Reflections on homelessness in the last year

“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”

The opening line from Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” has become a well-worn intro that journalists and pundits use for year-end retrospectives. Developments in how San Francisco approaches homelessness in 2018 make the Dickensian reference an apt descriptor.

Readers of Street Sheet and followers of homeless policy can point to two events supporting this binary: The sweeps of homeless encampments and the passage of Proposition C.

The eviction of people living in tents and other makeshift structures in the Mission District drew attention to the ongoing crisis. That sweep, which happened in April, symbolized the enforcement-heavy approach San Francisco has long taken toward people who live outdoors. The police department taking the lead in these operations with Department of Public Works staff in tow has been well documented. The glaring difference in that clearance was the reduced role in which the Homeless Outreach Team was cast. Usually, HOT staff work alongside police and DPW, but that time HOT were shuffled off to the side offering a scant number of shelter placements for a mere seven days.

Since then, the administration of Mayor London Breed declared victory over the large-scale encampments, though there is still a highly visible unsheltered population. The Coalition on Homelessness, which publishes Street Sheet, believes most of them have moved elsewhere in small clusters.

However, the hopes of homeless people and their allies were buoyed by the groundswell of support — and eventual victory — of “Our City, Our Home,” the measure that appeared on last November’s ballot as Prop. C.

Under Prop. C, up to $300 million will be dedicated to housing, addiction and mental health services, eviction prevention and defense, and clean streets and hygiene facilities. The beauty part is that large companies that make over $50 million per year will pay a small tax to fund Prop. C’s implementation.

The campaign started big with a petition drive that garnered over 28,000 signatures — three times that what was required for this year’s election. The measure polled very well with the general public. The people power fueling the campaign already signalled enough support for an electoral victory. The campaign was able to hire people from the homeless community to phone voters. Its profile was elevated by Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff’s endorsement. Also a factor was a shift in the political climate where more voters made the connection between the shrinking of housing affordability and the growing visibility of poverty.

The measure won with 61 percent of the vote. Though the looming threat of litigation from anti-tax organizations might delay Prop. C’s effective date, the City seems to be in the strongest position possible to remedy the homelessness crisis.