On the evening of Thursday, Jan. 24, I joined dozens of volunteers traveling the streets of San Francisco conducting the biennial homeless count. The purpose of the count is simple but imperative: determine the number of homeless people living in San Francisco. I walked the streets of the Marina to help figure out how many people live in shelters, in their cars, and on our streets. The findings of the count will take months to finalize, but I do not need the data to know the number of people living on our streets — some barely surviving — is inexcusable.
Homelessness has been a problem in San Francisco for decades, with thousands living on our streets. In the most recent count from 2017, 7,499 people were homeless in San Francisco, only slightly higher than the number in 2005. However, only looking at a single night’s count severely understates the severity of the problem. In reality, over 20,000 people may experience homelessness in San Francisco each year.
Regardless of the numbers, homelessness in San Francisco is a crisis. Too many people have said it is the worst it has ever been, and based on what I see, I agree.
We’ve had some small wins in the fight to help people living on the streets. While other West Coast cities such as Seattle and Los Angeles have seen homeless populations rise exponentially over the last several years, San Francisco has been able to keep the total population relatively stable. The Online Navigation and Entry System (ONE) — a new tracking program implemented in the fall — registered 3,452 adults, nearly doubling its goal ahead of schedule. These are small wins though, and the severity of this problem requires drastic change.
Homelessness in San Francisco is a humanitarian crisis. There is no silver bullet solution for that, but there are steps that are needed for progress.
1,000 beds by 2020. San Francisco actually has similar rates of homelessness to other major cities such as New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C. The major difference is more than half of the homeless people in San Francisco are unsheltered, living on the streets and in cars. The waitlist for emergency shelter has more than 1,000 people, and people can wait more than a month for a bed. San Francisco needs more short-term emergency shelter and Navigation Center beds to ensure people are sheltered.
In response, Mayor Breed has called for 1,000 additional beds by 2020, nearly doubling the current number of emergency shelter beds, and I am doing everything I can at the Board of Supervisors to make this a reality. I recently cosponsored legislation declaring a shelter crisis and streamlining the construction of new shelter beds and expansion of services. We need bold and swift action to respond to this crisis, and more shelter is a key component.
Conservatorship. One of the reasons I believe the homeless crisis has become so severe is more people are living on the street with mental health and substance abuse issues. These people need more than just shelter and case management; they need comprehensive services and long-term treatment. Conservatorship, recently authorized by SB1045 by the state, expands the city’s ability to mandate these services when a person is unable to care for himself or herself. In this time when more people living on the streets than ever need serious help, the number of people in the city’s conservatorship programs has actually decreased. I have co-sponsored legislation to implement expanded conservatorship in San Francisco and look forward to passing it early this year.
My staff and I have worked extensively with SFPD, Public Health, and the Department of Homelessness on plans for a few high-needs individuals living on the streets in District 2. For these people, conservatorship is a vital tool to ensure they get help. Conservatorship will not help every person living on our streets and in our shelters, but it will get help to those who are repeatedly in and out of the hospital, a danger to themselves or others, and in the most critical need of help.
Pushing for accountability and effectiveness. In the coming weeks, I am holding a hearing on the coordination of services for homeless individuals with mental health and substance abuse issues. Too often, I have heard of or personally witnessed a person with an acute need — dangerous drug use or psychiatric episode — enter services through a 5150 hold only to end up back on the street days later.
This hearing will focus on how these departments work together to provide a holistic solution for all of a homeless individual’s needs. The departments involved in supporting this person are numerous: SFPD picks them up, Public Health treats and stabilizes them, Homelessness oversees potential housing, and Adult and Aging Services coordinates benefits for food and health care. Each department must be accountable for their responsibilities or the entire system fails, and people return to homelessness rather than getting help.
Prioritizing resources. Last, I am going to examine the city’s supportive housing network to ensure resources are effectively used and prioritized for those who need them the most.
The chronically homeless, those who have been homeless for a year or more and suffer from substance abuse and mental health issues, will not get back on a healthful path with just a few nights in a shelter bed. These people need stable housing, case management, treatment, and a path to opportunities. Supportive housing, housing coupled with case managements and services, is one of the most proven tools for getting these people off the streets and back on track.
San Francisco has the most supportive housing per capita of any city in the United States but still not nearly enough to house every person living on our streets. We must prioritize these resources for the people who truly need them using the ONE system and its data. Additionally, we must ensure the different groups managing supportive housing are providing high quality services and helping people onto a better path. The city needs to replicate the best models and buildings and fix the ones that are not working.
A long-term, regional solution. Homelessness has been a problem in San Francisco, and our country, for decades. Cities and towns all across the Bay Area have had too many people living on our streets. San Francisco cannot fix this on its own. The policies I am fighting for will push us in the right direction, shelter more people, and hopefully lower the homeless population when the next homeless count occurs. Ultimately though, the solution to homelessness will require a large-scale, regional effort. California and the federal government both need to act to address the factors causing homelessness, and throughout my term as supervisor I will strongly advocate for programs at this level. Homelessness is not San Francisco’s problem alone, and San Francisco alone cannot provide a solution.