The Shameful History of San Francisco’s Homelessness Policy

The homelessness crisis in SF is all over the international news, and Proposition C on the November ballot proposes to fund the most comprehensive package of services for addressing the issue in the city’s history. Built on best practices learned over the last thirty years, it prioritizes housing rather than services on the street, and promises to secure apartments for 4,000 families currently experiencing homelessness, eliminate the shelter waitlist, and vastly increase the resources for mental health counseling and other services.

Nevertheless, it’s facing a $2 million disinformation campaign spearheaded by the Chamber of Commerce. The opposition cannot dispute that homelessness is a crisis. Instead, they argue that the city’s policy has been so ineffective in the past that devoting more money to homelessness services will somehow be worse than doing nothing.  

This line of argument relies on voter ignorance and schadenfreude. Reviewing the history shows that, to the extent that San Francisco’s spending on homelessness has been ineffective, it has been ineffective precisely because of the regressive policies that the Chamber and other big-business constituencies have consistently supported. It’s a story of one step forward, two steps back, as well-intentioned programs are undercut by political reversals, law-and-order policies that further impoverish homeless and at-risk populations, and skyrocketing inequality.

A progressive city?

The national homelessness crisis began with conservative policy-making. In 1981, President Reagan slashed the budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development by 70% and eliminated many of the federal grants that had previously been the primary source of funding for subsidizing low-income housing. By 1985, there was a national disparity of 3.3 million units between the number of low-cost apartments available and the number of low-income renter households who needed them. Homelessness rates more than tripled in the United States during the Reagan years, and West Coast cities like San Francisco were disproportionately affected.

In response, Art Agnos (elected in 1988) became the first mayor to make the growing homeless population a political priority. His “Beyond Shelter” plan was widely lauded as a progressive model for addressing homelessness, with provisions for full-service shelters, counseling services, and permanent housing. But it was never fully implemented. Agnos made enemies on the left through his abrasive governing style, and his refusal (and later about-face) to clear out a massive encampment in front of City Hall before shelter beds were ready for its inhabitants turned popular sentiment against him, opening the way for a conservative to unseat him in the next election.

His successor, former police chief Frank Jordan, promptly undid much of what Agnos had begun. Campaigning on a law-and-order platform that specifically played off Agnos’s sympathy for the homeless–at one point he called for the homeless to be rounded up and forced into work camps–Jordan’s rise formed part of a larger nationwide trend toward the criminalization of poverty and so-called “quality of life” policing most famously promoted by Rudy Giuliani in New York. During his tenure, Jordan replaced social workers with police in the city’s outreach program, arrested activists for distributing food to the homeless, and tried to clear the streets through aggressive enforcement of codes against loitering and squatting. The result was further immiseration: in the absence of a shelter system corresponding to the size of the need, there was nowhere for dispersed people to go.

Jordan’s successor, Willie Brown, in turn campaigned against Jordan’s unpopular homelessness strategy, but his own policy proved, if anything, more brutal. In 2002, city officials swept the streets three times a day, confiscating homeless people’s possessions and hosing down encampments at the cost of more than $50,000 a week. It was under Brown’s tenure that the homeless population reached a peak of over 8,600 people, at least according to official statistics (for obvious reasons, collecting accurate data on this subject is extremely difficult).

The next—and last— mayor to try to end the crisis was Gavin Newsom, whose “Care Not Cash” program slashed General Assistance payments to homeless individuals in exchange for permanent housing vouchers. Care Not Cash created a massive one-time cash influx that enabled the city to develop more than 1,300 units of supportive housing. The official count of the homeless population dropped to a low of around 6,200–testament to the efficacy of housing-first approaches–but then the city reached the ceiling of what it could achieve without additional sources of funding. Today, about 75% of the homelessness budget is dedicated to supporting these occupied units, leaving little left over to address the needs of those currently experiencing homelessness.

At the same time that Newsom’s programs provided housing to get many people off the streets, he also took steps to make life worse for those who remained. Like Jordan, he championed broken windows policing, and sponsored—with backing from the Chamber of Commerce—an ordinance in 2010 that prohibits sitting or lying on sidewalks. Under Newsom’s tenure, San Francisco was named the eleventh “meanest” city in the country by the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Criminalization of homelessness has only proceeded apace since then. In 2016, under Ed Lee, the city voted to ban sidewalk tents, a ballot measure once again promoted heavily by the Chamber of Commerce and a number of tech investors, including notorious political financier Ron Conway. Since then, sweeps have become a nearly constant fact of life for the unhoused in San Francisco, and in many cases, police are not even following the official policy of giving residents 24 hours to remove their possessions before they are confiscated. In total, the city has more than 23 quality-of-life codes that criminalize behavior associated with homelessness, from panhandling to sleeping in parks. Enforcing them cost the city $21 million in 2016 alone. “There’s a level of cruelty here that I don’t think I’d seen before,” says the U.N. Rapporteur on housing, who has toured slums all over the world.

Such policies temporarily reduce the visibility of homeless populations, which makes them politically potent. But in addition to being terribly cruel to the people subjected to them, they do nothing to reduce the numbers of unhoused people—just force them even further into destitution by confiscating their possessions and breaking up their communal support structures. (Here is one of many compelling personal testimonies from unhoused San Franciscans on the terrible cost of sweeps.)

Currently, there are fewer than 2,000 shelter beds (approximately 1,200 in traditional shelters and 700 in Navigation Centers) to serve an estimated homeless population over 7,000. The waitlist to get into one is over 1,000 people long, and can take more than a month to get off of. To save money, most shelters close during the day, forcing their residents out onto streets that they are criminalized for sitting on.

Blame income inequality, not service providers

SF’s homeless population is approximately the same size it was two decades ago. Given that inequality has skyrocketed during that time, and the average monthly cost of a two bedroom apartment in the city has risen from about $1,100 to $4,700, this is actually, tragically, a significant achievement. The numbers do not testify at all to an ineffective homeless policy–merely one inadequate to address the scale of the need.

Seventy percent of San Francisco’s homeless residents were previously housed in the city; they end up on the streets because of eviction or inability to meet rent. So long as we have a cost of living that is unaffordable for most working people in the city, we will continue to generate an ever-larger impoverished class. This is the direct consequence of San Francisco’s tech-fueled boom.

There are no magic bullets. Successfully addressing the homeless crisis will require substantial resources and a long-term commitment that doesn’t depend on the vagaries of the four-year election cycle. Proposition C has been carefully crafted in collaboration with stakeholders across the city. It focuses on housing, but also provides for a holistic suite of related measures, some of whose benefit will be immediately apparent to the larger public, like hygiene facilities. And it raises funds by taxing those who can most easily afford it.

It should be a no-brainer.