All you need to know about City Hall’s Discussion of Homelessness

If you were not one of the lucky people who could make it to SF City Hall yesterday, February 25th, to discuss the homelessness solutions, I will tell you everything you need to know. There were some shocking discoveries made public. I won’t leave any drama out; those are the most telling of our system being FUCKED. I will label those “(REVEAL within).”

The house was packed and backed up into a separate room downstairs. About 50 people waited 3 hours to speak during Public Comment. I learned a lot, and surprisingly, so did the powers that be. I believe Supervisor Jane Kim was leading the discussion in place of Malia Cohen, who brought this discussion to order in the first place. And upfront, I must say that S. Kim was a BADASS and put everybody at the podium on the public hot seat and dug for real answers until she got them. I’m sure everyone was grateful for that because it gave everybody a new understanding of how ignorant the city is about the resources we have for the homeless. THE RATIO OF BEDS TO HOMELESS WILL ASTOUND YOU. Chairman Aaron Peskin was there the entire four hours. And it should be noted that although invited to this discussion, the SF Police Department regretted to inform us they were unable to send a single officer to speak on their behalf, a.k.a. they didn’t care.

Most of the first hour of 10 am was spent listening to some dude give a presentation from the Top of Broadway Community Benefit District (or as he abbreviated it, the CBD). They’re basically prettifying the North Beach area and adding historical art attract more tourism than just for the late night strip clubs. After listening to him describe his slides for a good half hour, someone behind me yelled, “Enough about the merchants! We’re here to discuss the homeless! Fuck the merchants!” Chairman, Aaron Peskin, asked the man to be respectful of each item on topic. Homelessness was item 2 on the list of discussions and we were still on item 1, to which the man behind me grouchily said, “psh, merchants.”

Item 2: The City’s Response to Homelessness

(REVEAL within) The Office of Hope went first; they were the ones to reveal the multiple organizations’ SOLUTION to CONSOLIDATE and form ONE DEPARTMENT. Under this new system, at shelters, they want to respect people’s autonomy, not give them curfews, treat them like adults, not give them strict meal times, no hard security at entrances, no restrictions on pushing beds together to cuddle for comfort, etc. (The guy speaking said, “It’s not a sex thing. People just need hugs,” at which point Supervisor Kim stopped him and asked him to rush through the details and give us the highlights, since we had a lot to get through. Some people laughed because it seemed the word, ‘sex’ was uncomfortable to say in the room, but I’m glad he said it. It was important to hear what’s going on behind these closed shelter doors. Their slides were too small to see on the computers of the Board of Supervisors so Chairman Peskin asked for hard copies because he said their computers were, “as ancient as 1997.” (This informed what I had to say during public comment.)

There was mention of CREATING A SINGULAR SYSTEM TO CATALOG THE HOMELESS for ALL DEPARTMENTS TO USE. Supervisor Kim emphasized the importance of implementing the same system of rape victims and witness protection into the homeless structure. We can’t be asking the homeless, some who have had very traumatizing and humiliating stories, to re-tell them over and over again to different departments. We should save them further embarrassment by cataloguing them into one centralized computer. Why that hasn’t been done so far is concerning. Kim also said the only system that seems to have worked up to now in the past 12 years, has been the navigation centers. The Navigation Center in the Mission district holds 75 PEOPLE TOTAL. It is supposedly the most popular of shelters because it accommodates people with their families, partners and even their pets. (When people cannot move with those who have been with them during their most difficult times, they prefer to stay on the street, which only escalates the problem.) Kim posed a question to the man presenting for the Office of Hope, about acquiring more lots to create more navigation centers. He said it’s not easy to just take over empty lots; people mention lots to him all the time but those take money and sometimes get taken by the wrong hands.

Lesson so far: There is too much bureaucracy. There are too many steps to getting help.

Homeless Outreach Team (or HOT): Next we heard from the outreach team, who are called for psychiatric cases and emergencies. This organization receives $8 MILLION a year for their program. They have 165 BEDS in the city. They have accounted for 7,000 psychiatric patients, not all of which are homeless. EMS or Police brings in 1,382 psychiatric individuals, 1,250 of which are 5150’s (or intensive emergency cases requiring case workers). Those who do not require case managers are released back onto the streets and loosely followed up with, depending on success or failure to track them. “There’s a point where a person is no longer ‘holdable.’ Once they receive medication and are well again, if they refuse further services, there’s just nothing we can do,” was said. HOT works with St. Francis Hospital also, who have a small psych ward.

(REVEAL within) LACK OF ROOMS: The Office of Hope USED TO HAVE 333 rooms; they NOW HAVE 65 rooms. There was a collective, audible gasp in the room. Chairman Peskin asked why. The woman representing the Office of Hope said, “market forces, stock of stabilization rooms. Some hotel rooms went offline because of disrepair. They were no longer safe for clients. And public hotels were converted to tourist hotels and chose not to work with us anymore.” Chairman Peskin was shocked and very angry with this response, saying this tourist conversion was illegal, in fact, banned by the Supreme Court. He asked about hotels that used to be available around Geary, Post and Sutter streets; he asked for specific names of hotels that are doing this. She said she would send a list but it was mainly the Academy of Art who bought up all the low-income SRO’s around that tender-nob area and converted them to student housing. She said there were a few hotels who still supported their structure but other hotels were offering only shared rooms, which is not part of their plan, since mentally unstable patients don’t mix well with the general public. She said ‘better takers’ (as in richer visitors/residents) were paying more than the HSA (Human Services Agency) could afford. (I’m assuming the HSA is responsible for sharing funding with HOT, given her statement.)

