First of all, as Dufty pointed out, the city has made some progress, in some areas. Spending money on creating permanently affordable housing with services attached makes a difference in people’s lives. But there are barriers to people moving from supportive housing to other types of housing, and there are ridiculous rules that keep people out of affordable housing, and there are people getting thrown out of public housing for reasons that ought to be treated as mental-health issues instead of grounds for evictions.
“We need to think about housing ladders,” he said. “People in supportive housing should have the opportunity to move into other types of housing.”
He talked about the developers who build affordable units – but then make it difficult for people who need housing to get into those units. “People who are building [market-rate] rental housing are making a lot of money,” he testified. “Then we have NEMA, the Darth Vader of Market Street.”
The NEMA project, he noted, tried to prevent a family that won the lottery for a below-market unit (a family of four that got a one-bedroom apartment) because of a credit score just a few points lower than what the owners of the luxury apartment building insisted on. “A woman can’t get into NEMA because she had a felony on her record when she was on drugs [in another city] and missed a child-support payment,” he said. The woman, who is clean now, can’t get beyond her history with the building managers. “She comes and cries in my office. We should not allow people to lose housing because of past issues,” he said.
Then there are the people who have problems with, say, “hoarding” – which is, and ought to be, a mental-health issue, but instead can lead to evictions from public housing. City agencies that can help need to be notified before an eviction, he said, and even if it costs money, the effort should go into keeping people off the streets. “Nobody says we shouldn’t spent money on the police and the sheriffs to move things out of people’s homes,” he noted.
And let’s remember: People have always come to San Francisco because it’s a place of opportunity and acceptance – but not every dream works out. Some become the head of a giant corporation, and some don’t.
“Thirty percent of the people on the streets come here for an opportunity and wind up on the streets,” Dufty said.
That contrasted with Trent Rhorer, the head of the San Francisco Human Services Agency, who argued that “40 percent of our homeless didn’t become homeless here.” He suggested that Dufty’s example of the woman who had criminal issues in another city might be someone San Francisco isn’t in a position to serve with its scarce resources.
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Which is a bit shocking. Particularly when you hear the perspective of Jennifer Friedenbach, the head of the Coalition on Homelessness.
Friedenbach was happy to agree that the city had made a lot of progress in the past ten years. And, she noted, the $1 million that the board and the mayor put into eviction prevention efforts have kept 1,000 households from the risk of homelessness.
But she also pointed out some of the reasons why the number of people on the streets remains unacceptably high.
For one thing, between 2007 and 2011, the city made radical cuts to social service programs. “Since 2004, we’ve lost one-third of our shelter beds, and about half of our drop-in capacity,” she said. “The Department of Public Health has taken $40 million in direct service cuts to behavioral health.
“All of this is adding to the severe housing crisis.”
Is the city a homeless “magnet,” as Rhorer seemed to suggest, a place that should re-evaluate services for people who arrived here homeless? Not really, Friedenbach said.
If you look at the number of bus tickets the city has bought to send homeless people out of town to supportive families in other towns and compare that to the number of people who arrive homeless seeking services, the picture becomes clear: “For every 22 people we have sent home, there is one person who arrives seeking services.”
In fact, a recent study in the Mission showed that 40 percent of people seeking services were homeless for the first time.
“We have to stop all preventable displacements,” she noted. And that includes changing the eviction standards in public and nonprofit housing. The Eviction Defense Collaborative reports that there were 1,128 evictions just from housing funded by the city.
It gets worse: The police have issued between 11,000 and 18,000 citations to homeless people in the past year – and that starts a nasty cycle. “You can pay the ticket because you have no money, so it goes to a warrant, and then you have a record and you get taken off the public housing waiting list,” she explained.
This is, of course, at root a federal problem. In the Reagan Era and ever since, Washington has defunded local housing efforts, cut revenue sharing to cities, and left cash-strapped cities and counties to deal with a huge social problem on their own. The massive wealth gap and the lack of job opportunities that pay a living wage has only made things worse.
But San Franciscan who wonder why there are so many homeless on the streets need to think a little bit about what the city has done in the past five years, and how we can start restoring some of the cuts that have made a bad problem worse.