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Home Featured The Media Homeless Project: Is it working?

The Media Homeless Project: Is it working?

Let's see: Hundreds of stories later, the voters passed a terrible anti-homeless law and the people who won't fix the problem got elected to office. What are we doing wrong?

A passed-out, unnamed homeless person creates an image of drunks and drug addicts

Back in June, at the instigation of Chronicle Editor Audrey Cooper, more than 70 media organizations put out hundreds of stories on the homeless crisis in San Francisco. “We intend to explore possible solutions, their costs and viability,” the letter announcing the project stated.

I signed on. We were part of the Homeless Project, I always thought it was a good idea; the more we can talk about the crisis, the more we might be able to get the city to do something about it.

But I was also nervous from the start: The way the news media in this city cover homelessness is often disturbing. People who don’t have a place to live are routinely dismissed as drunks and drug addicts, criminals and losers who just don’t want to get a job.

A passed-out, unnamed homeless person creates an image of drunks and drug addicts
A passed-out, unnamed homeless person creates an image of drunks and drug addicts

So now we are back, doing this again. Dec. 7th is Part Two. And I think it’s fair to look back at the past six months and ask: Has this done any good?

Let’s see: In November, San Francisco elected a person who is among the harshest critics of homeless people to the state Senate. The voters approved a nasty, stupid anti-homeless law that even the Chronicle opposed. Then they rejected a sales tax to fund homeless programs after the mayor abandoned it – so the existing plans for homeless services have to be cut back.

A conservative majority that supports market-rate housing as a solution to the problem won control of the Board of Supervisors.

So: After all of this news media attention, which has won a bunch of awards, the situation is by any objective analysis even worse than it was in June.

What happened? What did we all do wrong?

Let me offer some suggestions.


Homelessness is not a typical daily news media issue. I have been in this business for 35 years, starting with a daily paper (the Hartford Courant), moving on to a weekly (the Bay Guardian) and now back with a daily. I have been to at least 50 awards programs, dinners, and conventions where we recognize each other’s work (and pick up plaques that impress the boss).

And here’s the kind of “impact” story newspapers like:

Public Official X (or, much less often, Private Corporate Crook X) gets exposed by a reporter for something that is illegal or politically fishy, and is forced to resign.

Public Agency Y (or, much less often, Private Corporation Y) gets exposed by a reporter for cheating or wasting your tax money (or wasting shareholders’ money), and someone is fired.

Public Worker Z (or, much less often, Private Worker Z) fails to act properly, something bad happens, and someone is fired.

Something bad happens, and Public Agency A (or, much less often, Private Company A) is exposed for failing to put in place or enforce policies that could have prevented said tragedy. Someone is fired, or some politician introduces a bill to fix the policy failure, who then gets lauded along with the reporters.

(Carole Migden, who served on the Board of Supes and in both the state Assembly and Senate, used to joke with me: “All I have to do is read a story in the Chronicle and call them and tell them I will introduce a bill, and I get my picture on the front page.”)

A terrible tragedy happens, the news media exposes it (and community pressure forces City Hall (or another level of government) to take action.

(That is what is happening now with the Ghost Ship Fire. Journalists are exposing the fact that the Oakland building inspectors didn’t crack down on an unpermitted living situation and unpermitted parties. They are demanding that the officials involved be held accountable and that laws or policies or practices be changed. A few are actually saying that a lack of affordable housing and arts space is a deeper issue, but they are drowned out.)

I’m not saying any of those things are wrong. Investigative reporting by mainstream and alternative media outlets has brought to light tens of thousands of minor, serious, and atrocious situations and forced public officials to act. I am all in favor.

But the traditional media approach doesn’t work for something like homelessness in San Francisco. And the overall story approach of this project has never gone in the direction that would actually make a difference.

All the stories about human tragedy, about City Hall waste or City Hall initiatives, all the discussion about “solutions” gets you nowhere unless you are willing to dig deep into the structural reasons that about 8,000 people are living on the streets of San Francisco – and they are broad, and complex, and involve villains who are a long way away from the immediate picture.

There is a necessity to look at deep issues that defy normal news media coverage.

We have to start saying things like this:

Homelessness in America cities is a direct result of the demolition of federal funding for housing that started with Ronald Reagan – but was never restored by Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. And Rep. Nancy Pelosi was once the head of a party that controlled both houses and the White House – and she never made a serious move to bring that money back to cities. Not one story in this project has held her accountable. None of the presidential candidates talked about urban housing this year; none of the debate moderators, or political reporters covering the race, made it an issue.