Frustrating so far, right?

(REVEAL within) Human Services Agency: The woman who spoke for the HSA began by giving out a lot of statistics and numbers, which was numbing, to say the least. I’ll give you a recap. As of January 2015, there were 6,656 homeless adult individuals accounted for, and approximately 500 homeless youth. Supervisor Kim stopped her before she passed the podium to the head of the HSA, (a white male…this is important), to ask her why she thought we haven’t been successful in our efforts so far, of stopping the continual homeless population problem, despite having so many organizations. She said… “I am very transparent and many know I am leaving this year so I am going to be very transparent. I am retiring.” We laughed. She began discussing racial inequality. “I see the faces of the homeless every day. I’ve been here, I’ve done the work. The staff does not mirror the community they’re advocating for. I am going to be more willing to help somebody who looks like me, than helping someone who looks like you,” she said to Supervisor Kim, who is of Asian decent. “That’s just the way it is.” BOOM! I wanted to scream! But instead, a lot of us opted for spirit fingers, as recommended by one of the presenters earlier when the public was clapping too much. She said, (and I wish I had caught her name) that during the hotel tax legislation, she asked to include homeless singles in that legislation, but they were not included. She mentioned there are many homeless, silent families who live in cars but there are many more singles out on the streets who are not being equally advocated for.

(REVEAL within) Kim asked this woman what her opinion was on moving forward, since she would no longer be present for the future of this new department. She said she’s hopeful because the separate departments have been meeting privately for a few months now, but the new department head should have the same goals and the same vision as the staff who works under the department merger. She said that a single new department with only one goal in mind will succeed because it will be easier for the homeless to navigate one place. She thinks the main problem is not the lack of vision, it’s budget. (I disagree, and so did many public speakers during the public comment section, which I’ll get to soon.) The next presenter was the white male I referenced earlier. He was only finishing up the numbers section of the HSA. The city provides $247 MILLION to homelessness. Supervisor Kim asked the man why it is not helping house those on the street. He said $118 MILLION of that budget goes to house just 4,000 families because they would rather invest in funding “exit strategies” than keeping people in transition in shelters. So of that budget, only $14 MILLION is spent on the shelter system. The REST OF THE MONEY goes to eviction prevention and psychiatric assistance, in that order.

Public Comment: Like I said in my opening, about 50 people (maybe more?) went up to the podium to speak to the 3 supervisors left of the board by that time. There were regular people, volunteers for unheard of underground homeless organizations who pled to be included in these decisions, the staff at Rainbow grocery who had cold hard facts and suggestions to add public restrooms, porta-potties and trashcans on Division street and beyond, about 2 people who were just there to complain about crime and homelessness, ACTUAL HOMELESS PEOPLE asking where the fuck they were supposed to go because they’ve been turned away for lack of space, etc.

(REVEAL within) The first speaker, THANKFULLY, was HOMELESS and FRUSTRATED. He pretty much lost his shit at the podium after presenting himself, showing his frustration. “I went this morning to take a shower. They didn’t let me take a shower! I’ve taken 8 fucking showers here! I can’t even take a shower?” The security’s immediate response was to remove him, which was SO TELLING of how we instantly CRIMINALIZE the homeless over any signs of anger. As he was removing him, Supervisor Kim yelled, “Let him finish!” with a chorus of other public members. It was very emotional. He finished calmly, saying the shelters do not help the homeless the way they say they do and he left in a huff.

Other people said things like: (the quotes below are loose because it’s what I could type in time or remember)

“We need public restrooms, (people clapped) and trashcans all along Division Street.”

“We need Porta-Potties. We already installed one on Division street ourselves. We asked a security guard on Division why the homeless can’t use the Port-of-Potties for the construction workers. He said, “we don’t want them to get too comfortable here.” (As if using a Port-of-Potty is comfortable!)

“Please don’t throw more money at this thing. Doing the same thing you’ve been doing with the same department and investing more money ain’t going to fix this if it hasn’t for 12 years already. Get to the source. Stop the evictions that’s putting people on the streets!”

(REVEAL within) “Where should I go? I went to (name of shelter) and was turned away. There were empty beds.” Supervisor Kim asked one of the representatives of that particular shelter to come speak on their behalf. They said their computer system is down on the weekends because there’s nobody there to run it and there’s no collective system to catalog people anyway. To the empty beds problem, another shelter representative said they designate a specific amount of beds to families they promise them to…if the families don’t show up, the beds remain empty and they close their checkin systems at 8 pm. EIGHT PM! So after 8 pm, if you’re homeless and not checked into the one of 60 beds at different shelters all across the city, you have to sleep on the street.

