5 Big Lies About Homelessness

by on June 3, 2024

Photo shows Build Back Better housing plan
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SF has more commissions per capita than comparable cities. With 5 commissions on homelessness, you’d think we’d have fewer homeless residents than Fort Worth. Instead, SF has about 4x as many homeless residents as FW. Something is wrong with this picture.” TogetherSF Action on X, May 28, 2024

Does anyone really believe that San Francisco’s Homelessness and Supportive Housing Commission is to blame for the city’s thousands of unhoused? I doubt it. This falsehood comes amidst a rising blitz of lies about the nation’s homelessness crisis.

Here’s five top lies.

Big Lie 1.: Commissions Cause/Worsen Homelessness

This falsehood may be unique to San Francisco. It’s connected to a proposed November ballot measure that blames the city’s commissions for homelessness, crime, transit delays and other problems.

What’s striking about this falsehood connecting commissions to homelessness is how easily it is disproved.

From July 1, 2016 to early 2023, the San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing operated without a commission. During that time vacancies in permanent supportive housing skyrocketed and street homelessness increased.

Why didn’t homelessness plunge when HSH lacked Commission oversight? Because if anything the lack of a Commission made homelessness worse.

All eleven supervisors placed the HSH Commission measure on the ballot (Prop C, November 2022). It won 67% of the vote.

I supported the HSH commission because  San Francisco public agencies do better with commission oversight. Often a lot better. I’ll describe that in a future story. For now I want to focus on other lies being told about homelessness.

Big Lie 2.: Cities Have Enough Money to End Homelessnes

This lie is told across the nation. Many people need to believe that San Francisco and other cities have plenty of money to end homelessness.

How do they reach that conclusion? They typically divide the number of homeless people on official city counts with the homeless budget. This leads to false claims that San Francisco spends $100,000 per homeless person, which should be more than enough to get the person housed.

But most of the city’s “homeless” budget does not go to the unhoused. It goes to people who are no longer homeless. Money subsidizes rents and services for formerly unhoused people now living in affordable housing. Tenant who haven’t been homeless in over a decade still have their housing subsidized by the “homeless budget.”

The city’s “homeless budget” is actually an affordable housing budget. I’ve written about this more than a dozen times. Others have as well. So where the homeless budget actually goes is not a secret or mystery.

But there remain those insistent on dividing the city’s homeless budget by the number of unhoused. This enables them to falsely argue there’s plenty of money to end homelessness.

Providing affordable housing was historically a federal responsibility. The National Housing Act of 1949 declared as a national goal the creation of “a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family.” But President Nixon killed public housing in the 1970’s and President Reagan then slashed HUD spending in 1981. Unlike other countries, our national government no longer provides the funding necessary to keep low-income residents housed.

Until 1981, 75% of those eligible for federal housing subsidies received funds. That total is now under 20%. So where do all these people who cannot afford rent get their subsidies? Most don’t. They become homeless.

When I began working in the Tenderloin in 1980 an SSI or SSD recipient could afford market rent. Those days are long gone.

Big Lie 3. Big City Democratic Mayors, Not Republicans, Are to Blame

The political genius of Reagan’s housing strategy was to shift responsibility to primarily Democratic-controlled cities that would never have the resources to end homelessness. For over forty years nearly all blame for homelessness targets big city mayors. This continues despite cities lacking the funding capacity of the federal Section 8 program or the funding to build and subsidize public housing.

I virtually never see a social media post or news story blaming Republicans for homelessness. Yet Congressional Republicans are chiefly to blame. They have opposed new funding to combat homelessness for decades. In 2021 and 2022 not a single Republican Senator backed the huge housing package in President Biden’s original Build Back Better legislation.

Build Back Better included $170 billion in new housing investments, including funding for 300,000 new housing vouchers. Every Democratic Senator except Joe Manchin backed it. Not a single Republican Senator did.

Manchin’s opposition eliminated the housing portion of the bill. That also eliminated the biggest investment in ending homelessness the United States had ever come close to passing. But it was  the lack of any Republican support that really stopped it.

Republicans know their inaction causes political problems for Democratic mayors. That’s one reason why they block such spending. Republicans have faced little public backlash despite blocking federal funding to combat homelessness for over forty years.

Big Lie 4: Nonprofits Are the Problem

Many blame a so-called “nonprofit industrial complex” for perpetuating homelessness. They claim nonprofit groups have a financial interest in sustaining homelessness, and grossly misspend public funds.

These arguments are typically part of the “there’s plenty of money to end homelessness but cities are screwing up” falsehood. It also reflects a profound ignorance about why cities contracted out so many homeless services to nonprofits.

The main reason? They are cheaper than using city workers. A lot cheaper. The secondary reason was that nonprofits were seen as closer to the impacted communities.

I never hear from those attacking nonprofit providers what for-profit organizations they think cities should instead contract for this work. Do they want Recology to run permanent supportive housing SROs or shelters? How about PG&E? Maybe they want pharmaceutical giants or corporate hospital chains to run homeless programs. I’d love to hear what they would charge cities to do so.

The real motive for many of these attacks is undermine public support for homeless services. City workers in San Francisco get attacked by many of the same people attacking nonprofits.

Big Lie Number 5: The Problem is Drugs, Not Housing

The homelessness crisis has become inextricably linked to the drug crisis. That’s why I have pushed so hard for San Francisco and California to support drug-free recovery based permanent supportive housing. People leaving homelessness deserve a permanent home in a building that is free of drugs (See “The Truth About Drug Free Housing,” February 26, 2024).

Drug treatment is essential for many unhoused. I understand those who favor placing unhoused people with substance abuse problems in shelters before housing. Even if this were to occur, putting drug treatment first does not change the economics of the housing market.

Many graduates from recovery programs cannot afford market rents in high-cost cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles. They need rent subsidies to stay housed. Permanent supportive drug-free housing must become an option for these graduates and others who currently have no drug-free permanent housing to relocate.

Low-income people with drug problems need treatment and housing.  And the new housing subsidies they need typically come from a city’s homeless budget. Rent subsidies are essential to ending homelessness absent vastly expanding public housing, a politically dead option in the United States.

Cities Must Do Better

Cities can certainly do better. I share many of the criticisms of how San Francisco’s Prop C was implemented, particularly its prioritizing purchase of SRO hotels rather than the far more cost-effective master leasing. But if San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, and other cities with acute homeless problems did everything 100% perfect, thousands would remain without permanent housing.

Cities need vastly more federal money to end homelessness. The money needed since 1981 has never come, and the housing needed has not been built.

That’s why the affordability crisis worsens.

And that’s the truth.

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's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior 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. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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