SF’s Homeless “Emergency”

by on March 21, 2016

The San Francisco Chronicle ran a revealing story last week exposing San Francisco supervisors who want the mayor to declare a homeless “emergency” but then don’t want any new Navigation Centers in their own neighborhoods.

Supervisor David Campos, who recently denounced the mayor for not opening new Navigation Centers, offered a list of 36 possible sites —-none in or even near his home neighborhood of Bernal Heights.  Campos did, however, propose new homeless services next to a pre-school on California Street and a kid’s toy store in West Portal.

That latter proposal did not sit well with Supervisor Norman Yee, who has joined Campos in urging the city to declare a homeless “emergency.” Yee said he opposed the West Portal site. Going even further, Yee said he “can’t think of any” District Seven sites suitable for new homeless centers. Yee doesn’t “think it’s appropriate to have it {homeless services} next to a business for families and children.”

Of course, if Yee really saw homelessness as an “emergency ” locating homeless services near families and children would not be off limits. To the contrary, he would make every part of his district available to combat the crisis.

I think what Yee really meant is not that a Navigation Center shouldn’t be near families with children—after all, all of the Tenderloin homeless programs are near families with kids and Yee has never raised a fuss—but rather that middle-class families and above have earned the right not to live near a facility for the homeless poor. That position is consistent with how San Francisco has sited its homeless services for over thirty years.

Yee’s comments could have triggered a citywide soul searching over whether middle and upper income San Francisco neighborhoods are doing their part to address homelessness. But that’s a discussion San Francisco is still reluctant to have. Because if residents of such neighborhoods do not do their part, there needs to be a citywide conversation of how any mayor can provide the low-income housing necessary to end homelessness.

I mention Supervisors Campos and Yee because their hypocrisy about a homeless “emergency” was described in the Chronicle story. But they are not alone. In fact, they are widely considered decent and caring public officials. I’ve probably written more positive stories about David Campos than almost any supervisor since 2009, and one is hard pressed to find anyone critical of Norman Yee’s character.

But that Campos and Yee are now focused on the city declaring a homeless “emergency” when neither has offered new resources or opportunities to address this crisis is telling. Once again, supervisors criticizing mayors’ over homelessness refuse to take any personal political risks to help address the problem.

The Homeless “Emergency”

San Francisco has experienced a homeless “emergency” since widespread visible homelessness began in the fall of 1982. Emergencies call for immediate action, and the sudden presence of more Americans on the streets since the end of the Great Depression certainly qualified for urgent action.

But federal and state level action to end widespread homelessness has never come.   So localities are left to deal with the crisis, and big city mayors face the blame.

San Francisco doesn’t need a Board of Supervisors resolution to recognize that the city faces a homeless emergency. All that really does is provide cover for politicians who don’t want to be criticized for “doing nothing.” It fails to add a single dollar or resource to the fight against homelessness.

The only benefit from declaring such an emergency is to ease the approval process for new Navigation Centers—a moot point for Supervisors like Yee who oppose any in their own districts regardless of the speed of code approvals.

Mayor Lee’s Responsibility

If Mayor Lee were to support the Board’s homeless emergency resolution, the public would immediately expect a dramatically heightened city response to homelessness. Yet when sponsors of the emergency like Yee won’t accept any programs to reduce homelessness in their districts, it simply sets Lee up to fail.

No supervisor should support a declaration of an emergency unless they are publicly committed to support new affordable housing and homeless services in their district. These supervisors should also be obligated to identify the new resources necessary to fund such new services. Otherwise, it’s all a political show, or what Campos calls “grandstanding.”

As I recently wrote, (“Are Progressives Adopting Housing Last Strategy,” San Francisco should not abandon its “Housing First” strategy by shifting funds from permanent housing to a vastly expanded (and more costly) shelter system. Mayor Lee has invested millions of new dollars in permanent housing for the formerly homeless, and this remains the best and most cost effective homeless reduction strategy. But its well past time for neighborhoods like West Portal, the Marina, and other long resistant communities including nearly the entire Westside to help the effort by accepting  their share of deeply affordable nonprofit housing.

If Campos came forward with a viable Bernal Heights site, Yee backed a center in his district, Farrell promoted places in Pacific Heights or the Marina and Eric Mar found a spot in the Richmond, and all came up with the necessary funding, this would represent the type of urgent response that the homeless emergency demands. All  Supervisors whose districts have not done their fair share would also have to come forth (Jane Kim in D6 is clearly exempt from this requirement).

If all this supervisorial leadership occurred, Mayor Lee would have the additional sites and resources that he needs to not only declare a homeless emergency but to start to end it. And the push for the declaration of a homeless emergency would have proved a game changer, not a cynical act of political gamesmanship.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron.

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw is the author of four books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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