Bay Area homeless population on the rise during tech boom
During the 2014 holiday season, Margaret Cho was in San Francisco helping raise funds for youth services. (Photos by Gerard Livernois)
"It is a tragic mix-up when the United States spends $500,000 for every enemy soldier killed, and only $53 annually on the victims of poverty."
-- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
by Denise Sullivan
If you're looking for extremes in income disparity, look no further than San Francisco.
The city that announced a $22 million operating surplus can seemingly not afford to house its lower- and middle-income residents or feed them.
"This provides us in city government with an opportunity to help working-class and middle-income families that are struggling," said Supervisor David Campos of the city's windfall in a December edition of the Chronicle. "I think that it's a conversation that should begin sooner rather than later."
Agreed, though the history of San Francisco's housing and homelessness story is complex, requiring a quick look back at the last 50 years and our waxing and waning attitudes between equality and tolerance, racism and outright cultural genocide, and back to inequity and apathy again.
San Francisco is historically the place people went when they weren't accepted elsewhere. If you were a freethinker or Beat, you went there. If you were a hippie/counterculturist, you went there. If you were gay or transgender, you went there. Likely you went because you weren't welcome where you came from or you were seeking to start your life adventure. But San Francisco is also the place of which James Baldwin said, "There is no distance between the facts of life in San Francisco and the facts of life in Birmingham," back in 1963 when he visited and heard of its segregated housing and lack of jobs for African Americans.
In this brief irreverent history, the '60s and '70s rolled on, Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone got shot for helping the meek, while Jim Jones killed them with Kool-Aid. In the face of such tragic loss, we mostly maintained our generosity of spirit. Accommodating as best we could the influx of mentally ill folks when Ronald Reagan's ill-conceived policies cut them loose, we were also designated a sanctuary city, a place where victims of civil wars, specifically Central Americans, were allowed to seek refuge without interference by immigration services. Mayors Dianne Feinstein, Art Agnos, Frank Jordan, Willie Brown and Gavin Newsom all had their ways of handling matters of housing these various at-risk and marginalized communities, some better than others (though Jordan's plan and platform, to send the homeless population packing, was the biggest moral disgrace).
Today, the problems of housing our people look much different. In the annual San Francisco Homeless Count and Survey, according to the Coalition on Homelessness (CoH), almost half of the respondents claimed to be homeless for the first time, and the crisis is "mushrooming," says Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the CoH. In a worthy attempt to foster empathy, a new municipal-transit ad campaign underscores people's resident status. Estimates continue to put San Francisco's homeless population at over 6,000, but that isn't counting all families and youth, who traditionally go underreported. (The waiting list for public housing is over 10,000 households long.) Over two thirds of respondents to the survey reported a disability. The young comprise another hefty segment of the homeless population: whether they're among the 800-1,000 residing with family, or among the 3,000-plus served by Larkin Street Youth, they are not being served. During the 2014 holiday season, Margaret Cho came to town to raise much-needed funds for youth services with a series of street theater events. Some called it a publicity stunt, but I'd say it shone a much-needed spotlight on the disconnect between life among present-day new arrivals with jobs and those who also call San Francisco home but without steady means of support, including shelter.
People in need gather at 16th and Mission Streets to collect items Margaret Cho and friends collected for them.
Bubbles ballooned and burst, the mortgage crisis hit here, and some folks survived the changes while others didn't; these are simply the wages of our system. Yet with this never-ending wave of tech workers who wish to reside in the urban space rather than in suburban Silicon Valley, its cities traditionally shunning affordable housing in favor of gleaming suburbia, we can unequivocally say that housing here is for the rich. If you are poor, you are expected to live outdoors -- that is, until you are evicted from that space too. Developers and the newly rich may buy units previously occupied by long-term tenants who've been evicted and live in them without reservation; they can snap up properties that have been foreclosed on -- often properties inherited by native-born sons and daughters trying desperately to hold on to their generational heritage -- and flip 'em. Titleholders in good standing electively cash out behind irrefusable offers, which is certainly their right to do, while the housing crisis continues unabated. But at what cost? People's lives are lost from exposure to the elements; others lose their souls by refusing to assist.
At present there are approximately 1,300 shelter beds, which roughly translates into about 5,000 people on the streets and in the parks nightly here. Housing and programs supplemented by money from the surplus budget, billionaire philanthropists, and the collection of taxes and other means could fix this injustice. But there remains resistance by the new power brokers and tech barons to become part of the solution; it doesn't fit their agenda.
Thankfully, there is an increasing awareness of the Bay Area's shameful housing crisis, and it's starting to get national attention, which just may be a beginning toward assistance -- from elsewhere. We have not been shown evidence nor a plan for what or how the 30,000 new units proposed and promised by Mayor Ed Lee are going to manifest, though his office just announced the creation of 138 units thanks to HUD. Lee's plan also includes implementation of the problematic Laura's Law, building of 500 more units, specifically for the homeless community, plus a shelter for homeless LGBT persons. That's great, but when? Just last night 54 more people were displaced, six injured and one died following a fire at their apartment building, prime Mission real estate, allegedly not fitted with proper fire alarms. It will be interesting to watch how the city will assist the people impacted most by the loss of their homes and businesses, meaning those who are just one paycheck or one four-alarm fire away from homelessness.
Denise Sullivan is an arts and culture journalist, commentator, and third-generation San Franciscan. She is co-founder of United Booksellers of San Francisco, a coalition of independent bookstores organized to support and sustain literary life there, and author of several books.