“I’m living under a bridge right now with about 30 other families. We were given a 72 hour notice to clear our tents, in English. I’m sure the family next to me doesn’t read English. Aren’t city notices supposed to come in all languages?” Supervisor Kim asked what language the family speaks next to his tent. He said, “Chinese, or Mandarin I think.”

“Giving people a 72 hour notice to clear their tents and coming in 24 hours and tearing down everything they have, all their belongings, is no compassionate way to treat a human.”

“Tell us what to do. We will know better how to use our money if you tell us what we need to do. The public has been donating money to buy new tents to replace those thrown away during the Superbowl. You can better us where to spend our money. We just need to know how to help.”

“I work in maternity. We need to start at the beginning. There are so many homeless babies who are going to grow up to be like these people on the street because that is already the trajectory they’re following. The youth need more support to get off the streets.”

“I’ve lived here for 12 years. Just the other morning I walked out my front door there was a tent blocking the whole corner of the sidewalk and I had to walk into traffic to go around the tent. I almost got hit by a car. I called 911 because it was THAT severe.” (Some people responded with thumbs down and audible ‘wah’s.’

“Please do not give all that money to the departments. I’m in transition out of a shelter right now. It was so hard to get to where I am. Don’t give them all that money. They’re not using it right.”

“I used to be homeless…If you’re looking for more money, ask the new rich people who have come in.”

“I would like to see a handbook for the homeless, a pamphlet on where to get help, shelter, food, how to work around the system. If you don’t know how, how will we?”

Amy Weiss, (who I voted for Mayor), passed out strips of recycled paper with a website: www.SaintFrancisChallenge.com and she discussed this new effort she was beginning to give us a chance to support our “unhoused neighbors.” Go to it to join the advocacy program she created. But not before calling out Supervisor Kim (who was at the moment standing behind her chair talking to a secretary or somebody not involved) and Chairman Peskin (who was talking to another), “Aaaand you’re not listening. Nobody’s listening. Supervisor Kim, Aaron Peskin, you’re not paying any attention.” Peskin replied after finishing his business, “Ms. Weiss, just so you know, I can listen to you and talk to this person at the same time; we are able to multi-task. And I assure you this will not cut into your time.” “Oh good, I expect to see that count start over then,” Weiss said. BADASS.

And my response was not based on any prior experience, merely on what was discussed. I was under time and should’ve mentioned Justin Keller, but I chose not to get dramatic. I was looking for practical solutions.

“I keep hearing about the lack of current technology in your computer systems…with all the new tech companies who are running integrated systems for the whole world out of San Francisco, you have the best resources to tackle these computer problems. Tap into those companies who have driven up the market rates, give them a chance to redeem themselves for contributing to the disparity of the classes…To the question of empty lots that can’t be easily converted to shelters or navigation centers-the city should allocate lots to homelessness and RESIST BIG MONEY from companies to create more offices.”

Chairman Peskin was very compassionate. He compared San Francisco to the poorest countries in the world, where the smallest wealthy class controls everything at the top and the largest part of society is suffering at the bottom. Supervisor Kim said, “housing is the answer.” (Duh. Homeless=without a home) She said she was a bit concerned about consolidating the departments but was hopeful. Her last quote was, “We are either Unified by Design or Divided by Default.” In other words, we keep trying to do something or we will never work as a civilized society.

A big question on my mind: Why didn’t Ed Lee make an appearance?

When I left City Hall at about 2:07 pm, I walked toward Market Street to catch the bus home. I saw a black man with a half shirt on and cropped pants. He was sitting on a green chair pillow and next to him on the cement was a pipe and a lighter. The pipe was strange looking; I almost thought it was a crack pipe but when I sat down next to him, there was weed in it. I asked him where he was sleeping. He didn’t answer. I asked him if he needed a shelter. He said, “Um.” I told him about Pier 80 and the Navigation Center. I said I had just come from City Hall and the whole city was there to discuss homelessness to make life better for him and everyone on the street. He asked me if City Hall was “discussing slices of cheese?” I said no and repeated myself. He started talking quietly to a person walking across the street, asking them if they needed his assistance, “excuse me sir, it looks like you need help parking your car.” I told him I see why people struggle so much, because there’s not enough room in shelters for everybody, not enough housing. He said, “I saw a realty office on Market. They have houses. They’ve got plenty of that.” I agreed. He layed down and leaned his elbow on his pillow, saying some nonsense in an extremely factual voice which I didn’t quite catch so I couldn’t respond, but I stayed there a little while and people watched with him. He asked if I wanted to smoke some of his weed. “Not right now, thank you,” I replied. I asked him if he needed a place to sleep. He didn’t respond. I waited for an answer. Nothing. Again, he looked at someone low to the ground, who may or may not have been there, and told them, “sir you can’t park your car there.” I told him I hoped he enjoyed the beautiful day and that I would see him around. I asked his name. He said something like Salahi. I told him my name and we shook hands. I was getting up and he said to me, “I like your tights. You have a very sound mind…body, mind. Excuse me, sir, do you need help with that car?”

I realized as I was walking away that I got everything I needed from him to reaffirm what I had just discussed…and he got nothing from me. Typical.