Following last week's blitz of coverage as part of the SF Homeless Project, Chron columnist C.W. Nevius is finally, predictably chiming in with his common-sense, let's-stop-the-nonsense take on what's arguably the city's most complex and intractable problem. And, predictably, he's got his own solution to the whole thing.
While Nevius makes some valid points we can't simply say "this is going to cost a lot more money" without figuring out where that money is feasibly coming from, and yes, this should be the federal government's problem as much as it is ours, and America's major cities are bearing the brunt of the nation's ills when it comes to economic inequality, lack of affordable housing, mental health neglect, and substance abuse he makes others based on faulty assumptions that have underpinned the debate over homelessness for three decades.
For one, he makes the oversimple statement, "any person who comes to San Francisco and sits down on the street becomes our problem." First of all, the fairly successful Homeward Bound program begun by Gavin Newsom has bought bus tickets home for near 10,000 people since the program began a decade ago, so in all those cases, people did not become "our problem." Also, this idea goes back to the age-old assumption that San Francisco is uniquely a magnet for the homeless because of the robustness of our services and handouts, even though the most recent point-in-time survey in 2015 showed that 71 percent of those living on the street had been housed in San Francisco before they became homeless (up from 61 percent in 2013), and only 10 percent said they had come here from out of state. In total, as the Chron's Heather Knight recently reminded us, about 425 of the 6,700 homeless counted in that survey said they had come here specifically for SF's homeless services as Sherilyn Adams, executive director of Larkin Street Youth told the paper, "I think it’s a very rare occurrence that somebody who’s struggling Googles ‘homeless services’ and comes to us for them."
San Francisco isn't demonstrably the magnet for the homeless or downtrodden that many think it is, either. As Mother Jones illustrated last week in several charts, New York and Jacksonville still have us beat in terms of the percent of our total population that is homeless, and both Los Angeles and San Jose have higher rates of homeless who are unsheltered.
Not to mention: People have been calling SF a "magnet" for years, even though, as Matthew Doherty, executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness just told the Chronicle, just about every city in the U.S. thinks it's a magnet because of all the services they offer, be it LA, Portland, Seattle, or even Fargo, North Dakota. Yes, Fargo. Look back to this 1998 piece in the New York Times and you have Paul Boden, director of SF's Coalition on Homelessness and a board member of the National Coalition on Homelessness decrying this "magnet" myth, 18 years ago. "I don't know of one city in the country that doesn't say that it's a magnet and that homeless people come from somewhere else,'' he said at the time. ''Fargo, N.D., was calling itself a magnet. It's kind of sad, actually.''
Here's a piece from February 2015 in the Washington Times talking about how homelessness was spiking in North Dakota last year, as people "pour into" the state, proving that the problem in that state, and the myth about it being a magnet, only continue.
So if so many people who have lost their homes are "pouring" in from somewhere else, where are they coming from?
Certainly among the homeless in SF, especially the youth population, there are runaways and substance abusers who are less interested in being housed here than they are in sleeping outdoors, getting drugs, and likely moving on in a month or two somewhere else where it's possible to sleep comfortably outdoors. Criminalizing them for not having a place to sleep becomes a moral, and even a Constitutional issue the Justice Department last year wrote a "statement of interest" regarding crackdowns on sleeping in public spaces in Boise, Idaho, saying that if a person's status, as homeless, means that they must sleep somewhere in a public space, outlawing that conduct is equivalent to criminalizing their status, if that status can not be helped.
Nevius glosses over the issue of mental illness, something that affects many people who already live here and which can affect how stably they are housed not to mention the many younger people newly diagnosed with illnesses like schizophrenia every year, who may live in or near San Francisco and end up quickly estranged from loved ones or kicked out of housing because they can no longer support themselves. Though some estimates put it more at a third, Senator Dianne Feinstein recently cited an estimate that half of SF's homeless are suffering from mental illness. Are we supposed to simply tell all those people to go away? Or should we bus them to another state to deal with like Nevada did a couple years ago?
Then we come to the crux of Nevius's "solution": Apart from simply pouring more hundreds of millions into the problem, he suggests "we can set a cap, or a ceiling on what we will do, how much we will spend and how many people we’ll help at a time."
The theory behind that is that we'll never actually be able to lower the number of people who become homeless or arrive from elsewhere, so we should decide on what our threshold is and stick to it. That would make sense if it weren't for the fact that a) he'd already admitted that this is a national problem, and b) the factors contributing to trends in homelessness, like the lack of low-income housing and the unaffordability of housing in general, aren't going away.
Also, he suggests that crackdowns on tent camping need to be more strict, and come with citations and jail time because that makes a ton of sense. Will the campers get scared off and go somewhere else? Yeah, probably Daly City, or Oakland.
I get that Nevius fans are going to see the common sense in what he's saying, and that the staggering amount spent $140 million of that oft quoted $241 million budget, however, is being spent to house formerly homeless people whom we've already gotten off the street in the last decade or more sounds like it should be enough. But this is a problem that hasn't been addressed with any consistency over time in this city, in terms of funding or methodology, and perhaps that is changing.
The point is, and Nevius should know this at this late date, homelessness is a phenomenon, and a national tragedy, that defies easy answers and column-length solutions. Readers might like something digestible and pragmatic sounding that they can nod at, but for god's sake. If it were that easy, we wouldn't still be fighting about this, and we'd have shooed everyone off the street with the Matrix program 20 fucking years ago.