In one sense, San Francisco's homeless residents have never been more visible than they are in this moment in the city's history, marked by rapid construction, accelerated gentrification, and rising income inequality. But being seen doesn't mean they're getting the help they need.
Not long ago, Lydia Bransten, who heads security at the St. Anthony's Foundation on 150 Golden Gate, happened upon a group of teenagers clustered on the street near the entrance of her soup kitchen. They had video cameras, and were filming a homeless man lying on the sidewalk.
"They were putting themselves in the shot," she said.
Giggling, the kids had decided to cast this unconscious man as a prop in a film, starring them. She told them it was time to leave. Bransten read it as yet another example of widespread dehumanization of the homeless.
"I feel like we're creating a society of untouchables," she said. "People are lying on the street, and nobody cares whether they're dead or breathing."
Condominium dwellers and other District 6 residents of SoMa and the Tenderloin are constantly bombarding Sup. Jane Kim about homelessness via email — not to express concern about the health or condition of street dwellers, but to vent their deep disgust.
"This encampment has been here almost every night for several weeks running. Each night the structure is more elaborate. Why is it allowed to remain up?" one resident wrote in an email addressed to Kim. "Another man can be found mid block, sprawled across the sidewalk ... He should be removed ASAP."
In a different email, a resident wrote: "The police non-emergency number is on my quick dial because we have to call so often to have homeless camps removed."
It's within this fractious context that the city is embarking on the most comprehensive policy discussions to take place on homelessness in a decade.
In 2004, city officials and community advocates released a 10-Year Plan to Abolish Chronic Homelessness. One only needs to walk down the street to understand that this lofty objective ultimately failed; people suffering from mental illness, addiction, and poverty continue to live on the streets.
Most everyone agrees that something should be done. But while some want to see homelessness tackled because they wish undesirable people would vanish from view, others perceive a tragic byproduct of economic inequality and a dismantled social safety net, and believe the main goal should be helping homeless people recover.
"The people living in poverty are a byproduct of the system," said Karl Robillard, a spokesperson for St. Anthony's. "We will always have to help the less fortunate. That's not going to go away. But we're now blaming those very same people for being in that situation."
Sabrina: "The streets can be mean."
Guardian photo by Rebecca Bowe
A common framing of San Francisco's "homeless problem" might be called the magnet theory.
The city has allocated $165 million to homeless services. Over time, it has succeeded in offering 6,355 permanent supportive housing units to the formerly homeless. Nevertheless, the number of homeless people accounted for on the streets has remained stubbornly flat. The city estimates there are about 7,350 homeless people now living in San Francisco.
Since the city has invested so much with such disappointing results, the story goes, there can only be one explanation: Offering robust services has drawn homeless people from elsewhere, like a magnet. By demonstrating kindness, the city has unwittingly converted itself into a Mecca for the homeless, spoiling an otherwise lovely place for all the hardworking, law-abiding citizens who contribute and pay taxes.