Anyone who spends time in San Francisco knows that we have a homelessness problem. Tackling this problem has always caused debate in this city; should we arrest homeless people and put them in jail? Should we divert more resources to organizations that try to feed and house homeless people? As of last week, the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) has decided that they would work with the District Attorney to arrest homeless people who have both refused services and have been cited for “nuisance activities.” Nuisance activities can include obstructing sidewalks, defecating in public and sleeping in illegal structures.
The Foghorn staff is mostly in consensus on this issue. We know that more needs to be done to solve San Francisco’s homelessness problem, but the SFPD’s lackadaisical and misguided actions are not the answer.
Our first problem with this policy is that it is impractical and destined for failure. The Foghorn staff wants every homeless person to receive the help they need, and in San Francisco, there are pre-existing opportunities for homeless people to get help. There are homeless shelters, free addiction treatments and mental health services. However, these programs are overrun and underfunded. There are an estimated 7,000 homeless people living in San Francisco. As of 2016, the shelter system could only house 1,200 of those people. If every homeless person decided to go to a homeless shelter, over 5,000 would still be on the streets. Assuming that the SFPD means well and wants to help homeless people, it would be impossible for their plan to succeed.
Some Foghorn members are against the practice of coercing homeless people to take services they don’t want. Homeless people have agency and freedom; just because we think they should join a certain program does not mean that they believe that it would be best for them. Additionally, jails should be punishing people who hurt society. It is true that homeless people have committed crimes, but they are not causing harm – the only thing they have done is refuse services. We have to remember that we are all human beings, whether or not we have housing, and homeless people still have the right to decide what is best for themselves. It’s wrong to assume that those living with no shelter are completely incapable of assessing their own safety and health.
There is also a problem with the existing services for the homeless population. We all acknowledge that, while services like shelters and food aid help, the best way to help homeless people is to give them housing. If homeless people don’t have homes, we’ll never solve this problem.
Services that are available to homeless people are often not appealing or effective enough to encourage participation from the people who are refusing the services in the first place. For example, there are some shelters that don’t allow homeless people to bring certain items, but people often don’t want to part with what they have. Do lawmakers genuinely believe that throwing these individuals in jail will spontaneously cause more housing to appear? What makes lawmakers think that homeless people aren’t already trying? When will they realize that city services are failing them? Our stance is that arresting homeless people to force them to use services is putting a bandaid on a worsening problem.
Another problem with the SFPD’s new policy is the concept of “nuisance activities.” Being homeless in and of itself is a nuisance activity; it is impossible to be homeless without breaking one of those laws. The problem with the word “nuisance” is that it implies that homeless people are pests, rather than human beings who need help. We live in a crowded, contained city. There is only so much space. And yes, having someone sleep illegally in a space next to your business may be bothersome, but these people don’t do so just to annoy you. Although it is true that intent does not matter in regards to the law, the law itself is unfair and is designed to criminalize homeless people for being homeless. Calling homelessness a nuisance is condescending and insensitive. Have some empathy, writers of these laws. These actions are misdemeanors, crimes – the issue is legal, not personal. The terminology should reflect this. Nobody likes seeing homeless people walking down the street, but we as a city should never resort to viewing them as annoyances rather than as people.
The Foghorn knows that this is a complicated issue and that something does need to be done to help homeless people, but the SFPD came up with the wrong solution. We need to look at the homeless population as people, rather than as problems. If we truly want to end homelessness, we, as a city, need to instead invest in preventative measures, such as guaranteed housing.