. Commander David Lazar has often stated that no one is subject to citations or disciplinary action unless they refuse shelter beds. The Healthy Streets Operation Center (HSOC) from which he operates brings the Police, Public Works, Public Health and Homelessness departments under the same roof with the promise of creating more transparency and cooperation between agencies interacting with homelessness. Yet many witnesses on the streets agree that SFPD and DPW sanitation crews are likely to do sweeps on encampments without accompanying health or homelessness workers.

Laying these facts out on the table, it becomes possible to see an underlying pattern in city policy. The city has a policy allegedly to increase outreach and support for homeless people during inclement weather, but the beds offered aren’t enough to meet demand, and the outreach itself is often not done by the departments providing support. SFPD officers most often offer folks on the streets an ultimatum: either they take a seven-day stay in a shelter or they could get their tent taken, which often happens either way.

Just like those of us who are housed, people living on the streets have a variety of life situations. Having to move their belongings is often trouble enough, but taking up officers on their offer can also mean leaving a neighborhood that feels safe, leaving a group of people you know for a bed around strangers you don’t, or even figuring out a new work commute for those struggling to hold onto their jobs. A majority of folks on the street showed interest in the promise of beds in navigation centers, which were initially announced as being available for as long as it takes to get housing. But now that such stays are for merely seven days, it often doesn’t seem worth the risk of anything else going wrong.

San Francisco is a city that expends heavily into the homelessness crisis, and yet it doesn’t seem to be a city with serious solutions. The City isn’t clear on what its objectives of homelessness policy should be, nor does it acknowledge which approaches work. But what’s definitely clear is that the city doesn’t have its values straight. How can homelessness and housing goals be met when the agency representing those goals is not leading efforts and at the forefront of outreach?

Underlying the lack of clarity in the city’s vision, there are even more uncomfortable questions. Why do we mediate all our troubles through police? Is it a sensible tool for meeting experts’ recommendations on handling homelessness? Are they the appropriate messengers of outreach for “services?” Perhaps there is room to question even the refrain that people need “services.” While many people do need special kinds of care and are on the streets because self-care has become challenging, the refrain of providing “services” seems to detract from focusing on the essence of what those experiencing homelessness most often need: housing. And that leads to safety, stability and dignity. Watching how the city handles homelessness in bad weather these past few weeks has really raised questions about whether those responding to homelessness in San Francisco agree on what they are supposed to be doing.