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News + PoliticsStuck on dumb: A failure of SF homeless policy

Stuck on dumb: A failure of SF homeless policy

Five years later, evidence shows that the twin pillars of the Newsom Administration — the Sit/Lie law and the closure of the Haight Ashbury recycling center — have only made the situation worse. 

Figures don't lie: Five years after the harsh crackdown that was supposed to end homelessness in the Haight, the opposite has happened
Figures don’t lie: Five years after the harsh crackdown that was supposed to end homelessness in the Haight, the opposite has happened

By Calvin Welch

AUGUST 20, 2015 — This November will be fifth anniversary of the passage of the deeply controversial, at least in this neighborhood, Sit/Lie law, which made it a jailable offense to sit or lie on a public sidewalk. One month later the Recreation and Parks Commission voted to end some 30 years of operation of the HANC recycling center at Kezar Stadium.

Both actions were sold by both the Gavin Newsom administration (chiefly, Recreation and Parks Department General Manager Phil Ginsburg and Chief of Staff Steve Kawa)   and the SF Chronicle (chiefly through the ranting of columnist CW Nevius) as effective measures to reduce homelessness in the Haight-Ashbury.

It didn’t quite turn out that way, however. Not even close.

The Chronicle was particularly active in leading the charge on both Sit/Lie and closing the recycling center. In one incredible 28-day period (from December 18, 2009 to January 16, 2010), the paper published seven editorials, “news” stories, or Nevius columns on homeless people in the Haight-Ashbury and the need for new legislation and the closure of the recycling center as a solution to the issue. That’s one story every four days.

Nevius called the recycling center the “homeless ATM,” implying that it attracted folks to the district. The simple fact was that at the time, the homeless population in the Haight was actually declining, and the people attracted to the recycling center were neighborhood residents who lived in apartment buildings and did not have curbside pick up but did have environmental values: traditional Haight-Ashburians.

Ginsburg was insistent in naming the recycling center a “magnet” drawing in homeless people to Golden Gate Park. He even went so far as to blame the recycling center for the discovery of a headless corpse in the park (he later withdrew the accusation when the police said otherwise). He refused to work with HANC to create a meaningful recycling program for Golden Gate Park in fear of justifying the continued existence of the recycling center.

It was the actually existence of huge piles of redeemable bottles and cans left in Golden Gate Park after the numerous chi-chi “closed events” that Ginsburg favors for the park that was the real “magnet” for homeless people. Ginsburg himself created the “magnet” by refusing to create a meaningful recycling program in Golden Gate Park – a failure that exists to this day.

The phony narrative and the facts

But there is a body of fact that can shed some light on the truth of these assertions — and more importantly, the effectiveness, five years later, of sit lie and the closure of the recycling center. That body of fact is the city’s federally mandated homeless count.

Since 2000, San Francisco has conducted a systematic count of homeless people every other year and issued a report called “The Homeless Count.” The most current can be found here.  It’s useful because it’s been conducted for 15 years and allows comparisons over time.  It’s less useful in that results are reported only by supervisorial district.  However, the 2007 Count included census tract maps, which indicated that the bulk of the homeless people in District Five where in the two northern census tracts of the Haight-Ashbury.

The most recent Homeless Count includes some surprising results. For example in 2015, 73% of those counted were never in foster care, 71% of them were San Francisco residents before they became homeless,  61%  are on the street because they cant afford San Francisco rent or pay for moving costs, 40% “don’t want government assistance,” 38% report that they are homeless because they lost their job or where evicted, 20% had some college or post-graduate education, and 11% were, in fact, employed.

These facts do not fit the narrative invented by the Chronicle or the Newsom Administration in selling the closure of the recycling center or keeping folks from sitting on Haight Street.  Folks are not on the streets because they “choose to be” but because they have been evicted and can’t afford to get back into housing. The Homeless Count recorded no one being homeless because of the big money they could make recycling bottles and cans.

But didn’t Sit/Lie and the closing of the recycling center reduce homeless people in D5 and the Haight-Ashbury?  Nope, not even close.

The highest number of folks that were counted as being “unsheltered” in D5 since the count started in 2000 was 569 in 2002, seven years before Newsom and the Chronicle began their campaign. Since that time the counted homeless population in D5 has been on the decline — except after the closing of the center and the passage of sit-lie.

In the key year of 2009 — when the Newsom/Nevius drumbeat started —  115 people were counted as “unsheltered”  in D5, down nearly 400%  from the peak in 2002.

Since the passage of Sit/Lie and the Rec-Park Commission vote in 2011 to vote to close the recycling center, the total population of homeless people counted in the Homeless Count  in D5 has risen by 56%:  from 199 in 2011 to 310 in 2015.

But the city’s policy not only failed in the Haight-Ashbury. The number of people sleeping outdoors or on the street citywide — the very population targeted by Newsom and Nevius — has increased from 28% in 2011 (the year Sit/Lie went into effect) to 46% in 2015. That shows the total failure of Sit/Lie and the irrelevance of closing the HANC recycling center.

The homeless count makes the case , conclusively, if  five years late,  that the 3,405 Haight- Ashburians that voted against Sit/Lie and the thousands more who signed petitions, letters and gave testimony in support of the recycling center were right in rejecting the false narrative that prevailed.

Unfortunately the time and money used to fabricate a phony narrative and then draft, campaign, and have the police (reluctantly) waste time and money “enforcing”  a “fake” law meant that time and money was diverted from real and effective solutions to urban homelessness.

With the closure of the HANC recycling center the Lee administration has gone on to close all residentially based recycling centers, making it all that much more difficult for folks who can’t use curbside to recycle.  And Ginsburg still attracts “gleaners” to Golden Gate Park because he refuses to recycle.

Stuck on dumb, the story of our time.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

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