The Only Way to House ALL People Living on the Street

(Today, Tomorrow, & Forever)

Opinion by George P. Denny

Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this commentary are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of HVSafe.

photo courtesy Jenny Chan

You’ll meet all kinds of people if you live in San Francisco long enough, but it may take a lifetime to find someone who actually supports our strategy to lift the local homeless population out of untenable circumstances. It will certainly require some effort to find a person who could articulate what exactly that strategy is and explain how it is supposed to be successful. Our local politicians are quick to provide wonderful-sounding promises of ‘housing for all’ in San Francisco, which many others contend is the exact playbook which increases our homeless population year after year. In such a beautiful and expensive city, how do you promise infinite housing for free without having hordes of people coming to accept such generosity?

The problem with providing free SF housing to all who want it should be obvious to anyone who likes living here, but in combination with our climate and indifference to drug laws, we are in effect outbidding every other city for their most destitute population by enticing their homeless addicts to move and remain here. Addicts overwhelmingly comprise the biggest group of SF homeless, but we must also treat those who are mentally handicapped without addiction and those in neither aforementioned group. Since our current strategy fails to address the needs of the addict, the mentally handicapped, and the temporality displaced alike, we will come to a solution for all three groups by beginning with the largest and most politically radioactive.

Homeless funding grows right along with our exploding homeless population because the city is so inept at lifting people off the street – the most common path out of the San Francisco homeless whirlpool is to overdose and die. (San Francisco’s homeless population grows steadily despite many hundreds of annual overdose deaths.) This reality hints at the dirty secret shared by cities with relatively small homeless populations: the less services you provide and the more drug laws you enforce, the better chance you have of displacing your homeless population to welcoming cities like San Francisco. After all, the homeless respond to incentives like everyone else, and since there is such a strong correlation between homelessness and drug addiction, we can be anything but surprised at the massive open-air heroin and fentanyl trade. The homeless San Francisco addict faces an absolute minimum amount of societal or legal pressure to amend their ways, as users of heroin and fentanyl have every bit as much freedom from prosecution as your local pot smoker. This also explains why our drug overdose deaths rise right along with our homeless budget. In 2020, 699 people died by way of overdose, and we’re on pace to absolutely smash the record this year, with 135 such deaths in just the first two months of 2021.

Dean Preston, our local District 5 supervisor, would explain that housing is the only way to treat homelessness, and therefore the city should provide a fresh condo or apartment for everyone who wants one and can’t afford it. Mayor Breed mirrored many of these sentiments in a 9/22/2020 essay she penned on Medium titled “Homeless Recovery Plan.” She writes: “Ultimately, housing is the solution to homelessness, and by expanding access to housing and other support, we can create real opportunities for people to get off the streets and create a path for them to live a fuller, healthier life.” (Boldface used in original text.) Mayor Breed is right, of course, in the most basic sense, but the critical detail determining success or failure is where these new supportive housing units will be located. To date, there is no limiting principle to the number of homeless San Francisco claims to be able to shelter in the city, leading to perpetual overcrowding of all facilities and the inability to help addicts get clean.

None of this should strike San Franciscans as news, nor should we be surprised at Mayor Breed’s difficulty in building her proposed navigation centers, as most don’t want to live near such a facility. The NIMBY (‘not in my back yard’) Democrat was once quieted by attacks on their liberal bonafides and character, but frustration with homelessness has grown so rampant around here that NIMBY coalitions form to fight every new proposed location, such as the pre-pandemic battle in the Embarcadero. Navigation centers are Breed’s favorite tool to get people off the street and into permanent housing, but such sites are feared for attracting drug culture and the ugliness that comes with it. San Franciscans repeatedly vote to help the homeless with more funding, but have limits to their generosity, and are increasingly concerned that our larger game plan turns San Francisco into everyone’s favorite place to avoid rehab.

At this juncture it’s fair to probe the actual players in a system where the tax payers fund the deterioration of their city into a refugee camp and the homeless individual rides the high-speed highway to the grave. Does this system actually work for anyone? What is it that we ask of our citizens, and of whom do we ask it? Housed citizens of San Francisco are currently required to swallow the bill of a growing list of demands from a growing legion of dependents, all while ignoring the soul-churning reality on our streets. The homeless drug addict is expected to change absolutely nothing about their life, and unlike other progressive places, the SF addict faces absolutely no possibility of mandated rehab. The mentally handicapped homeless roam the streets in unmitigated agony, but are often so hard to distinguish from the homeless addict that they live out their lives without an intervention; the temporality displaced individual is discouraged from using existing facilities out of the fear of theft or violence caused primarily by drug addicts. The mayor and local supervisors are asked to “fix” or “address” homelessness by outraged voters, which generally means reducing it, and since their results are so poor, greater funding is perpetually demanded as the only antidote. San Francisco didn’t create the Homeless Industrial Complex, but we sure seem to have perfected it. Our city is caught in a positive feedback loop, also known as a self-fulfilling prophecy, in attracting more homeless as a result of our strategy to reduce homelessness. At least the Coalition on Homelessness is pleased, as our pursuit of more homeless people gives them increasing power, funding, and numbers to maintain the status quo.

The answer is for San Francisco and every other California city to pool our vast resources and escape this Homeless Industrial Complex as fast as possible. Our billion dollar annual budget, combined with that of Los Angeles, could fund a proper township on cheap state land to focus all services for rebuilding your life at no cost to the resident and far less cost to the taxpayer. Rehab should be readily available and free for all who want it, but we could also load the village with educational and job-training resources. Every way in which we want to help those in need of help can be more efficiently built outside San Francisco at a tiny fraction of the cost. Current local financials are just staggering: the city apparently spends $61k on each outdoor tent site per tent, which is little more than a set piece of blacktop besides port-a-potties, and affordable housing can cost $700k per unit. We can actually afford to house people at just over the cost of construction if we do so on cheap state land, and this in turn frees our existing SF facilities to become sober housing for the temporality displaced. Identifying mentally handicapped homeless would also be easier overnight without the overwhelming presence of addicts. That we should have special facilities for the mentally handicapped seems like a given that every San Franciscan would support, but it is virtually impossible to differentiate between someone who is hallucinating because of drugs or because of their own mind. Surely nothing is less therapeutic than living on crime-filled streets.

After watching the same formula create the same results for years on end, I’m ready to conclude that spending an insane amount of money by way of an insane strategy produces insane results. There are few ways and places to be less cost-effective than San Francisco, but holding residents hostage to their homeless neighbors for a $700k per person ransom is not sustainable, even here. There is no way to pretend to be compassionate when your blind spot – permitting endless drug addiction – kills so many hundreds of people in such a predictable fashion. We all need help sometimes, and the biggest impediment to building infrastructure that all Californians can use to get back on their feet for free is the inability for us to admit that such a facility simply shouldn’t happen in the most expensive and regulated city on Earth. Once we confront this limitation, we can provide more resources for more people more efficiently.

Don’t let the mark of our cities’ compassion be our allegiance to the flowery political rhetoric that produced this calamity, but the number of people we actually help.