Helping the Homeless Doesn’t Mean Anything Goes on San Francisco’s Streets

Homelessness and street behavior are eternal issues in San Francisco, on par with Muni’s ups and downs and the perpetual and real anxiety around housing costs. I use the terms “homeless” and “street behavior” separately because, while there’s overlap, they aren’t the same thing. We see plenty of awful street behavior by people who aren’t homeless, and there are many homeless people we never, ever see on our streets, who don’t cause problems for anyone, and who would never engage in the anti-social street behavior so common in our city. It’s important not to broad-brush or stereotype homeless people and to instead focus on providing people with the support they need to succeed while at the same time having zero tolerance for awful behavior by some people — whether or not they are homeless — on our streets.

San Francisco struggles mightily to deal with what we see on our streets, and residents’ frustration level, always high, is currently extremely high and justifiably so. On the one hand, we all know, intuitively, that the situation isn’t ok. It’s not ok to set up a campsite on a public sidewalk. It’s not ok to strew huge amounts of stuff around public space. It’s not ok to piss and crap on sidewalks, in plazas, on people’s homes, and in other spaces that people use. It’s not ok to shoot up in public, to get so drunk that you pass out in the middle of a neighborhood on a daily or weekly basis, or to harass people (whether that harassment is due to being high, mentally ill, or simply a jerk). And, it’s not ok that our Fire Department spends such an inordinate amount of time and resources responding to medical calls for people who are falling apart daily on our streets.

(A street encampment in San Francisco)

On the other hand, we are a liberal, compassionate city, which is what many of us love so much about San Francisco. We want to help people, and we don’t want to see ourselves or be perceived as “mean.” Some local homeless advocates — particularly the highly ideological Coalition on Homelessness, which opposes any and all efforts to address what’s going on beyond advocating for more funding — take advantage of, and manipulate, San Franciscans’ compassion by shaming any of us who take issue with our city’s unhealthy street situation, whether a columnist noting the city’s frequent urine stench or the Mayor’s announcement that street encampments can’t remain during the Super Bowl. For example, despite my strong support for investment in homeless services, fringe homeless advocates have repeatedly protested my home, due to my support for standards of civil street behavior.

These self-appointed advocates self-righteously announce that anyone who advocates that you can’t just set up a campsite on a sidewalk or shoot up or defecate where you want is some sort of right-wing Republican.

Unfortunately, this shaming often works in our charged San Francisco political environment, and it prevents us from taking the decisive steps we need to meaningfully address the horrible scenes that play out in so many San Francisco neighborhoods every day.

San Francisco’s homelessness problem doesn’t suffer for lack of resources. San Francisco spends $230 million a year on homeless services, ranging from housing and shelter to emergency services to health services and other support. We need to deploy these resources efficiently and focus on a few areas where we need more help — more supportive housing units, more shelter beds, more navigation centers (which allow the city to move entire encampments off the streets), and significantly more mental health infrastructure to get people off the streets and keep them off the streets.

(San Francisco’s innovative navigation center at 16th and Mission Streets, which is designed to get entire encampments off the streets and into services)

But, let’s be very clear: No matter how much money we spend to meet the needs of homeless people — no matter how many shelter beds, mental health services, supportive housing units, public restrooms, and sobering centers we pay for — the situation on our streets will never change unless these investments are coupled with establishment and enforcement of consistent standards of streets behavior. All too often, enforcement is sporadic — enforcement on day one in X location, enforcement on day two in Y location, followed by no enforcement for a while, then a reinitiation of the cycle. Moreover, much of the enforcement is complaint-driven, dependent on residents calling for help, rather than proactive. The result is not much enforcement and a problem that simply moves around.

The result is highly sporadic, and thus ineffective, enforcement. Our street behavior problem thus persists, festers, and gets worse. Our $230 million a year needs to be coupled with a clear message: these behaviors will never be tolerated in any location in San Francisco at any time.

We already have a number of these laws, for example, prohibitions on camping on or blocking sidewalks, prohibitions on urinating or defecating in public, and a prohibition on aggressive panhandling, but these laws aren’t consistently enforced.

That’s not a criticism of the police, or, rather, the police only bear a portion of my criticism. Our police department is a reflection of our city. San Franciscans train our police how to act. For the police, the upside of consistently enforcing street behavior rules is small. Police spend inordinate time getting people to break down encampments, to stop shooting up on sidewalks, or otherwise comply. They may need to spend significant time with someone at the hospital if the person is sick, says he is sick, or is under the influence. If they issue a citation, the chances of anything happening with that citation in our dysfunctional San Francisco criminal justice system is tiny. And, in the current political environment, where every action by the police is under the microscope, the disincentives for enforcement grow.

So, San Francisco, you want our street situation to change? Then, continue to support progressive and forward-looking investments in shelter, supportive housing, navigation centers, and mental health and addiction services. Continue to support the absolutely amazing social service nonprofits that actually get people off our streets, into the services they need, and on track.

Yet, please know that these investments will never be enough, by themselves, to move the dial around horrible street behavior. These investments and support must be coupled with having and enforcing clear standards of civil street behavior. We can’t have it both ways — making it difficult or impossible, due to politics, to establish and enforce these standards while demanding that police or politicians magically make the problem go away.