It was just a little past midnight when my Uber driver glanced out the window and sighed at the sight of a threadbare, undernourished homeless woman leaning against the facade of a brick building. “Don’t you find it sad that there are cities in this country where we’re not allowed to give food to the homeless? I’ve gotten in trouble for sharing my pasta plate back where I’m from, but I’m still going to do it. Aren’t we supposed to be taking care of our people?” the driver said.
According to The Guardian, charges were brought against 12 people who defied a ban on feeding homeless people at a neighborhood park in El Cajon, Calif. The ban is said to protect the public from hepatitis A, transmitted person-to-person. In defiance, an organization called Break the Ban set up tables to hand out food and hygiene products to the homeless, prompting threats of arrest and the issuance of misdemeanor citations.
The ban is just another page in the perceived criminalization of homelessness.
A 2017 National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty report titled “Housing not Handcuffs” stated that 187 American cities have criminalized homelessness since 2006, prohibiting acts such as sleeping in public places, sharing food, etc. The feeding ban in particular isn’t an isolated incident –– Atlanta, Houston and Daytona Beach, Fla. issue fines, while people are arrested in Tampa, Fla. for feeding the homeless without permission. With San Francisco having an estimated 7,499 people homeless in 2017, we need to ask ourselves: How do we treat our homeless?
Although homelessness remains a question without a clear-cut answer, San Francisco actually fares well compared to other cities in proactively addressing the issue. Supportive housing, in which apartments employ on-site counselors to help homeless people confront addictions and other issues, is shown to help keep people permanently housed. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that San Francisco has the most supportive housing units of any major city in America, with 971 supportive housing units per 100,000 residents. San Francisco has also added 150 new mental health beds within the past two years at publicly funded hospitals. The city has established the nation’s first Homeless Navigation Center, providing a centralized point-of-contact for the homeless to seek the services they need to approach stability.
As of last month, the city is rolling out a system to track homelessness in order to specifically tailor services to fit the needs of its homeless population. Aptly named the “One System,” the program is projected to be running fully by 2019, with about 1,000 homeless people registered into the system as of right now. With this new system, resources can be directed toward what each person needs, rather than simply what needs have been anticipated by the observed trends.
Though homelessness may not be something that all of us may face in our personal lives, it is something that we need to care about and contribute to address. Behind the numbers and data that are collected are stories of struggle and hardship, contradictions and hypocrisies. We are fortunate to be able to obtain an education from the University, to live in a vibrant city filled with culture and opportunity. However, because of homelessness, we need to acknowledge that the city does not offer everything that we are able to enjoy to everyone; the city could even be downright cruel to the unluckiest of us.
Homelessness takes us back to the heart of the human condition and dignity: How can we allow our fellow San Franciscans to live in these conditions? To help the homeless is to lift our neighbors up, to create healthier, safer communities and to honor the humanity in others and ourselves.