Some of San Francisco’s most prominent people and corporations are part of the problem. There would be fewer homeless people if Airbnb hadn’t devastated the local housing stock. The mayor, his pal Airbnb investor Ron Conway, and Assemblymember David Chiu played a major role in protecting the tech company at the cost of thousands of housing units.

The biggest single cause of homelessness in San Francisco is not substance abuse or a refusal to seek help. It’s eviction. The city spends tens of millions of dollars a year taking care of people who have lost their homes, which could have been saved for a tiny fraction of that.

Homeless people aren’t a “problem;” they are victims, refugees. We as a society have failed them. Neoliberalism, public austerity, the massive concentration of wealth at the top … these are causes of this failure. There was a time when public assistance — call it “welfare” or whatever you want — paid enough to put a roof over people’s heads. Now (after, by the way, some journalists in the 1980s decided that exposing welfare cheats made for good copy) we pay so little that nobody can even afford and SRO room.

The biggest cause of evictions isn’t the Ellis Act, although that’s part of the picture. Right now, the biggest cause of evictions, and the housing crisis in general, is the tech boom and the displacement that comes with the mayor, by policy, attracting tens of thousands of highly paid new workers to the city, most of them moving here from somewhere else, before the city had any clue how to house them.

San Francisco has actually placed a lot of homeless people in housing. Nonprofits have built a fair amount of affordable and supportive housing. But every time we find someone a place to live, another person winds up on the streets. This is why homelessness never seems to get any better.

Here’s a story idea for all of us to work on: Survey 1,000 homeless people, and find out how many wound up on the streets because of a no-fault eviction. Then go find the landlords who did the evictions, causing homelessness, and put their pictures on the front page.

How about the swing-vote Democrats who killed Ellis Act reform in the state Assembly Housing Committee?  If any of the news media talking about the problem pinned any of it on them, I haven’t seen it.


We know how to address homelessness. It’s a complex problem, but the solutions aren’t rocket science. Even the Chron, to its credit, pointed out how solutions can work. It’s not so much money that a rich city like SF can’t make it work.

But we also need to start with the Hippocratic Oath of Housing: First, do no harm. We need to stop allowing landlords to throw people out of their homes. Then we need to force the people who have benefited greatly from the boom to pay for the costs they have incurred on the city, raising large sums of money for social housing. We need to spend the money it takes to provide acute and long-term mental-health services.

And we need to stop electing politicians who scapegoat homeless people for their own ambitions (and in this past election, the Chron pretty much endorsed all of them). We need to stop portraying homeless people as criminals, drug addicts, and anti-social.

After the Chron wrote a nice piece explaining what is needed, the paper never forced elected officials to say: Yes, we will do this, starting now. Instead, the Chron’s entire political lineup in November was people who refuse to address the problem, defy even the paper’s own reporting, and still get away with it.

I’m not just picking on the Chron — much of the local news media has failed to educate the public about the real causes of homelessness, the real solutions, and the people who are responsible. If we had done a better job, Prop. Q would have failed, Wiener would not be in the state Senate, the anti-homeless, pro-free-market crew would not control the Board of Supervisors, and the mayor would be leading an effort to profoundly change the local economy.

But that’s not happening. We keep writing and broadcasting, and nothing seems to get any better. Maybe we need to change our tone.








  1. So how does it work in 2016 / 2017?

    Has citizen voting stopped:
    “attacking property owners’ rights”?
    “impossible evictions”?
    “Attracting homeless people”?

    Where is that good news Bill?

  2. This is a good analysis of the elements exacerbating the homeless situation. Unfortunately, Fake News is competing with real news to the extent that no matter how serious you are as a journalist and how well you express what you observe, many people, such as some of these commenters, will not believe your version of reality. It may not be the message that is the problem. Society can no longer determine the difference between the real world and virtual reality. But you have an audience who cares, so that is what keeps you going.

  3. There was sufficient affordable housing in the past — for instance, from 1945 thru the end of the 70’s we were producing more than enough housing in SF to meet demand.

    That’s why beatniks, hippies, and other counter-culture types could come to the City and find reasonably-priced housing (without requiring any public $ subsidies.)

    During this 3-decade post-war period we actually encouraged the creation of housing. Since, the late 70’s, however – and continuing until today — we have become increasingly “anti-housing” and — via our policies & procedures — have made it ever more difficult, uncertain, time-consuming and expensive to create housing.

