When Leaders ‘Do Something’ About Homelessness, it Looks Like Doing Nothing

Homelessness: people sleeping at St. Boniface church in San Francisco.

At St. Boniface church in San Francisco a cold morning has brought homeless in from the rain where they bundle up and sleep in the pews. A man wanders around the aisle searching for his friend. Brant Ward/San Francisco Chronicle.

Step inside San Francisco’s St. Boniface Church on any weekday, and you’ll find dozens of homeless people asleep in its pews. The deep, windowless quiet inside the church creates a sanctuary not only for the Catholics who visit, but also for a portion of the more than 6,600 people experiencing homelessness who might find it difficult to sleep well on San Francisco’s hard, noisy streets.

For more than three years I worked in the Tenderloin, just a few blocks from those pews. Every day I would get off the subway at Civic Center Station, walking through its underground hallways just as police officers were coming around to rouse people from their sleeping bags and blankets along the walls. I would surface on the escalator at Hyde and Market, outside the Burger King where many gather in the mornings to talk, laugh or ask commuters for spare change. (Now, that Burger King is blaring classical music in an effort to scare them off. Good luck with that.) I would walk past the Main Library, where dozens of people — many of them homeless — waited for the doors to open so they could use the toilets, wash up, check their email or find a quiet place to rest. And I would walk up Larkin Street, where many more hung out in front of the library, pushed carts full of belongings or napped with their dogs in the grass at Civic Center Plaza.

Every day, I wished I knew what I could do to help.

I’ve lived in the Bay Area all my life, and finding solutions to the homelessness situation has seemed intractable for decades. Even city leaders don’t seem to know what to do. San Francisco’s homeless population hasn’t decreased in many years, even though the city spends $241 million a year on the issue. Or maybe leaders know what to do but they aren’t doing it — either because it’s unpopular or too expensive.

These places I walked past daily are all within a stone’s throw of City Hall, which is theoretically the epicenter for homeless services in San Francisco. Although witnessing these people made me more compassionate, it seems to have had the opposite effect on city officials.

The city has provided very few public toilets, leaving many homeless folks to relieve themselves on city sidewalks. This, in turn, has led the city to increase power-washing of its dirtiest streets, often ousting homeless people in the process. When the Super Bowl came to town in January, Mayor Ed Lee told San Francisco’s homeless that they would have to “leave the streets,” but with just 1,500 shelter beds in the city, didn’t provide any obvious place for them to go. Many of them moved to a tent encampment under the freeway, where they were given $100 citations for “blocking the sidewalk,” a sum few can pay. City Supervisor Scott Wiener said the tents “needed to go away.” In April, city police shot and killed a homeless man.

San Francisco’s most vulnerable are the ones most likely to become homeless — and homelessness makes them even more vulnerable.

According to San Francisco’s 2015 homelessness survey, one-third of the city’s homeless are female. Another 6 percent are transgender or another nonbinary gender. Twenty-nine percent identify as LGBTQ. Forty percent of the city’s homeless said they were addicted to drugs or alcohol; 37 percent said they were struggling with a chronic health or mental health condition. Thirteen percent of the LGBTQ contingent and 4 percent of other city homeless are living with HIV or an AIDS-related illness. Roughly 19 percent of San Francisco’s homeless are Latinx, while 36 percent identify as African American and another 19 percent are multi-ethnic.

Seventy-one percent said they were formerly housed in San Francisco — evidence that the city’s skyrocketing rents and real-estate prices are displacing its most at-risk residents.

Many of them are suffering from trauma. Veterans may still be grappling with post-war PTSD. Five percent of San Francisco homeless said they lost their housing after leaving a domestic violence situation. Another 18 percent became homeless due to drugs and alcohol — potentially self-medicating after a traumatic event or a lifetime of crisis. And if they weren’t traumatized before they became homeless, it’s likely that the experience of losing everything, living without a safety net or drifting through unstable and dangerous situations will create trauma. And PTSD is one of the most significant — if not the most significant — public health problems at the core of society, homeless and otherwise.

American capitalism has created a system in which only certain people — healthy, mentally well, white and mainly cisgendered people — can succeed. Anyone who falls outside those boundaries — who can’t work full time because they’re disabled, mentally ill, caring for a relative or juggling children, or who is excluded because of age, race, sexuality or gender — runs the risk of poverty. Of homelessness.

And, based on what I’ve seen on the streets of the Tenderloin and in the pews at St. Boniface, our homeless are being treated like little more than human garbage. These are human beings with histories. With parents and kids. With skills and aspirations. They’ve lived hard lives. They’ve overcome a lot, but society has done its best to throw them away.

They deserve much, much better.

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