San Francisco — The homeless are a challenge for almost every American city, but nothing like they are for San Francisco. The city’s mild, year-round climate, famously liberal “live and let live” attitude, and a dense network of social services have made the problem worse than ever there. The city has some 3,200 people living on its streets, and the number is growing.
Two recent news items brought the issue into sharp focus. First, a light pole collapsed downtown, crushing a car and barely missing the driver. The cause? It had been corroded by urine aimed at it by street people. As someone returning this week to a city that I lived in and still love, I find it shocking to encounter the smell of urine on block after block — or to witness a frightened Hispanic mother flee with her baby from a restroom area at the city’s Aquatic Park because a deranged man is screaming and throwing things there, with no police in sight.
Then, just this week, the Obama Justice Department (DOJ) announced it was backing a lawsuit against a Boise, Idaho, ordinance that forbids camping or sleeping on public property. The DOJ claims that when a city can’t provide adequate shelter for all its homeless, such laws violate the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. From the DOJ’s filing: “If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.”
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San Francisco mayor Ed Lee reacted cautiously to the DOJ’s action, which could call into question city policies that close parks during early-morning hours and that prohibit people from sitting or lying on sidewalks during daylight hours. “Enforcing laws that protect public safety and the health of people we serve are paramount,” said Christine Falvey, a spokeswoman for the mayor. Lee himself told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Debra Saunders this month, “I do think that people are being somewhat more irresponsible.” He also told her the city’s major problem is “not so much the urination” but “historic levels of drug use.” Making many drug crimes misdemeanors rather than felonies means that many people are released from custody before they have worked through their “bad habits.” One police officer interviewed by Saunders was blunt: “If you are a drug addict, you are going to come to San Francisco.”
The city is currently spending $458,000 a day (or $34 a day per homeless person) trying to handle the growing number of street people. It is building 500 new single-room-occupancy residences with full services for street people, but I can’t find anyone who thinks this will keep pace with the demand. “If you build them, they will come,” an old friend of mine says of the homeless, whom he says need tough love more than housing. “The problem isn’t getting better with more homeless housing,” Edwin El Cid, who immigrated from Argentina some 20 years ago, tells me.
But advocates for the homeless insist that spending more money is the answer. A new report by the University of California–Berkeley Law Clinic argues that “quality of life” laws intended to prevent people from occupying streets are offensive because they work against “poor people, people of color, and homeless people.”
The non-PC truth is that far too many of the homeless are mired in drug and mental-health issues. In the 1990s, I returned to San Francisco to report on a program in which pedestrians and tourists were encouraged to hand out coupons instead of money to the homeless. The coupons were redeemable for many things: a free meal, clothing, haircuts, and laundromat services. Over the course of several days, I tried to distribute such coupons and met rejection about 80 percent of the time. Cash was what homeless people wanted — and for you know what.
‘My biggest adversaries are government homeless shelters that don’t ask people to do anything for themselves.’
Still, there are approaches worth trying for those who struggle with mental illness or substance-abuse problems. The late Bob Cote, a homeless man who picked himself up off the streets and founded the Step 13 homeless shelter in Denver, used to give me tours of his facility and noted his very high success rate with those who stuck with his “no drugs, no booze, find a job” program. “My biggest adversaries are government homeless shelters that don’t ask people to do anything for themselves, and Social Security Disability programs that allow people to continue the same mistakes they’ve been making,” he told me. Cote was constantly battling the bureaucrats in Denver who oversaw homeless issues, which is one reason he would accept no government money, or the strings that came with it.
Short of tough love, other programs can improve the condition of the hard-core homeless. Mayor Lee opened an innovative Navigator Center in March that takes the time needed to steer the chronic homeless into the right programs and rehabilitation services. Its homeless housing doesn’t have strict curfews and allows residents to bring partners, possessions, and pets with them. This allows the city to reach some people who are so wedded to the people and things that are familiar to them that they won’t leave the streets.
The Navigator Center has drawn praise from Stephen Goldsmith, a former two-term Republican mayor of Indianapolis who is now a Harvard fellow. “Leaving a homeless person on the street costs the city $60,000 per person per year for such services as emergency care, police visits, and shelter stays, while providing government-supported housing costs only $20,000 a year,” Goldsmith recently observed.
Finding the right balance between compassion and personal responsibility in homeless policy is incredibly difficult. Simply spending money on more apartments for the homeless only attracts more homeless and breeds corruption. Demanding that people get off drugs and alcohol and on to any prescribed medication they have invites howls of outrage and civil-rights lawsuits. Finding a balance should concern all of us not only for reasons of compassion but also because the outrageous condition of San Francisco’s streets is a warning about what could happen to other cities should the Obama Justice Department define most of the existing policies cities now follow as “cruel and unusual punishment.”
— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for National Review Online.