    Accordingly, over the past 35 years, thru every economic cycle we have been consistently underproducing housing relative to demand.

    This is why we have a full-blown housing crisis today. As our own history proves, it hasn’t always been — and doesn’t have to be — this way.

  4. Fortunately, the Supreme Court ended the practice of simply locking people up. Unfortunately, Gavin Newsom drastically slashed the number of psych beds at SF General. We need better care for the mentally ill, not simply using mental hospitals as de facto prisons for those that are bigoted find distasteful. We also need more housing that provides needed services for those who have mental issues. All too often, if they get housing, it is with Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which prefers to evict them, and put another cash cow in their place.

  5. I am willing to bet you oppose any efforts to actually provide adequate access ti appropriate facilities for the homeless to use. I have heard people say, “If we build more bathrooms, it will attract more bums,” or other similar remarks. Too bad you can’t comprehend that they have no other choice.

  6. Like most complex social problems, homelessness is the result of many different factors and not just the fault of one political party. The extreme volatility in housing costs in San Francisco area play a role, as well as improper allocation of funds, and lack of cooperation from the federal government for housing costs for poor people. Some homeless people are addicts and degenerates or criminals, others may just have seen their lives spiral out of control and can’t get back on track.
    I hate to be pessimistic but I doubt the problem will be alleviated with help from HUD under Ben Carson. All the work will probably have to be done at the local level .

  7. I am guessing that your comment was a putdown and an attempt at an ad hominin argument. However, that may not be a bad idea as it would free up housing in SF. If there were relocation assistance for “people like me”, those who are not homeless and not poor, there would be many who would jump at the chance. If you simply paid moving expenses, it could be an incentive to move. However, the cost of helping all who would accept that help would be astronomical and your taxes would be astronomical. There needs to be a means test before we offer someone help to find a job and move.

  8. They are not making a room but improving their living conditions. Most who decided to move to SF had a life somewhere else before the came to SF and can establish a life somewhere else. Most natives in know have left the City and established a life somewhere else. I think the average renter has been there only seven years; moving is typical. And what kind of life is it to sleep and defecate on the sidewalk.

  9. I would guess that those who have been getting income subsidies from their landlord would need to pay more in rent if they wanted similar housing in a similar neighborhood if evicted. They may not be able to afford “desirable” housing in a desirable neighborhood. They may not be able to afford what they want. Most who choose to live in the City must settle for less space or a less desirable environment. Most who decide to leave the City generally raise their standard of living. It is a tradeoff. I am guessing that some of those at the bottom of the scale will need to leave the City, the Bay Area, or even the State to improve their living conditions. Maybe we can help them with relocation assistance.

  10. There are a lot of chronic homeless who are mentally ill or drug addicts. More mental hospitals would go a long way to solving the problem.

  11. How long were they here? And are they temporarily homeless or chronically homeless: bums craping on the sidewalk.

  12. A wall? No. We need regional zoning and permit policies that recognize that no additional work/office space be built until there is more housing. I would further mandate that before permitting a new building that accommodates x number of employees, new housing that accommodates x.5 people needs to be built, or minimally, permitted and paid for.

  13. And it isn’t just eviction. How many of those who were displaced by rent hikes – which are not evictions – end up on the street? Many, I’m sure.

  14. The “majority” are “from”? San Francisco? I think that’s highly debatable. The questionnaire used in the Homeless survey has 29& admitting they moved here -homeless – from somewhere else – homeless; despite the negative connotation that implies. Others who say there were here went they became homeless are not sorted out between those where are born here, those here 10- or 20 yrs, and those who just moved here and had a hotel for 2 wks before they ran out of bread.
    Like the survey said, only 13% were evicted to become homeless (though even those could have been evicted elsewhere).
    The City can increase its spending from 2.5% to 3.0% of the budget, but’s just feel-good politics; and the money would be better spent somewhere else where there’s a better bang for the buck.

  15. ROTFL! I’m sorry if I stepped on your toes…though it was meant to be funny. But calling someone a bigot because they made a good point about the idea of displacing someone to make room for someone coming here is pretty lame. For what it is worth, I have been involved with computers since probably before you were born. Certainly before most of the “techies” were born. Most of them today are not nearly as smart or as skilled as you thing. Computers today are so fast, and have so much memory, that it doesn’t really take any skill to crank out an acceptable program. I would love to see some of them have to figure out how to squeeze a program onto a 640KB floppy. Shoot, programs today wouldn’t even fit on a hard drive back then. Sorry, I’m not bigoted, I’m just not impressed.

