San Francisco’s homeless problem has become so grim that tourists wonder if they’ve just wandered into a seedy neighborhood. Last year, a Reddit user posted that he had “walked past numerous homeless” people who were “screaming and running all over the sidewalk near Twitter HQ.” He asked, “Is this normal or am I in a ‘bad part of town?’”
The City by the Bay’s homelessness problem is profound even for California, where as much as 30 percent of the country’s homeless live. Municipal officials estimate that 5,823 such persons live in San Francisco, but health-care workers say the more accurate figure is about 10,000, which would be nearly 72 percent higher than the 2010 federal count. Whatever the true number, the city’s homeless problem is unsustainable.
The “streets are so filthy,” National Public Radio reports, “that at least one infectious disease expert has compared the city to some of the dirtiest slums in the world.” A resident living in the South of Market neighborhood has documented an increase in Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. A year ago, the local NBC affiliate surveyed 153 blocks in downtown San Francisco over three days and found that while “some streets were littered with items as small as a candy wrapper, the vast majority of trash found included large heaps of garbage, food, and discarded junk,” as well as “100 drug needles and more than 300 piles of feces throughout downtown.” The survey was not confined to the shabby parts of town, covering also “popular tourist spots like Union Square and major hotel chains” as well as “City Hall, schools, playgrounds, and a police station.” The accumulation of human feces has become nearly as much a symbol of San Francisco as streetcars, Lombard Street, and the Coit Tower. Complaints made about human waste in public spaces have spiked in recent years, growing from 1,748 in 2008 to 21,000 in 2017; they totaled 20,400 through the first 10 months of 2018, according to Data San Francisco, a city government source.
The long-term solution, some say, is to expand the housing stock in a city where lodgings have become unaffordable for many. Today’s crisis, says Wayne Winegarden of the Pacific Research Institute, also requires short-term strategies that give the homeless access to shelters and services that help them transition off the streets. But adding more apartments won’t do anything to address the city’s escalating homelessness problem, much of which is caused by drug addiction and mental illness, and strategies like those Winegarden champions have been tried for decades, without much success.
Doug Wyllie, a San Francisco resident and law enforcement trainer, suggests involving police officers, but not in the way many might expect. Officers are on the “front lines of a war,” Wyllie wrote last July in POLICE magazine, but it’s one that they are “ill-equipped to win.” What they need is better knowledge of available social services, because police don’t automatically “know that the building down on Third and Main has a clinic offering mental health counseling to underprivileged individuals.” Once familiar with available resources, says Wyllie, cops can connect the homeless with appropriate services and treatment.
Santa Rosa, 40 miles north of San Francisco, started a program that fits Wyllie’s description. The Homeless Outreach Services Team is operated by Catholic Charities and works with the Santa Rosa Police Department to direct the homeless to service centers and find them housing. While “housing first” efforts have proved largely ineffectual, the Santa Rosa initiative has fared better: during 2016–2017, nearly all the 875 homeless who made contact with the city’s police force were placed either in safe shelter or permanent or transitional housing. In 2017–18, roughly three-quarters of the more than 2,000 homeless people who had contact with police were placed in shelter or housing. It’s too early to know if such an approach will work long-term, but San Francisco should give Santa Rosa’s program a look.
Advocacy groups, wanting little more than to “preserve the status quo,” often thwart progress on reducing homelessness, says Erica Sandberg, a San Francisco resident who recently wrote about the effects of open drug use in the streets. The advocates hold enormous political clout in San Francisco and have been behind City Hall’s enabling response to homelessness for decades. Sandberg, an activist seeking solutions to the city’s homelessness and crime issues, says that the groups are starting to lose influence because residents are finally getting fed up with the disorder and disruption on their doorsteps. With more public support, private institutions with more constructive approaches may get their opportunity, which cannot come soon enough for San Francisco residents.