Criticism without Constructive Ideas is a Waste of Time and Ink
Pandemic Diary #60
October 5, 2020
When doing the homeless count for the census, I worked with a teacher who lived in her car, thus she would be classified as homeless. I not only can see the irony in that, but it is very simply wrong.
In the last few months my inbox has filled with articles and YouTube videos of the homeless in San Francisco during COVID. These pieces are great headline grabbers but they solve nothing.
The first article on the situation in San Francisco that made national attention was an article in the NY Times several years ago. We have since become a punching bag for the issue.
In many cases, homelessness is a temporary situation, and more importantly it does not describe who that person is. Homeless counts are done biennially across the country over the course of a 24 hour period, so the numbers are fluid and only a snapshot in time.
The generally accepted definition of a homeless person is one who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate night-time residence.
San Francisco has a serious homeless problem, and it is far more complicated than can be addressed in a short Medium article, but essentially it is three problems. A drug problem, a mental health problem, and an unhoused problem. So in Part 1, I am hoping to clear up some major misconceptions about the unhoused.
San Francisco has a considerably smaller homeless population than many other large cities. The sad thing is that a goodly portion of this population is living rough.
According to Statista, an estimated 71.7% of all homeless people in California are living rough. This is a horrific number in comparison to just 4.4% in New York. Interestingly, the communities with the largest unsheltered rates of this type are rural, Lake County with a 94% rate and Alpine, Inyo, and Mono counties with a 92% rate.
A tragic set of numbers included in the homeless (although not necessarily in the living rough numbers) are Veterans. California has 10,980 homeless veterans, 10% of those are women.
The US unhoused problems began in 1981 when Ronald Reagan cut the HUD budget.
In 1976 President Gerald Ford asked Congress to fund 506,000 new low-income housing units, including 400,000 rent vouchers to pay for privately owned housing in the Section 8 program. Under Reagan, funding for new subsidies dropped below 100,000 units per year. It did not improve with time. In 1996 when President Bill Clinton signed the Welfare Reform Act there were fewer than 9,000 units funded. The number of San Francisco’s Section 8 housing vouchers has not increased in 15 years.
In 1987, then-Mayor, now Senator, Diane Feinstein told the Chronicle “It’s emerged into a whole subculture. A potpourri of many different things. Everything from frail elderly to drug abusers to alcoholics to women with children to single men to AIDS victims to the mentally ill … and that’s a direct result of Ronald Reagan’s policies.”
The result of all of this is that the police department of San Francisco spends $18.5 million a year responding to problems directly related to homelessness.
Despite what is shown in the news San Francisco has a very thoughtful and comprehensive approach towards housing the unhoused. In a normal year of the nearly 8000 homeless citizens of San Francisco around 4,400 live unsheltered, on any given night. This is the housing deficit that needs to be addressed.
There are many programs that could improve the situation, but San Francisco also has a large NIMBY population.
San Francisco has developed Navigation Centers, shelters that offer a place to sleep, substance-abuse treatment, job training and welcome partners and pets. When the City wanted to build one on the Embarcadero the surrounding wealthy neighbors were very vocal in their objection. As someone who lives in an area with a large unhoused population, their objections just stank of privilege.
Berkeley has a new center that could be replicated here in San Francisco if there was the will. They were constructed in 14 weeks by using modular construction. The director of the project, Patrick Kennedy, has said San Francisco could build 5000 of these units within a year. Presently the largest blockade to this type of housing is restrictions requiring single-family zoning in many locations as well as opposition by neighbors.
Being homeless is not a crime, people find themselves in this position for a myriad of reasons.
Many organizations break it down into a few categories. System failures, personal circumstances, domestic violence, poverty and a critical shortage of affordable housing.
System failures can include a difficult transition from child welfare, a lack of thought when discharging people from hospitals, corrections or mental health and drug facilities, and also a lack of support for immigrants and refugees.
Personal circumstances could include a job loss, an untenable medical bill or a home fire. These are traumatic events that can be the final straw for those living from paycheck to paycheck.
There is a direct link between domestic violence and homelessness. Women with children are the most affected by this but this group also includes children that are fleeing sexual abuse from a family member.
There has been considerable criticism about how San Francisco has handled the homeless with the closing of all shelters during COVID. There are tent cities across the town, some sanctioned by the city. San Francisco has placed many into hotels, this program has been reported on as a disaster. In contrast to that, I live across the street from a hotel that has taken in the unhoused. It has saved the owner’s business, which we in our neighborhood are grateful for as he is a very good neighbor. The tenants are respectful, many have become friends with the neighbors, and there have been no problems that I am aware of.
San Francisco is not unique in using hotels for the homeless at this time in history. Scotland is having problems housing homeless in hotels during COVID. There are other countries trying the same experiment. This, we all hope will not be a long term situation, but it is an opportunity to learn.
Frighteningly, we may see an increase in homelessness as the pandemic continues.
August 1st was the end of many of the Federally funded programs that helped stave off catastrophe for so many people that lost their jobs, or who were one of the 27% of adults who would need to borrow or sell something to pay for an unexpected expense of $400.
The CDC has extended rent moratoriums to December 31st. This compassionate act did not come from our leaders, it came from the CDC specifically to keep people out of homeless shelters or other crowded living conditions that could worsen the spread of COVID. However, this moratorium is in the courts, and only applies to a small number of renters, so there is no guarantee that people will not soon be living on the streets or in their cars by Christmas.
The number of homeowners behind by at least 90 days on their mortgage is 1.8 million higher than before the pandemic began and the highest level since 2010.
Renters fare no better. About 36% of renters, who are more likely to work in industries devastated by the coronavirus, missed their July housing bill, compared to 30% of homeowners.
There are many reports out regarding these potential housing numbers, but overall they point to the fact that if things do not change, 29% to 43% of renter households could be at risk for eviction when the moratorium ends.
According to numbers from 2018, even before COVID struck, 20.8 million renter households, or just under 48% of all renter households, were already what they call “rental-cost burdened”.
Renter households that live below the poverty line spend at least half of their income in rent with one in four paying over 70% of their income on rent.
This year San Francisco passed proposition C which is expected to bring in over $6 million dollars specifically targeted to deal with the unhoused situation. This is a game changer for San Francisco, let us hope it is handled in a manner that serves the people it is targeting and not the special interests that tend to throw monkey wrenches into the works.
This is an extremely difficult problem, with years and dollars thrown at it already, and I do not purport to have the answers. Let us hope the results of proposition C prove to be the magic pill it is touted. If so, it will be time for the media to concentrate their lens on other parts of the country. Focusing on San Francisco as though we were the only place with this problem, is not helping anyone or anything.
My Horoscope for today: You may not technically owe anyone anything but this isn’t the time to nickel and dime. Pay what’s asked. The good feeling alone will be worth it.
San Francisco weather: 65 degrees with fog and clear skies
NYSE DOW compared to one year ago: +1323
COVID cases in the US: 7,643,536
Deaths from COVID in the US: 214,693
Foreign word of the day: mermaid
OED word of the day: schlep — To haul, carry, drag
Days since Shelter In Place was initiated: 204
Reading: The Plague by Albert Camus
My Black and White Picture of the Day
Something Silly From the Internet: