‘I Was Given A 90-Day Bed’: Homelessness In San Francisco

By Rafael Roy

More money is spent keeping people homeless than housing them.

Lee Kopeland wakes to the sound of squawking seagulls — they recently discovered his food stash. Hitting the snooze button usually requires a swift fistful of cereal, but it’s a luxury he can’t afford today. Lee makes money as a newspaper vendor, an antiquated outlier in a city where everything is seemingly one click away.

Every morning he gathers half a dozen free papers from their respective bins — like The SF Weekly, The East Bay Express, and The Examiner — along his three-mile commute from the Embarcadero to downtown San Francisco. He presents them alongside the iconic Street Sheet, a broadsheet that features articles penned by the homeless community and its advocates. Weekend rain ruined Lee’s two biggest business days; his clothes still haven’t fully dried, leaving a faint smell of mildew. Lee has been sleeping in a cut of rocks along the bay for the last five months after his van was repossessed. The only wage he makes comes from selling a story that San Franciscans have tired of.

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A British tourist takes interest in Lee’s makeshift newsstand. “I haven’t seen a newsstand my whole week here,” he exclaims. Lee replies in his thick Texas accent, “that’s ’cause there ain’t none, everyone gets their news online.” Lee’s an analog news aggregator, and his cart is a one-stop shop for all things local. He’s read every article and begins to explain the interconnectedness of the stories between different papers.

On his best day last week, he made $10, and on his worst, he took home fifty cents in 10 hours. Lee’s mild manner and buoyancy betrays the grinding exhaustion of his current occupation.

While other Street Sheet vendors bellow their wares and shake their coin cups, Lee prefers to let business come to him. At the end of today’s eight-hour shift he’s made $2 and was given some fruit by a couple from Germany.

“That’ll help with the hunger pains,” he says. The last warm slivers of light faded an hour ago, and Lee hasn’t sat down once today. “I’ve got three outstanding fines for ‘sit-lie,’” he says, referring to the law passed under then-Mayor Gavin Newsom that prohibits sitting or lying on the sidewalk, or in public spaces. “I tried to bring a chair once, but they wrote me up for loitering and confiscated it.”

The criminalization of homelessness is not specific to San Francisco, but many local advocacy groups say that it greatly exacerbates the problem. “The primary response is to send a police officer, and that’s an inappropriate response,” says Julie Friedenbach, head of the Coalition on Homelessness, the organization that publishes Street Sheet.

‘The city didn’t create this issue, the federal government did and then washed their hands of it.’

Friedenbach suggests a moratorium on fines for a population that simply cannot pay them. She has worked with the homeless for over 20 years. In her tenure she’s seen four different mayors attempt to tackle the issue. When I ask what the city can do better, she insists the problem is far greater than San Francisco. “The city didn’t create this issue, the federal government did and then washed their hands of it,” Friedenbach says. “The result is that we’re spending a lot more money keeping people homeless than if we housed them,” she adds, referring to the “Housing First” philosophy employed in several cities that shows the cost of housing the homeless is less expensive in the long-term than covering the probable costs of healthcare and incarceration.

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Julie Friedenbach, Head of the Coalition on Homelessness, in her office

It seems intuitive to say the solution to homelessness is housing, but the national tradition of passing the buck has created a crisis that individual cities and states can no longer afford to handle alone. In the month of November, the cities of Portland and Seattle and the entire state of Hawaii declared states of emergency for their homeless crises. Los Angeles has also considered declaring a state of emergency for their 26,000 homeless citizens.

“The funding for housing on the federal level has been way down since 1979,” Friedenbach remarks. “They really haven’t restored us to the point where we’re seriously invested in making sure that every man, woman, and child in the United States has a safe and decent place to call home.”

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In the waiting room of the Coalition on Homelessness

The lack of state and federal support for housing has left the onus on municipal governments to cover the shortfall. Between 1978 and 1983, the federal budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, dropped a staggering 78%, from $83 billion to just $18 billion, a deep decline that compounds the crisis today.

Sam Dodge — San Francisco’s new Homeless Czar — echoes a similar sentiment about the struggles cities encounter in the face of federal defunding. “How do we keep pressing forward with the changes we need to make while preserving the good will, and not losing people to a frustrated state where police action and vigilante action becomes justified?” Dodge asks. “How do we move rapidly without state and federal support?” Dodge, and his predecessor, Bevan Dufty, are responsible for the recent change of candor around homelessness.

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Sam Dodge gives a speech in front of a Lava Mae bus during World Toilet Day. Lava Mae converts old Muni buses into mobile showers and toilets for the homeless.

A more holistic approach led to the recent pilot program, The Navigation Center, a supportive housing facility in the Mission that circumvents many of the barriers preventing the chronically homeless from seeking housing. The program allows the homeless to bring their partners, pets, and possessions under one roof with the goal of finding long-term housing. The center provides in-house caseworkers and services to obtain simple but crucial documents like official IDs. This notion runs counter to the current shelter system in San Francisco that imposes strict curfews and restrictions, and often does not facilitate long-term housing. Missing curfew means you’ve given up your bed.

‘I was given a 90-day bed, and on the third night I found out that my bed had been sold to someone else.’

“I was given a 90-day bed, and on the third night I found out that my bed had been sold to someone else and I needed to go through the process all over again. That’s when I decided to sleep on the streets,” Lee says, mirroring the chorus of voices in the homeless community who believe the shelters are overrun by corruption and favoritism. There’s a pervasive sense that the issue of homelessness has been scapegoated, politicized, and passed along. Meanwhile, people like Lee Kopeland are faced with the arduous task of getting out of homelessness with little government support.

“I paid into the system.” Lee says, “When I was told I was worth $64 a month, and $194 in food stamps, and that’s all I was worth, and ‘there’s the streets,’ that just told me how sick this administration is . . . If they can’t fix the issues in their own country, people don’t have a fighting chance. More people are just gonna fall through the cracks. That’s why I’m out here advocating and selling the paper.”

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A street vendor at the end of his shift hands Lee a plate of leftovers. Lee thanks him, his voice barely a whisper. He begins to pack up his papers, glancing around to see if one of his regulars will pass by at the eleventh hour. The only interest he gets is from patrolling police officers making their rounds. Lee hates the nightlife downtown. “When the sun goes down, this becomes a different place altogether,” he says. His eyes dart to shrouded faces. Tonight he’ll cook himself stuffing over a propane stove. “Hopefully it’ll turn out,” he chuckles. Lee watches from his home by the water as the city goes dark, the lights snapping off in the windows one by one.

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