  16. >some tech bro, who thinks that living in San Francisco will be “really gnarly?

    I wouldn’t exactly call it funny, but bigots ALWAYS have trouble telling the difference between the various groups that they despise/blame.

    In this case she confuses surfers with tech workers. I guess that they all look alike to some people.

  17. So, why should someone who has made a life here, have to move to make room for some tech bro, who thinks that living in San Francisco will be “really gnarly?”

  18. Coddle? Hardly… Spend a week in a homeless shelter, and then tell me how you were coddled. Live on the streets for a week, and tell me how you were coddled. Sit/lie is a copy of a law that was found unconstitutional when passed by LA. If it gets heavily enforced, it will suffer the same fate. It was a classic political ploy by the moderates who regularly trot out some worthless anti-homeless law to rile up the bigots. This year, it was the outrageously named “Homes not Tents.” What a joke. And the term “homeless-industrial-complex has become a lame cliché, trotted in the mistake belief that it somehow trumps everything else.

  19. As Mark Twain said, there are three kinds of lies….lies, damn lies, and statistics. You just proved him right. If we got rid of those things, maybe prices would go back to what they were, which was around $750 for some places. That is what some places were going for before the “tech boom” and such.

    And you say “some” are drug addicts, have mental issues, and are criminals. Some is a pretty weaselly word. And in truth, most homeless are not these things. Yeah, some are, but some, again, is really meaningless. I know one homeless person who has a PhD in Psychology, who has had papers published in scholarly journals. She is living in a shelter, and is trying, desperately, to get back on her feet.

    The majority of homeless are from San Francisco. The claim that they are just pouring in, is a lie exposed many times, but still repeated regularly. So, please, spare us the same false claims….

  20. Irresponsible reporting with incorrect information is also part of the problem. Like your completely false statement: “Homelessness in America cities is a direct result of the demolition of federal funding for housing that started with Ronald Reagan – but was never restored by Bill Clinton or Barack Obama.” I’m no fan of Reagan but you are dead wrong. Homelessness in America, in fact, is a direct result of Kennedy’s Mental Health Act passed by Congress in 1963 and the subsequent deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill–based on the false assumption that mental health could be handled at the community level. Reagan’s de-funding was just another step in the process. But, of course, this is an inconvenient truth for you the SF “progressives.”

  21. Are you serious? If someone lives in a rent controlled apartment, and they get evicted, the chances of them finding a place they can afford are nil. And if a landlord files an eviction, whether he has solid grounds, or is trying to pull something completely illegal, the courts put a great deal of pressure on both parties to settle. If the landlord knows he is acting illegally, he can make a sweetheart offer, and still come out ahead. The bottom line is often greed, and nothing more. Once the person is evicted, or moves out as required in the settlement, that person is homeless if they cannot afford anything. If they are lucky, they might can pack up and move somewhere affordable, but they have to leave San Francisco, and quite likely California. If they can’t afford that, they wind up in a downward spiral that lands them on the street, or they are forced into the shelter system. From there, it just gets worse. So, simply put, you are wrong on all points. As to the evidence, it is all around you.

  22. I never said it should be up to the free market. I’m saying the BOS needs to get off their asses and do something to build more housing and people need to stop hand wringing and crying about the city not being like it was when they first moved here. San Francisco is not special. It’s a city, just like any other. Cities have to grow. like it or not.
    It’s not a hard idea to understand. Build more housing at every price level, whether it’s regulated, subsidized, market rate, whatever. I don’t care. Just build more housing so that people can actually live here.

  23. yeah, there isn’t enough housing, and there never will be. this myth that, if only regulations were gutted and the ‘free market’ was let loose, we would one day have a market equilibrium for housing in SF is ridiculous. why? because the demand is so big and growing every day (for precisely the reasons you described), and rather than satiate demand new development in “up and coming” neighborhoods actually induces it.

    so basically, the market will never fix this problem. but the only viable alternative – socialism – takes too much power from those who currently have it to be accomplished without a fight. so the big question for SFers today is, what side of that fight are you on?

  24. But isn’t that still just a symptom of a bigger problem? There simply isn’t enough housing here. Period. The lack of housing and bullheaded resistance to building more housing has made everything worse. It’s not just techies who are coming here for work. There is a wide range of people with varying education and income backgrounds coming to cities for work because there is typically more opportunity here than in rural areas. But in San Francisco, the lack of housing has drastically inflated the cost of housing so much that businesses who can’t afford to pay their workers tech industry prices are forced to close or move. And surprise surprise, guess who suffers the most and find themselves out of a job and unable to pay the rent.

