Some of the myriad voices involved in the discussion will include hyperbolic statements about people who live on the streets, their moral character and draconian measures The City could take to move them out of sight. While everyone is entitled to an opinion, no matter how crass or uninformed, this topic is too important for the real lives at stake to fall into arguments that center on unimportant issues such as blight.
There are many situations that lead to a person living on the streets of San Francisco. Some may have lost their jobs and fallen on hard economic times. Others may be runaways fleeing abuse. And far too many are people who have either a mental illness or substance-abuse problem, or both.
San Francisco has worked diligently to build more transitional housing, including for families who end up on the street. The City has also done much for housing for veterans and supportive housing that helps offer social services.
But far too many people are still living on the streets.
This issue should not be about cleaning up our streets, but rather about us as a society helping our brethren. Business and neighborhood groups may emerge with arguments about the image of a person sleeping on a sidewalk and how that looks to customers and tourists. But merely moving people off the streets and out of sight will not solve the underlying problems that led that person to that situation in the first place.
The solutions for homelessness will be multipronged and include more housing, more long-term social services, and more focus on treatments for mental illness and substance abuse. Some will surely decry throwing money at the situation as a classic liberal approach. It’s true that it will cost money, but the flipside is to do nothing or make superficial improvements — which will appease the public while doing nothing to improve the lives of those without permanent homes.
Even the broad-stroke label “the homeless” does not delve into the issue beyond the first layer, for there are people without homes who live full time on the streets and people who are housing insecure — who may land in short-term units, such as single-room-occupancy hotels, when they have the funds. Others may find refuge on the floor or couches of friends at times.
As city officials move forward with the long-range plan to address chronic homelessness in San Francisco, it will be best to remember that this is more than building units and moving people off of the streets. This is about helping people overcome obstacles and challenges in their lives in order to live to their full potential — and to help ensure those lives are not spent sleeping on the cold, hard sidewalks.