S.F. blames out-of-towners for endless homeless problem
Saturday, December 20, 2008
City officials are finally admitting what others have been saying for years: San Francisco is attracting huge numbers of homeless people from all over. Thousands of transient people, arriving from other counties, states and even countries, are overwhelming the city's homeless system.
Facing a crippling budget shortfall, officials at San Francisco's homeless agencies are proposing a radical idea - take care of the city's own first, and require newcomers to show proof of residency for aid.
"If a homeless family living in San Francisco doesn't get shelter, and somebody just off the bus does, it doesn't seem fair," said Trent Rhorer, director of the Department of Human Services.
San Francisco has a long, proud history of reaching out to those who are homeless. This idea is bound to generate vociferous political debate and heated objections from homeless advocacy groups.
"It's scapegoating," said Paul Boden, director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project. "We have a crisis, so let's batten down the hatches and close the door."
But Dariush Kayhan, the mayor's homeless policy director, makes the case that San Francisco has led the nation in innovative, and expensive, homeless solutions.
And yet, after four years of a careful and well-resourced homeless plan, the city remains virtually where it was when Newsom took over. Single homeless men sleep in doorways, panhandlers pester tourists, and the number of homeless people, by official count, continues to grow.
A 2005 homeless person count came up with 2,655 people in the city. Two years later, after efforts to build units and house the chronically homeless, the total was 2,771.
The problem, Kayhan says, is that San Francisco has become a clearinghouse for other cities and states.
"My anecdotal data is that 8 out of 10 of those I speak to on the street are from somewhere else," Kayhan said. "Last week I went to a homeless encampment just off Mission and Ninth. There were seven homeless guys there, and when I asked them where they were from they said: Marin, Chicago, West Virginia, Santa Rosa, Texas, San Diego and Boston."
So how you verify residency for someone who doesn't have a home? Rhorer says the Department of Public Health already is applying a residency requirement for other programs, like food stamps and social services. Applicants are cross-checked against other counties to see if they are receiving aid there and are asked to provide a statement from a service provider - not a homeless advocacy group - that the person has been in San Francisco for at least three weeks.
This proposal is bound to be met with a firestorm of opposition.
But there are two critical factors at work. First is the budget deficit, which will require a hard look at programs that spend nearly $200 million a year. Second, local residents are making it clear that they are frustrated with the lack of progress in what many consider the city's No. 1 issue.
For someone like Rhorer, already facing cuts of 35 percent in his budget, it makes sense to focus on the city whose taxpayers are paying the way.
"San Francisco has made great progress in this issue," Rhorer said. "But at the same time, we feel like we are also addressing the state's homeless problem and even the nation's homeless problem."
In other words, it is a good thing to actively work to solve your own problems. It is another to get stuck with everyone else's.