San Francisco needs to adopt housing first

San Francisco is rapidly acquiring notoriety for its huge homeless population, which is steadily growing and contrasts starkly with the incredibly wealthy and powerful tech industry. Homeless encampments bloom opposite the doors of well-known names in the industry, and while rents skyrocket and people take home salaries of millions, people are struggling to survive on the streets of a city that is becoming more and more hostile. San Francisco is tired of looking at homeless people, as tech millionaires regularly like to remind people, and the upper classes are demanding that Something Be Done.

The reason San Francisco has such a huge homeless population is complicated, and there’s no one-shot solution. Some people are homeless because they have severe untreated mental illness, because they are queer or trans and were kicked out of their homes, because they returned from the war with no social supports, because even though they are employed they still don’t make enough to be able to afford to live in stable housing. Some people live on the streets, others in shelters, others in their cars. A trip through a region like the Market will reveal homeless people everywhere, something that the tech industry hates, along with the city’s elite and the tourists who complain about having to look at people who are struggling to survive.

During the Super Bowl, the city swept homeless people out of heavily trafficked areas, trying to clean up its image in a way that was deeply disturbing — and a throwback to other regions that have done the same thing, hiding ‘undesirables’ from the public eye in order to look better to visitors. While it was sprucing itself up, the city did nothing to actually address the reasons people are homeless, though it did erect some very costly temporary shelters that no one wanted to stay in because they failed to meet the needs of the homeless community.

After everyone left, the city settled momentarily back into stasis, until late February rolled around and law enforcement started forcibly removing members of homeless camps in and around Market, SoMa, and nearby areas. They weren’t provided with resources, just told they needed to move along, in a really classic tactic: You can’t stay here, find somewhere else. This just pushed homeless people further into the margins, creating a situation where many were made more vulnerable and more communities rose up in indignant rage that homeless people were daring to sully their streets.

Homelessness is a problem across the US and certainly in California, where many cities claim to have a ‘homeless problem’ and are trying to push homeless people out, often foisting them off on neighbouring communities rather than addressing the reasons so many people are homeless. The lack of social resources comes with severe scapegoating and claims that homeless people constitute a dangerous criminal element — another reason to forcibly remove them — and they detract from quality of life. After all, some people are hardworking and just want to go home at night without being subjected to the reality that their fellow humans are suffering.

There’s no sure solution to homelessness anywhere, let alone in San Francisco, but one option can definitely improve social outcomes, and we know this, because we’ve seen it work. Housing first policies, in which the focus revolves around getting homeless people into some kind of stable housing before taking on anything else, work. Stable housing is key for people who are struggling with issues like hygiene, finding a safe place to store their belongings, adhering to medical treatment programmes, having an address to handle correspondence, being able to cook for themselves, and much more. Homeless people face discrimination along a range of axes, and just getting into a home can help them reestablish their footing so they can address other issues in their lives.

San Francisco is often pitched as a place with a housing shortage, but it’s a little more complicated than that. Real estate is extremely expensive and wealthy people are flooding into the city to live, but housing vacancies are still present, and there are plenty of opportunities to develop sustainable buildings for housing first programmes. This requires, however, that the city take the need seriously, rather than allowing developers to continue to build costly monstrosities for the rich.

Like many other cities, San Francisco has a requirement that developers build and set aside a certain amount of affordable housing units. Many developers skirt this requirement because no one wants to look at gross poor people when they’re in a building with $3,000/month one bedrooms. Some just flout the regulations entirely, while others opt for building offsite to meet their obligations, which serves to further segregate rich and poor. Recently there’s been an uptick in awareness that the city really does need to invest in affordable housing, but we need more of it.

Affordable housing, is critically needed not just by the homeless community but by many working class people in San Francisco given the high cost of living, illustrating how easy it is to slide into homelessness. The city must find a way to get people into safe, comfortable, high-quality housing, because if it does, those homeless people it treats with such rage and scorn could stand a fighting chance at building lives for themselves and living independently, rather than being at the mercy of an often cruel and exclusionary system.

Image: Life in the streets in San Francisco, Giuseppe Milo, Flickr