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6 Takeaways from San Francisco’s Homelessness Project


The city's media takes a magnifying lens to an issue disproportionately affecting LGBT people.

Over 70 San Francisco news organizations focused their coverage on June 29 on one overlooked segment of society: the homeless. The SF Homelessness Project, led by San Francisco Chronicle editor-in-chief Audrey Cooper, drew attention to the most pressing issues threatening the city's homeless population, including housing, rehabilitation, and healthcare. Here are the takeaways from the coverage.

Homelessness disproportionately affects LGBT people
Homeless LGBT San Franciscans account for 20 percent of the general homeless population and nearly half the youth homeless population. Fifteen percent of homeless youth said that their identity directly affected their housing status. Thankfully, one of the most successful shelters in the Bay Area, the Larkin Street Project, integrates "housing, education, employment and health services to get homeless and at-risk kids off the streets."

Homelessness is only a symptom of much bigger problems.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, "Cities from San Francisco to New York learned that without dealing with the underlying factors that cause the most acutely troubled people to lose their housing -- mental illness, substance abuse, disabilities and joblessness -- temporary shelters accomplish little." That is to say, treating homelessness as an isolated problem is like treating cancer with a Band-Aid: inadequate and ineffective. Not to mention extremely costly. San Francisco spends "$241 million a year on homeless programs -- more than double the budget for the city Recreation and Park Department."

No one really knows how many homeless people there are
In the Bay Area, estimates of the number of people without stable housing vary somewhere between 6,000 and 12,000. That is to say, most news outlets could be underestimating the homeless population by half. One issue is that there's no easy method to count people who move around so much: "The best data we have was the product of a single-night, large-scale survey, in which volunteers fanned out across San Francisco and tallied those who appeared to be homeless." This uncertainty causes a whole slew of problems for those who seek to provide services for the homeless. In fact, there's some debate whether there are actually more people on the street at all -- of if we're just better at counting them.

Homelessness is often a race issue.
In S.F., where African-Americans account for 7 percent of the population, they are disproportionately affected by homelessness. The most recent tally shows them comprising 34 percent of the homeless population. And the history of systemic racism in America is to blame. Predatory and discriminatory loan practices and rental agreements have led to higher rates of eviction and homelessness. Even on the street, race makes homelessness even worse, as "black applicants are less likely to receive offers of affordable-housing offers than white applicants with worse credentials."

The tech bubble has made this issue far worse
As Northern California has become the hub of the tech universe, life has become harder and harder for people not involved with Silicon Valley. The real issue is not one of homelessness, but one of privilege. "In the Mission, working-class residents are competing with newcomers willing to offer more than the landlord is asking, and to pay a year's rent up front," reports one news outlet participating in the project. What does this mean? That cities like San Francisco are becoming uninhabitable for people without a tech-bloated paycheck.

Many San Franciscans feel more disgust toward the homeless than they do pity
This whole projects frames its objective as "helping the homeless," but it may be worthwhile to ask "why?" It seems that pure humanitarian goodness is not the sole motivator here. Many of the articles focus on how the lives and actions of the homeless make non-homeless people uncomfortable; not a few of these journalists have an almost morbid interest in detailing the ways in which the homeless offend the sensibilities of San Franciscans -- a class of actions tactfully referred to as "street behavior." Some San Franciscans are not so careful to hide their distaste: one man working in tech claimed he "shouldn't have to see the despair of homeless people." Much of the effort of the project has been devoted to humanizing a population that many consider subhuman.

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Drew Kiser