More affordable and transitional housing may be one answer to the state's sprawling homeless problem — which itself is a reflection of a broader national one. But as homelessness continues to feel more and more visible and intractable in San Francisco, San Jose, and Los Angeles, the broader liberal populace seems to be showing signs of being less charitable.
In San Francisco, we saw the outcry about the woman who lives in a condo near the Embarcadero in SoMa who was attacked outside her building by an apparently mentally ill man who said he wanted to save her from robots. That woman, Paneez Kosarian, has become a spokesperson for a campaign to halt the construction of a temporary homeless Navigation Center on Port of SF property on the Embarcadero. (Opponents are still trying legal maneuvers to get the already under-construction structure stopped.)
Speaking to the New York Times last week in a piece about the statewide backlash against the homeless, Kosarian said, "Putting mentally ill people and people with drug abuse problems in residential areas is careless."
Mayor London Breed is sympathetic to that attitude, and is working with lawmakers to lower the threshold for forcibly detaining mentally ill people and putting them in treatment in what's called conservatorship. However Breed is not sympathetic to the Embarcadero neighbors fighting the Navigation Center, because the city needs all the housing options it can get for its homeless, and there is broad public support for the idea that every neighborhood should do its part. (Many San Franciscans, though, may quietly feel the way John Waters does when he said in a June interview "if they opened one next to my house, I wouldn't be happy about it either.")
The problem comes in conflating homelessness with criminality, which many homeless advocates and SF Supervisors are quick to denounce. Oakland developer, landlord, and noted Trump supporter Gene Gorelick is not one of those, and makes no bones about saying that the presence of homeless camps near his Oakland construction sites led directly to his car being broken into twice, and the sites being burglarized nine times, as he tells the New York Times.
Furthermore, Gorelick says he wants the Bay Area homeless to be shipped off in a "party bus" to Mexico.
Homeless advocate Paul Read tells the Times that he encountered a man who was shooting a pellet gun at a group of homeless tents in the San Fernando Valley in what he called "target practice." A separate incident in LA's Eagle Rock neighborhood saw an encampment go up in flames, though the cause of that remains under investigation.
We all saw here in San Francisco how the city showed some support for a resident-funded effort to place anti-homeless boulders along the sidewalk of a two-block street known as Clinton Park, despite public backlash. And just last week a similar effort by neighbors in Ingleside to board up the entrances to a small alley was met with backlash.
The Chronicle Editorial Board penned a piece on Sunday pointing to this new survey by the Public Policy Institute of California that found that the most pressing issue facing the state according to most Californians is homelessness. The should, the Editorial Board argues, motivate politicians to take more action on affordable housing as Oakland is trying to do — and for the Bay Area to act at a regional level to deal with the problem, rather than making cities all go it alone.
But to the disgruntled, throwing more money at housing won't solve mental-health and drug-dependency issues — and throwing money at more services only "attracts" more homeless people to move here. (A myth that has been debunked many times, in many cities.)
As we've long discussed here on SFist, the growth of homelessness in California has as much to do with our weather as it has to do with the growth of homelessness nationwide — and as the Times points out, California cities simply don't have the shelter capacity that New York has, with New York only seeing 5 percent of its 62,000 homeless people unsheltered these days. That fact has everything to do with the reality that people will freeze to death there in the winter if they're forced to live outside, which isn't true in most of California, and therefore shelters become less of a political priority here.
Also, as the population of San Francisco has grown more transient during the latest tech boom, attitudes have likely grown less tolerant. With a large segment of residents arriving from other cities where homelessness isn't so widespread, with the intention of only living here for a few years for career reasons before moving on, there is less of a long view on the homeless issue — which reached its peak in San Francisco in the late 1990s and still hasn't returned to those heights despite the uptick found in the latest homeless census. On the surface, this is a wealthy city with great income inequality which still can't seem to address its most pressing problems.
Homelessness remains a front-and-center issue for Mayor London Breed as it has for the six mayors before her, going back to the administration of Dianne Feinstein. But in this year's election, Breed is running essentially unopposed, and no other candidate has emerged with any better solution to the problem than building more Navigation Centers and increasing mental-health and drug-treatment service budgets. It seems almost quaint now to think that Mayor Gavin Newsom's "Care Not Cash" program in the last decade — which took away the city's general-assistance grants in favor of shelter and service vouchers — and the "Sit-Lie" ordinance of 2010 were cause for great outcries among San Franciscans. While compassion for the homeless remains here, San Franciscans' willingness to try new things to make the homeless less visible appears to be growing by the year.
Photo: Coalition on Homelessness/Facebook