As part of the SF Homeless Project today we have two good retrospective pieces with archival footage from the early 1980's in San Francisco that trace the sudden visibility of hundreds (or thousands) of homeless on the city's streets to the year 1982. The piece above from CBS 5's Wilson Walker explains how one central problem that led very directly to putting people out on the street was the abrupt de-funding of public housing by the federal government which went from an annual budget of $16 billion in 1979 to just $1 billion in 1983. (In this letter on the topic of homelessness, former mayor Art Agnos quotes a figure of $32 billion as the onetime affordable housing budget of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which Reagan cut to $8 billion.)
That all happened in the middle of a recession, with 1.5 million Californians out of work and some 12 million unemployed nationwide, the disappearance of scores of manufacturing jobs, and just as state-run mental health facilities were shutting down and/or ceasing to commit patients against their will. As KQED notes, Newsweek ran a headline calling the holiday season in 1982 "The Hard-Luck Christmas of ’82" and in the 1983 documentary you can watch below, they refer to a "Reaganville" in Berkeley a homeless encampment so named for the "Hoovervilles" of the Great Depression era.
So, the phenomenon of modern homelessness can be traced to broad-ranging political decisions made in the 1960's and '70's by conservative leaders like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and hit its most visible, early zenith in 1982 and 1983. In San Francisco, as Agnos tells CBS 5 in the piece above, it's then become the duty of each successive mayor to come up with his own approach in order to elected, and virtually every year we now have the conversation of whether it's morally just to criminalize homelessness, shuffling them off one sidewalk and onto another in order to make the public temporarily believe the issue is being handled, while we remain chronically short on supportive housing or long-term solutions.
Also, as the discussion of homelessness continues this week, people should bear in mind the falsehood that homelessness is a larger and more terrible problem than it has ever been in San Francisco. This New York Times piece from 1998 quotes a figure from the Coalition on Homelessness saying that 16,000 people were living on the streets of SF at the time nearly 10,000 more than were counted in the most recent homeless census, though experts argue about that count and say that there may be as many as 10,000 homeless here currently.