Is San Francisco trying to help the homeless -- or drive them away?
More recently, Sup. Mark Farrell has focused on expanding the Homeless Outreach Team as an attempt to address homelessness. Farrell recently initiated a citywide dialogue on addressing homelessness with a series of intensive hearings on the issue. He proposed a budgetary supplemental of $1.3 million to double the staff of the HOT team, and to add more staff members with medical and psychiatric certification to the mix.
But the debate at the March 19 Budget and Finance Committee hearing grew heated, because Sup. John Avalos wanted to see a more comprehensive plan for addressing homelessness. "I'm interested in people exiting homelessness," he said. "I'd like there to be a plan that's more baked that has a sense of where we're going."
Farrell was adamant that the vote was not about addressing homelessness in the broader sense, but expanding outreach. "We have to vote on: do we believe, as supervisors, that we need more outreach on our streets to the homeless population or do we not?" he said.
Sup. Scott Wiener defined it as an issue affecting neighborhoods. "When we're actually looking at what is happening on our streets, it is an emergency right now," he said. "It's not enough just to rely on police officers."
When other members of the board said homeless advocates should be integrated into the solution, Wiener said, "The stakeholders here are not just the organizations that are doing work around homelessness, they are the 830,000 residents of San Francisco ... It impacts their neighborhoods every day."
Asked what she thought about it, Kim told us she believed sending more nurses and mental-health service providers into the city's streets was a good plan — but she emphasized that it had to be part of a larger effort.
"If you're just going to increase the HOT team, but not services," she said, "then you're just sending people out to harass homeless people."
STILL OUT THERE
Mike is 53, and he's lived on the streets of San Francisco for five years. He was born in Massachusetts, and his brothers and sisters live in Napa. We encountered him sitting on the sidewalk in the Tenderloin. "I don't like shelters," he explained. "I got beat up a couple times, there were arguments." So he sleeps under a blanket outside. "It's rough," he said. "I do it how I can."
A few blocks away we encountered Gary, who said he's been homeless in San Francisco for 17 years. He was homeless when he arrived from Los Angeles. He said he'd overdosed "a bunch of times," he's gone through detox five times, and he's been hospitalized time and again. "Call 911, and they'll take care of you pretty good."
Gary is an addict. "If I knew how to fix it, I would," he said. "Do yourself a favor, and lose everything. It's like acting like you're blind."
Gary and Mike, chronically homeless people who have been on the streets for years, are HOT's target clientele. "My slice of the pie is the sickest, the high-mortality, they're often the ones that are laid out in the street," said Maria Martinez, a senior staff member at DPH who started the HOT program.
"I went through years of the 10-Year plan," she added. "Do I feel like I could take this money [the HOT team supplemental] and do something effective with it? Yes. Do I think there's a lot of other things that we could address? Yes."
Pressed on what broader solutions would look like, she said, "There has to be an exit into permanent housing. I've seen that we've been creative around that. We can make lives better. I say that vehemently. And permanent housing is critical to exiting out of homelessness."
Guardian photo by Mike Koozmin