SF's real income inequality issue isn't hipsters priced out of homes -- It's the homeless
As the tech boom continues to bring more and more attention to San Francisco's socioeconomic issues, a well-trod narrative has emerged: Tech companies have brought more and more upper-middle class workers to the Bay Area where housing -- affordable or otherwise -- has been limited by geographic and legislative pressures. Inevitably, already-high housing prices go up, while landlords adopt creative ways to push long-time residents out of their homes to make way for the new tech gentry. The result is that San Francisco, long a destination for outsiders and artists, has become a more difficult place than ever for all but the most generously-paid professionals to live. Evidence of this narrative is everywhere, from mainstream media outlets to the mission statements of various anti-eviction organizations.
But the reality of long-time residents getting priced out of their homes is only one component of the economic stresses placed on San Francisco communities. And an extensively-researched article written by Gary Kamiya for San Francisco Magazine probes the causes and possible solutions of a problem that's plagued the city since even before the first Internet boom cycle: Homelessness.
The whole article is worth reading, but the gist of the piece is that while San Francisco's homeless problem is considerably less severe than in many other major cities like New York and Washington, DC, the number of people living on the streets has gone largely unchanged over the past 25 years. Meanwhile, the city's unwillingness to criminalize or otherwise "hide" homeless people has made the problem more visible and thus more pronounced to casual observers. This has the dual effect of drawing more attention to the problem -- which is a good thing -- but also desensitizing some San Francisco residents who feel that the problem is insurmountable. The author argues that the problem is not insurmountable and prescribes six initiatives the city's government and private industries could undertake to reduce the number of individuals without homes.
Only one of those initiatives involves reducing the number of evictions. And while that's undoubtedly a crucial element to this fight -- it's tough to reduce homelessness when there are new entrants to the homeless population are on the rise -- it's not always helpful to focus solely on the eviction issue as a remedy to San Francisco's societal ills. Furthermore, the eviction issue is largely a legislative fight and thus one that can't be won by allocating private and public funds to it.
Kamiya's other five prescriptions include hiring more social workers (and paying them better), assigning permanent case workers to each of the city's 6,000-some homeless people, experimenting with homeless encampments, investing in innovative social enterprises, and better distributing shelters across the city, and not solely in Downtown areas like the Tenderloin which, the author argues, is "overrun with drug dealers" posing a problem for homeless individuals who want to stay sober.
“Since I’m an ex–drug addict, I have to be careful about what areas I live in,” Homeless artist Ronnie Goodman tells Kamiya. “They wanted to put me over there by Turk Street, but I turned it down. I’d rather be clean and sober and living on the street than living in a crazy place with 24-hour- a-day, seven-day-a-week drug use.”
Kamiya admits that no matter what city officials and private organizations do, the issue requires a national solution.
"Congress must someday take responsibility for this national disgrace by restoring funding to low-income housing, repairing the safety net, and raising the minimum wage," Kamiya writes.
Furthermore, many of the obstacles to fixing the homeless problem are not just financial, but political. NIMBYism on the part of many San Franciscans have kept housing resources for the homeless concentrated Downtown. And Mayor Ed Lee's housing initiatives have focused on "affordable" housing for residents just above the poverty line as opposed to homeless housing -- which some argue isn't a bad thing.
"OK, there are 6,000 homeless in San Francisco,” Human Services Agency (HSA) director Trent Rohrer tells Kamiya. “How many people in need of affordable housing are there? How many single adults and families do we think are struggling with acute housing needs or are doubled or tripled up? A lot more than 6,000. So do the math. Does that argue for a higher allocation of public resources toward that [not-homeless] population? I think you could make a sound public policy argument that it does.”
But hiring more social workers and investing in results-oriented social enterprises like the innovative Downtown Streets Team (led by former Napster CEO Eileen Richardson) are absolutely initiatives that big tech firms can help promote through private investment.
So if you're an activist or who cares about income inequality in San Francisco, you could fret over Google and Facebook and the rest driving "real" San Franciscans from their homes and respond by throwing rocks at buses. Or, you could appeal to these tech firms to donate cash wisely to community organizations like Downtown Streets Team, which has empowered hundreds of homeless people to get jobs and find permanent living situations. The choice is yours.
[Image via UCSF]