Earlier this week, the New York Times highlighted an issue that is not news to any current or former San Franciscan: widespread homelessness. The article’s author, who also serves as the Times’ San Francisco bureau chief, was quick to point to the blight of the homeless population, describing “heroin needles, the pile of excrement between parked cars, the yellow soup oozing out of a large plastic bag by the curb and the stained, faux Persian carpet dumped on the corner” in his lede.
Sure, the condition of many of San Francisco’s streets can appear to more closely resemble “developing-world squalor” than what you might expect of a world class city that is home to the globe’s biggest tech companies. But while former San Francisco mayor and gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom suggested that the ‘squalor’ is the result of a city that is “too permissive,” there’s another issue at play that the piece just barely touches upon: inadequate resources for the homeless in a city where the median price of a home is over $1 million.
The number of homeless people living in San Francisco varies based on who you ask—the Times put it at around 4,400, while the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2017 Annual Homeless Assessment Report counted 6,858. The exact number aside, the fact remains that San Francisco, one of the most expensive cities in the nation—if not the world, has allocated insufficient resources to assisting the homeless.
The SF Homeless Project found that the city has upped its budget for addressing homelessness, from $150 million in 2004 to $304 million in the 2017–18 fiscal year. That number has climbed higher for 2018–19, to $325 million.
But for those who think that that $300 million+ homelessness budget is already too high, only 17.6% of last year’s budget went to temporary shelters and a paltry 2.2% on health services. Much of that money, two-thirds of it to be exact, went to people who aren’t homeless at all. $250 million was directed toward “rental subsidies, eviction prevention and permanent supportive housing.”
And despite soaring budgets, and even though the city has added more than 900 shelter beds for homeless individuals and families since 2016, the waiting list consistently hovers around 1,000. Until the Ninth Circuit Court of appeals issued a new ruling in early September, it was also legal for the city to prosecute people sleeping in the streets. In fact, by one count San Francisco spends as much as $20 million a year on enforcing a series of laws that effectively criminalize homelessness.
I understand the aesthetic problems the Times alludes to that homelessness causes for San Francisco: the pervasive odor of urine and excrement, the danger of improperly discarded heroin needles, and a general lack of cleanliness, all of which have contributed to suffering tourism for the city and disgust for many of its residents.
But rather than point to the ever-present reminders of homelessness—which undoubtedly and understandably make San Francisco’s more affluent residents uncomfortable—perhaps the city’s media and inhabitants could press local government to address the issue instead of simply trying to push it out of sight. The individuals and companies of San Francisco have the funds to put toward solutions such as building longer term housing solutions for the homeless.
Proposition C, which will appear on the ballot in November, essentially advocates for just that: if it passes, companies that make more than $50 million a year will see a gross tax receipts increase that could generate as much as $300 million for shelter beds, supportive housing, and mental health and substance abuse services. 50% of the fund would be allocated to paying for approximately 4,000 housing units. It would also fund bathrooms and sanitation centers to address the issue of San Francisco’s dirty streets.
Whether or not Proposition C passes, the fact remains that we need to change the way we talk about homelessness in San Francisco. We shouldn’t be disgusted by our streets or those living on them—we should be ashamed that we’re not doing more to help those living under such conditions. Adequate housing and services for the city’s homeless population doesn’t just help them, it helps all of us.