On the streets of San Fran
Homelessness is San Francisco’s most visible problem. Lydia Stockdale visits the Californian city to find out why its famously liberal residents have decided to get tough to solve it
A queue of tourists stands waiting for one of San Francisco’s world-famous cable car trams to take them away from downtown and up and over the city’s rolling hills.
None of the sightseers pays any attention when a man stops in front of a nearby bin, sticks his head inside and has a good rummage around. This is the third indistinguishable person, grimy from head to toe, to have rifled through this trash can and even the kids in the line have stopped pointing.
Inside Housing is here in San Francisco, the foggy home of the Summer of Love, where in 1967 hippies gathered in the hope of throwing off conservative values, to embrace a new, more liberated way of life. It’s a beautiful, densely populated city that people across the globe dream of visiting. But it has one problem that it just can’t hide: homelessness.
There are those whose eyes are vacant, who appear to have checked out a long time ago; some who babble incoherently pulling at their own hair or bashing their fists together; and then there are the individuals known locally as ‘panhandlers’, who target tourist areas and beg for money.
‘I’m 70 and I’m freezing,’ pleads a man who looks at least 100, feebly holding out a polystyrene cup in front of passing shoppers.
A massive problem
On the last count, which took place on 27 January 2011, there are 6,445 homeless people living in San Francisco, 3,106 of whom are classed as ‘unsheltered’, meaning they’re living either on the streets, in vehicles or make-shift shelters. By way of comparison, in London - a much larger city both in terms of size and population - homeless charity Broadway counted 5,678 rough sleepers throughout the whole of 2011/12. This works out to be around 500 on any one night.
San Francisco traditionally spends around $200 million a year trying to get homeless people off the streets and into shelters, housing and counselling. In fact, between 2003 and 2011, it has built 2,146 units of accommodation taking the total number of beds available from 1,595 to 3,741 and 660 more are planned for 2013. However, homelessness still blights this place. Now the city famed for its liberal values has turned to more hard-line measures.
Like the children in the queue, these Californians are no longer shocked at what they see, they just want the problem to go away, and they’re willing to try tactics that might previously have been unthinkable.
In November 2010 a small majority - 54 per cent - of the 284,625 residents who voted in a local referendum opted for a sit/lie ordinance to be introduced, making it illegal for people to sit or lie on the city’s sidewalks.
This way of effectively criminalising homeless people - at least during the hours of 7am to 11pm when they are most visible to the public - is not new to the United States. Approaches vary massively from state to state, but similar ordinances have already been tried in approximately 77 towns and cities.
But if even the traditionally tolerant San Franciscans have given up hope that more supportive ways of addressing homelessness will work, what does this mean for homeless people elsewhere, including here in the UK?
Last year in London, rough sleeping rose by 43 per cent. In response we’ve already heard some local authorities calling for a zero-tolerance approach to be adopted. Westminster Council, for example, has already announced that ‘begging will not be tolerated’ within its boundaries.
‘Attitudes have shifted in the UK concerning how tolerant we can, or should, be about people sleeping rough on the streets,’ sums up Jeremy Swain, chief executive of charity Thames Reach. ‘In situations where people sleeping rough are given numerous offers of accommodation and other support, but refuse to move off of the street, then an enforcement approach, even the use of the [UK] Vagrancy Act in some circumstances, may be appropriate or necessary as this often leads to the person accepting an accommodation option.
‘I don’t think we can continue to accept a situation where people stay on the streets for months and years, putting their health at risk and sometimes creating problems for local communities,’ he adds.
In San Francisco, the introduction of sit/lie laws came mainly as a result of calls for action by members of the community, including shop owners, in the Haight-Ashbury area. They felt that ‘gutter punks’, groups of homeless young people with dogs, were intimidating visitors, and this was affecting business.
This spring, however - more than a year after police began to enforce the sit/lie law - graduates involved in San Francisco’s City Hall fellows programme surveyed 50 business owners in Haight-Ashbury and found 60 per cent felt the legislation had not helped to reduce the number of homeless people loitering in front of their premises.
Dennis Culhane, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania and an advisor to the White House on homelessness, is not surprised. ‘I suspect that when people pass these ordinances it’s usually for scoring local political points, but the police do not want to spend all of their time going around moving homeless people along and having to arrest them, book them, charge them and process them through the courts and the jails - it’s simply not a sustainable kind of tactic,’ he says.
