The State of Homelessness in San Francisco

Joe Wilson, program manager at Hospitality House, pointed out that public officials have chosen to disinvest in affordable housing for low-income people in favor of criminalizing them. “The largest developers of low-income housing are the California Department of Corrections and the U.S. Department of Justice,” he said.

by TJ Johnston

New fronts in the battle on homelessness in San Francisco have opened up recently, including struggles for the rights of tenants, mental health clients and low-income residents of the Mission District.

These are just a few of the immediate skirmishes advocates face, according to a panel addressing the state of homelessness in the city. On May 23, the Coalition on Homelessness hosted a town hall meeting at the dining hall of St. Anthony Foundation, where hundreds of low-income and homeless people receive food, health care and other services.

Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition on Homelessness, said that as the city marks the tenth anniversary of its 10-year plan to abolish homelessness, 6,000-plus people still seek roofs over their heads, and while the media make a hue and cry over how much taxpayers’ money is spent on homeless people, services only account for 2 percent of San Francisco’s $8 billion budget.

“Historically, homeless people have been used as political scapegoats,” she said. “Our job is to make it no longer acceptable to scapegoat on the basis of housing status.”

Joe Wilson, program manager of Hospitality House’s community building program, pointed out that public officials have chosen to disinvest in affordable housing for low-income people in favor of criminalizing them. “The largest developers of low-income housing are the California Department of Corrections and the U.S. Department of Justice,” he said.

The panelists also said they are afraid that a law-enforcement approach to homelessness could also put those with mental health problems at risk.

Recently, implementing state legislation called Laura’s Law was proposed as a ballot measure by Supervisor Mark Farrell. If five of the other 10 supervisors in San Francisco co-sponsor the ordinance, Farrell would remove it from the ballot and pass it legislatively.

The law, which passed in 2002 but was enacted fully only in Nevada County, would compel mentally ill people into involuntary commitment. It would allow family members, neighbors or roommates — as well as police or mental health professionals — to force people into programs.

While Laura’s Law is endorsed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, state mental health and disability rights groups oppose the measure on the grounds that a person’s power to make his own decisions would be removed.

Michael Gouse, deputy director of the Mental Health Association-San Francisco, said removing a client’s agency undermines treatment. “Compliance is not the same as dignity or self-determination,” Gouse said.

C.W. Johnson, a former mental health client who is also active with the association, said the law would have a disproportionate effect on homeless people.

According to a report from the state’s mental health department, Laura’s Law hasn’t been uniformly effective in providing treatment. However, the California legislature extended the law’s sunset date to 2017.

A confluence of escalating poverty and increasing rents are driving more people out of their homes and onto the streets, said Sara Shortt, director of the tenants’ advocacy organization Housing Rights Committee. Displacement in San Francisco is often presaged by evictions, she added, and the most vulnerable population make under $15,000 per year.

She also pointed out that real estate speculation is fueling the latest wave of evictions, adding that the overheated market is more dire than in the dot-com bubble days of the 1990s.



The true state of homelessness in San Francisco. A woman sleeps, alone and vulnerable, on Market Street. Lydia Gans photo


“People could maybe double or triple up or maybe go to another neighborhood,” Shortt said. “Those resourceful measures are no longer the options they once were. When you lose your home, it’s a one-way ticket to homelessness.”

Shortt cited the state Ellis Act, a tool landlords use that allows no-cause evictions of tenants under the pretense of leaving the rental business. Tenants Together and the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project reported that 10,000 San Francisco residents were displaced under the act since 1997, and almost one-third of the units were by landlords who repeatedly “Ellised” tenants out.

But measures are under way that could stanch the flow of evictions. They include a San Francisco ballot proposal to levy heavier taxes on properties that are flipped soon after they are bought.

In addition, on May 29, the state senate passed SB 1439, a bill by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, to delay landlords from invoking the Ellis Act to evict tenants for at least five years after buying rental properties.

Despite the wave of evictions, Shortt said she is buoyed by a resurgence in tenant activism. “The silver lining is we have more power, organization, strength and energy among tenants than we had in a long time,” she said.

People power could also play a factor in keeping Mission District residents in the neighborhood. Laura Guzman, director of the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center, said displacement has been developing over a long period of time. “Homelessness is not just now,” she said. Her drop-in center is part of a coalition opposing the “Clean Up the Plaza” drive.

This clean-up campaign is fronted by political consultant Jack Davis, who is often aligned with real estate developers. The plaza at 16th and Mission streets is also the site for Maximus Real Estate Partners’ proposed 300-unit mixed-use development that would displace neighborhood merchants.

Guzman said this is gentrification, and people who hang out at the plaza — including SRO tenants and homeless people who use her nearby drop-in center — are targets of a constant police presence.

Her assertion is supported by a sample from a recent Coalition on Homelessness survey. More than 100 people, mostly people of color, said they experienced harassment from the general public and scrutiny by law enforcement.


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