Homelessness, But Not Hopelessness: San Francisco Can Fix Its Problem

Kerry Jackson
Kerry Jackson is a senior fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.

President Trump set off quite a tempest when he tweeted that Rep. Elijah Cummings’ Baltimore is a disgusting mess. His next target could be Nancy Pelosi, since he seems perpetually at war with the Baltimore-born House speaker whose city is also being spoiled by urban decay. 

Sheila Burke said she was driving recently in San Francisco when “a woman staggered over to my car, put her hand in the driver’s door, proceeded to pull down her pants and, shall we say, deposited diarrhea that splattered all over my car. She pulled up her pants and went back to the sidewalk as if nothing happened.”

Burke said she immediately reported the incident to the city, which informed her “it would take seven to 12 hours to address the concern.”

“Needless to say, I went to two carwashes before I even opened my door,” Burke said.

The City by the Bay has become an open sewer thanks to a homeless population that has grown 17% since 2017.  The question is, what are political leaders going to do about it? The homeless, as well as residents, workers, and visitors, need relief now.

City officials could begin bridging the gap between law enforcement officers, and the public agencies and private groups that serve the homeless.

 Doug Wyllie, a San Francisco resident and law enforcement trainer, says that because police officers are on “the front lines,” they are in a unique position to make a difference. As noted in a recent Pacific Research Institute policy brief on San Francisco homelessness, law enforcement officers “can become an invaluable resource that can help alleviate the homeless problem in the short term, if their ‘front line’ knowledge is connected to the private institutions who have the knowledge and resources to help.” 

Such an arrangement has proved effective in Fargo, North Dakota. 

The city should look at Santa Rosa’s Homeless Outreach Services Team, which is operated by Catholic Charities and collaborates with the Santa Rosa Police Department, and has effectively moved homeless into services and housing. Another model to consider is Costa Mesa’s, in which the city partnered with a local church to “expand what is an already existing inclement weather shelter into a high-security temporary solution to offer shelter beds to those in need.”

 Other short-term measures include reallocating about half of street cleaning funds — roughly $30 million — to finance immediate shelter. The dollars can be spared as placing more homeless in shelters should yield cleaner streets.

The city should also actively connect the homeless with private charities; support programs reuniting the homeless with their families; and evaluate current programs to prioritize those that work.

Furthermore, San Francisco must send a clear message that it will no longer tolerate lawbreaking. Trespassing, aggressive panhandling, tent encampments, blocking sidewalks, and defecating and urinating in public cannot be ignored. As long as San Francisco has a permissive attitude, it will continue to incentivize homelessness.

Long-term solutions begin with solving San Francisco’s housing crisis.

Nearly half of the city’s homeless are on the streets due to various economic reasons. San Francisco’s high cost of living means that more than a few have nowhere to go but the streets.

Homelessness has been exacerbated by the city’s limited housing stock, a problem closely related to the unaffordable-to-many housing costs. Both are fueled by a lack of building. More housing will arrive only when policymakers loosen the knot of regulations that discourage builders. San Francisco has to rethink its rent control policy and restrictive zoning laws. 

As the city goes about fixing a seemingly intractable problem, more answers will be found in the private sector than in the public sphere. Not understanding this will only make things worse. 

Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute, and the co-author of the new brief, “San Francisco’s Homeless Crisis:  How Policy Reforms and Private Charities Can Move More People to Self-Sufficiency.” Download a copy at www.pacificresearch.org.

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