To really tackle homelessness, San Francisco, he argues, needs to broaden its horizons. ‘The [supportive housing] programmes there have been very successful, but it’s clear that it hasn’t gone to scale far enough,’ states Mr Culhane.
Amanda Kahn Fried, is deputy director for policy, housing opportunity, partnerships and engagement, in the San Francisco mayor’s office. She works for mayor Ed Lee, the successor to Gavin Newsom, who was the real political force behind the introduction of sit/lie.
‘Homelessness in San Francisco is often very polarising,’ she says. ‘Mayor Newsom did a lot - he was really focused on the issue, but almost always his policies were really met with a lot of opposition. I think that in this term with mayor Lee, we have the situation where there’s a lot of willingness from all sides to work together.’
Finding the cause
To find a solution, though, it’s necessary to understand the root cause of San Francisco’s homelessness problem, and even that is difficult.
‘People always talk about our climate having something to do with it. It’s not always warm and sunny, but it’s predictably fine,’ begins Ms Kahn Fried. ‘And then we do have a number of really excellent services. If I were homeless somewhere else in the region it may make sense to come to San Francisco - but that’s obviously not the full picture. It’s very expensive to live here and it’s hard to make it on a [government] subsidy alone,’ she continues.
Rents here are the highest in the entire US, according to a report released in March by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. A two-bedroom property costs $1,905 (£1,179) on average per month.
‘You’ll see people panhandling [begging] here, particularly downtown. A lot of them aren’t actually homeless, many of them are housed, but are living on a very low, fixed income. They may be on social security getting around $875 [£541] a month, and they would have to pay 30 per cent [around £162] on their housing. That doesn’t leave very much to get by on [around £379],’ explains Ms Kahn Fried.
‘Around 20 per cent of our street homeless are US veterans and the city is working with the federal [national] government’s Veterans Administration and with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to develop supportive housing specifically for veterans.
‘There’s been a big federal push to end veteran homelessness and in San Francisco we’re working very hard to see that come to fruition,’ she adds.
According to the Coalition on Homelessness, a homeless advocacy and social justice organisation in San Francisco, around 30 per cent of those living on the streets have mental health problems - that’s if you include those with addiction problems.
Each ‘chronic inebriate’ costs the city $60,000 (£37,509) a year when their use of emergency medical services, encounters with the police and time in jail and detox centres are taken into consideration, explains Ms Kahn Fried.
‘We’re working now to institute “wet housing”,’ she says. ‘We find that chronic alcoholics are very social - they have a community on the street - so we’re looking to have a specified housing development for this population.’
The mayor’s office wants to replicate this type of scheme which is already working further up the west coast of America in Seattle, at a project called 1811 Eastlake.
‘Everyone wanted to move inside as they could go in with their friends and be treated with dignity - it’s reduced drinking by 40 per cent,’ says Ms Kahn Fried.
But White House advisor Mr Culhane warns against getting too carried away. ‘You can’t address homelessness on a demonstration project basis,’ he says. ‘Little initiatives always show that it can be done - but you have to take it to scale.’
Unless politicians and residents can actually see a difference, they’re not going to support funding for programmes, he states. ‘You’ve got to do it on a large enough basis so that people can actually see a difference.’
Bob Offer-Westort, civil rights organiser at The Coalition on Homelessness, says his organisation’s ‘fundamental viewpoint is that the number one thing that needs to be done to solve homelessness is increase access to affordable housing’.
The bad news, unfortunately, is that the waiting list for affordable housing in San Francisco has 26,000 people on it and has been closed since 2009. The city’s scope for solving its homelessness crisis alone seems limited.
‘Local politicians can’t solve homelessness - they don’t have the resources to do it, so more cynical local politicians frequently advocate criminalisation measures. We’re constantly trying to fight against those and shift the discourse from criminalisation to housing access,’ sums up Mr Offer-Westort.
Mr Culhane believes there needs to be a federal, US-wide, rethink about how to finance a ‘more complete solution to homelessness’.
He believes that the current administration’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly known as ‘Obamacare’, which was signed into law by president Barack Obama in March 2010, could help with this.
Under the law, which is still working its way through various complicated constitutional processes, ‘every homeless person will be eligible for Medicaid [healthcare insurance]’, explains Mr Culhane. This means it could be used to fund housing and support services.
During the first televised presidential election debate, which took place last week, Republican candidate Mitt Romney said he would axe Obamacare if he wins office.
‘I personally do not believe that if Romney did win [the presidential election on 6 November] he will be able to repeal the act,’ responds Mr Culhane. ‘I think the Democrats will hold on to the senate [the upper house of the US Congress].’
Maybe San Franciscans can still be convinced that the city’s homeless people are not a lost cause. Ms Khan Fried, for one, is optimistic. ‘The political climate locally is really different now and it opens up a lot of possibilities that may have been more difficult in the past. The direction and support from the federal government continues to amaze us, so we’re really hopeful that we’re going to make some significant progress in the next few years.’
Love and Haight
It’s 11.00am on a Tuesday in Haight-Ashbury, the area of San Francisco made famous by the Summer of Love, psychedelic rock and the Grateful Dead. A steady stream of around 15 sleepy, grubby-looking young people, most of them carrying rucksacks and sleeping bags, make their way up Haight Street in search of breakfast.
They’ve slept beneath the stars in Golden Gate Park where they’re free from the sit/lie laws that began to be enforced in the city early last year, and now they’re heading to a drop-in centre called the Haight Street Referral Center to get something to eat.
The cafés, vintage clothing and music shops are open but the road is quiet. The calm is broken by a boy who roars up the street on a skateboard, pulled along by his dog. Then comes the sound of an argument, one of the gang is in a war of words with someone, a tourist or maybe a shopkeeper, who has objected to him urinating in the street.
This is where calls for San Francisco’s sit/lie laws began. These laws, which were enforced last March, have made it illegal to sit or lie on the city’s sidewalks between 7.00am and 11.00pm.
Through a public records request, local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, obtained sit/lie statistics for enforcement. Over the 12 months to August this year, the police had issued 422 warnings, handed out 333 official ‘citations’ - each of which came with a fine of between $50 (£31) and $500 (£311) - and made 18 arrests.
Business owners here believed the presence of youths like ‘Hero’ (pictured here with his dog Karma), a 22-year-old originally from Colorado, was scaring potential customers away. Those who campaigned for sit/lie have since reported that the legislation has not made a difference, but a 22-year-old girl who calls herself Purple says the law has changed things around here.
‘People used to play music and sell jewellery, they would sit down and hang out,’ she says. The reason she and the others stick together in one group and have big dogs is because it’s safer that way, she explains. ‘Sit/lie was introduced because people are fearful of what they don’t know.’
Purple ran away from home when she was 15, she now makes money by selling ‘medical marijuana’ and has a place to live - but she chooses to sleep rough with her friends. ‘I consider myself to be a travelling street kid,’ she shrugs.
Another member of the group, a boy with dreadlocks who refers to himself as Crumb, was ‘kicked out of home’ when he was 17. Now 22, he explains he did recently have a job in a sandwich shop, but ‘got the notion to take-off’. ‘I’d lived the life of freedom and I loved it,’ he says.
Obama’s plan to help homeless veterans
Around a million soldiers will be discharged from the United States military after returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan over the next five years.
Dennis Culhane, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania and director of research for the National Centre On Homelessness Among Veterans, which was established by the Obama administration, estimates that around 5 per cent of them will experience homelessness within five years of their return.
This amounts to 50,000 people - and this is in addition to the 145,000 veterans, the majority of whom are from post-Vietnam War era, who currently become homeless each year.
‘We’re trying to scale our prevention and rapid rehousing approach to meet that demand,’ explains Mr Culhane.
He predicts that around 100,000 housing units will be needed, adding that many of those who become homeless will find their own solutions without contacting the United States’ Veterans Administration for help.
From this month, the US government will provide $1.2 billion (£750 million) a year to help homeless veterans across the US, around $300 million (£187 million) of which will be used for longer term supportive housing. Before Barack Obama became president, around $500 million (£312.5 million) was invested annually.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development has also committed to releasing 60,000 section 8 housing vouchers over the coming years. These will be used by veterans who are able to find private rented sector housing. They will then pay 30 per cent of their income on rent and the federal government will make up the rest. Thirty thousand of these vouchers have already been handed out.