  25. The American homeless, particularly Vets need to be prioritized to get low income housing in the city over everyone else, also mental/drug/alc rehab effective immediately.

  26. We know the cause of excess problems from homelessness. We spend too
    much on homeless services, coddle the homeless too much, do not enforce
    the sit-lie and camping bans, and create an incentive for homeless to
    move to the City. We need to replicate what has been done in other
    cities like Honolulu that ended homeless problems for enforcement. We
    need to completely DEFUND the homeless-industrial complex.

  27. *in the US you can move anwyhere and work for anyone if you can afford to.

    right now we have a country where the only truly free people are those making six-figures or more.

  28. Articles like this one are a huge part of the problem. We can’t solve homelessness if we’re delusional about the causes of homelessness. Evictions, the tech industry, and Airbnb are nice scapegoats, but they are not the causes of homelessness. If we “solve” all three of those issues, it’s not going to impact homelessness. If we got rid of evictions, new tech jobs, and Airbnb, maybe a 1BR apartment would cost $2500 instead of $3500 (maybe). Do you really think the homeless who can’t afford $3500 could afford $2500? Delusional.

    Here are the realities:
    –Some homeless are drug addicts
    –Some homeless have mental health issues
    –Some homeless are criminals / thieves
    –More homeless come here from other places every day

    If you can’t acknowledge that, you can’t build programs that will actually help address those issues. We should build a navigation center with 2,000 beds. I’d be all for that. I’d be OK with increasing my taxes to pay for it. But as long as we have delusional people like David Campos, Jane Kim, Aaron Peskin, etc. who refuse to even talk about what the real issues are, you can be sure I’ll vote against them and their ballot initiatives (as the majority of SF voters did this year).

    This is a national problem and it needs to be handled on a national scale. SF is never, ever going to be able to “solve” the homeless problem on it’s own. If we housed every single homeless person on the streets of SF today, guess what, more will show up tomorrow. It’s not a war we can win. It’s a chronic disease we have to manage.

  29. It’s important to differentiate genuine no-fault evictions from no-fault evictions motivated by greed.

    So for instance an owner-move-in or relative-move-in eviction is not an inherently bad thing. If someone buys a house or flat with the intention of living there AND actually lives there, we don’t take the view that is wrong, and certainly that owner should not be “named and shamed” in the way Tim is suggesting.

    On the other hand, if someone does an Ellis eviction or a condo conversion purely for the purpose of raising the value of the property before selling, then I think blame may be appropriate.

    But calling all no-fault evictions as the same and as bad seem excessive. Those eviction types are allowed because otherwise rent control might be undermined on legal and constitutional grounds.

  30. State-owned housing does not need to be in San Francisco.

    If employment is the cause of homelessness then helping them find a job would be the answer. It may be the jobs they qualify for are not in the City. If so what about relocation assistance. Relocation assistance could also be to areas with more affordable housing like Fresno?

  31. So what policies can you adopt that will stop people wanting to work in tech and stop SF from becoming a tech hub? Maybe put up a wall to stop newcomers? The fact is in the US you can move anywhere and work for anyone. It’s time for real solutions like expanded state-owned housing and increased supply.

  32. Where you rent wrong is being wrong about how it works in 2016 SF, handouts don’t help the majority receiving them, attacking property owner rights increases rents, it’s impossible to evict someone not insanely violating a lease in the city and SF is attracting homeless people. The good news is the citizens have woken up and are voting accordingly.

  33. Agreed. In the official homeless census 13% cited evictions as the reason for their being homeless. It doesn’t break out no fault but it is unlikely that it is one half of the 13%.

    25% said that they had lost their job which might have resulted in the inability to pay rent. Landlords aren’t non profits. They have to pay mortgage and RE taxes and it isn’t fair to require them to provide free housing.


    Here;s a story idea for Tim. Survey 1,000 people who have been no fault evicted and , find out how many are now homeless.

    And stop claiming that people don’t understand “the real causes of homelessness” when you have zero data that supports your theories.

  34. I don’t believe it. Where is the evidence that evictions cause homelessness. I may cause temporary homelessness, those in between homes but has nothing to do with chronic homelessness. Nor does the price of housing

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