My June 2020 column, “It’s the drugs, stupid” elicited more responses than anything I’ve written for this newspaper. Not one person disagreed with my thesis: The homeless crisis is mostly a drug crisis, and it’s time for San Francisco to find a sensible, humane solution. Residents from every district wrote, messaged, and called to express their support for a program modeled after the innovative and successful Community First Village in Austin, Tex., which I visited and detailed in a column last summer (“Dignity Through Accountability,” August 2019). Marina resident Mary Hickey was so inspired she and a neighbor actually toured the Cow Palace, which I recommended as a possible site. They even scored a meeting with Senator Scott Wiener, who last year proposed taking over the Cow Palace to develop affordable housing. But Wiener was discouraging, even dismissive. “He told us, ‘Go for it!’ and his assistant Annie was supposed to follow up and nothing happened,” Hickey said. “We heard crickets.”
Even more shocking is that Mayor London Breed and the Board of Supervisors have been nonresponsive, despite attempts by their constituents to create a dialogue. I finally reached out personally to Mayor Breed, District 2 Supervisor Catherine Stefani, District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin, and District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney (whose neighborhoods, including the Tenderloin and South of Market, take the brunt of the crisis).
As of press time I haven’t heard back from the mayor (perhaps she’s distracted with so many of her department heads being subpoenaed or indicted by the FBI).
Both Stefani and Haney said they would support the Village.
“As San Francisco faces a nearly $2 billion budget deficit, we need to be sure that the solutions we’re investing in actually work — that they actually improve conditions on our streets. With that in mind, we should absolutely keep an eye on the promising evidence coming out of Community First Village in Austin,” Stefani responded.
“I absolutely support models similar to Community First Village in Austin,” Haney said. “We need different types of options and solutions, including those that provide community with self-sufficiency and treatment options, and we have to be creative and results-driven. The same thing we’ve been doing is clearly not enough and isn’t working for a lot of people.” (Incidentally, Haney was the only person to mention self-sufficiency and treatment options.)
Peskin said San Francisco was “more physically constrained” than Austin (despite the fact I proposed the Village be outside city limits) and pointed to the status quo, saying, “We have supportive housing with wraparound services” (to which I responded, “And how’s that working out?”). Peskin did admit it was “spread out all over the place,” and he wondered aloud “if there’s a concerted effort on the part of other places to dump people on us,” pointing to stories he’d heard of “people to the north of us” sending their homeless (I’ve heard those same stories). “We’re getting people off the streets and they just keep coming,” Peskin said. He also acknowledged that residents are angrier than he’s ever seen them. “When the electorate gets mad, they mostly get mad at the mayor. Now everybody is mad.”
That’s an understatement.
On Aug. 18, the board approved a settlement with UC Hastings that compelled the city to clear the Tenderloin of tents (several groups have filed similar lawsuits in other neighborhoods). Peskin, along with Hillary Ronen, Shamann Walton, and Dean Preston, voted against the settlement.
“I am ashamed of what I think is a heartless lawsuit,” Walton said. (To me, heartless is the way he and other supervisors have ignored the pleas of residents to clean up the city.)
Preston, of course, has gone a step further: He actually helped pay for and hand out nearly 1,000 tents in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood he represents — then scurried back to his $3 million home on Hayes Street in Alamo Square. Ronen has spent over a decade at City Hall whining about homelessness and doing nothing to solve it. But the most interesting vote came from Haney, who voted yes despite opposition from the Coalition on Homelessness, a histrionic “advocacy group” that does nothing to effect real change. For years they had the entire board wrapped around their accusatory little finger, but the Hastings vote — particularly the yes vote from Haney, who has sided with them in the past — proves their power is waning.
NEEDLES AND NARCAN
One thing that’s not working for San Francisco is harboring the homeless in hotels during the pandemic. Many shocking stories have been reported since the program started in April, including police busting a meth lab at the Civic Center Motor Inn. Of the city’s 125 homeless deaths thus far in 2020, 17 percent have occurred at the hotels in just five months, where at least one was a suicide and 15 were drug overdoses. Dr. Barry Zevin, medical director of street medicine and shelter health for the Department of Public Health, told the San Francisco Chronicle “after a string of deaths and near-fatal overdoses,” each hotel now has “Narcan on every floor, along with safe syringe disposal, safe injection kits and test strips that can determine if fentanyl is in a substance.”
In other words, the city is providing plenty of tools for using illegal drugs. What seems in short supply are treatment options. Instead, the health department aligns with the Drug Users Union, which, according to their website, seeks “to create a safe environment where people can use & enjoy drugs,” and the Harm Reduction Coalition, which is really about harm enabling — meaning the hotels have essentially become city-sanctioned, taxpayer-funded drug dens.
DOLLARS AND SENSE
Besides being unsustainable, the hotel model is outrageously expensive. The Marina Times crunched the numbers and found that, based on 2,500 occupants at the city-estimated $250 per room per night, the annual rate would be $225 million. The mayor is hoping federal taxpayers will pick up 75 percent of the tab, but what she doesn’t mention is that rooms provided to those who don’t meet strict criteria (over 65, underlying health conditions) will not qualify for reimbursement, prompting Human Services Agency Director Trent Rhorer to say housing all of the city’s homeless in hotels “would not be fiscally prudent.”
On the other hand, a scaled-up estimate for the village shows it would cost $75 million per year for 2,500 people — and that’s before residents start contributing. Austin’s Community First Village is privately funded, with residents covering 40 percent of the budget through rent and on-site work programs. We certainly have enough billionaires to fund the village (I’m looking at you, Marc and Jack), but the city could also pay for it by getting rid of Mayor Ed Lee’s greatest boondoggle, the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. Since its inception in 2016, homelessness has risen 30 percent — while their annual budget has risen 80 percent, to a mind-boggling $364 million.
Next, cancel the contracts of the 59 “nonprofit” organizations that for fiscal year 2019–20 had funding of $240.6 million. If Tim Cook ran Apple the way they run the homeless industry, he’d be unemployed, too. Let them submit business plans to work at the Village. Those selected will be routinely audited and renewal will be performance based.
Maybe this all sounds daunting to city leaders, but I agree with Supervisor Peskin — everyone is angry. It’s time for politicians to stop talking, start listening, and take action.
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