Nothing like a Super Bowl to fix S.F.’s homeless problem

Original article can be found in the San Francisco Chronicle.

By Heather Knight

Good news, folks: Mayor Ed Lee knows how to solve the city’s homeless problem. Mimosas for everybody!
Well, he knows how to solve it for a small part of the city. For 10 days. To coincide with a festival before a football game being played 45 miles away. Maybe this just calls for orange juice.
Lee told The Chronicle last week he has a message for homeless people who camp along the Embarcadero, the site of a 10-day free celebration before the Feb. 7 Super Bowl.
“We are always going to be supportive,” he said. “But you are going to have to leave the street. Not just because it’s illegal, but because it is dangerous.”
In a city that’s reached the breaking point when it comes to the growing, seemingly intractable homeless problem, that statement pleased very few. Count Supervisor Jane Kim, whose district includes the festival area, among the displeased.
“This is a concern every day,” she said. “It’s not just a concern for the Super Bowl, when we have tourists and corporate interests in town.”
Jeffrey Griffin, director of finance for a local supermarket, said he understands why Lee would care about the optics during the big game, but that it should be a year-round focus.
“Our city is going to be on display to the world, so I think that could be embarrassing to the city, but is it not embarrassing every day when you come in on Duboce or Fifth Street or Cesar Chavez and you see the homeless folks camping?” he asked.
And he’s concerned an Embarcadero crackdown would only move homeless people to neighborhoods with fewer television cameras — like the Castro, where he lives and has already seen a recent increase in encampments.
Homeless advocates wonder just how city officials will keep homeless people out of a free, 10-day festival — especially in light of the the U.S. Department of Justice’s recent court filing stating that it’s unconstitutional to criminalize the homeless when housing isn’t available.
Like every kind of housing in San Francisco, rooms for the homeless are increasingly hard to find. The city’s Homeless Outreach Team has very few to offer, and there are none available anymore at Project Homeless Connect.
Kimberly Thomas Rapp, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, said she has yet to understand the alternatives the city will be offering people who have nowhere to sleep but outside.
“We have a lot of questions for the mayor,” she said.
Questions for the mayor? That’s where we come in.
After the initial Chronicle story — and the bruising hits from all sides — Lee told us this plan will be long-term and isn’t just about a football game.
“My approach has always been that I don’t want people to be on the streets — whether it’s Super Bowl, whether it’s not Super Bowl — it doesn’t matter,” he said. “I just think it’s dangerous for people to be living on the streets.”
So what’s Lee going to do differently now that he hasn’t done for the past five years?
The plan is still a little vague, but he said it will include continued use of the new and successful Navigation Center in the Mission District, to which people in encampments can move together with their belongings, pets and partners; 500 units of permanent supportive housing with counseling that are coming online now; more cooperation among government agencies, including the courts, health workers and the police; and more of a focus on finding the right services for the mentally ill and drug- and alcohol-addicted.
One thing this isn’t, he said, is white-washing a neighborhood for the benefit of tourists and corporate head honchos.
“White-washing would be moving people around one section of the city to another,” he said, pledging that far-flung neighborhoods won’t suffer the consequences of homeless people moved off the Embarcadero.
For more clarification, we turned to Sam Dodge, director of public policy at the mayor’s homeless office.
Dodge emphasized that this is a long-term effort initially discussed in the mayor’s State of the City address in January, when Lee unveiled his plan to expand the city’s stock of permanent supportive housing units by 500. They’re not actually new units, but rehabbed spots in single-room occupancy hotels that weren’t being used for a variety of reasons.
Dodge said all 500 units have been identified and “are in various stages of opening up” in buildings around the Tenderloin, Mid-Market and South of Market. Among them are the several dozen rooms at the Drake Hotel for homeless people on probation, as detailed by The Chronicle in May.
“This is not a one-off,” Dodge said. “We’re not bringing these 500 units on board just for the Super Bowl.”
One trend in helping the homeless has been to focus on specific subsets, and the city has done well on working with homeless veterans and homeless “transitional age youth” — those ages 16 to 24. The next groups to concentrate on are the mentally ill and drug and alcohol addicts, Dodge said.
Maybe it’s the cynic in us, but we’re guessing the odds of no homeless people being left in Justin Herman Plaza by January is about even with the problem-plagued 49ers winning the Super Bowl. So what then?
Nathan Ballard, a spokesman for the Super Bowl 50 Host Committee, said it’s likely the football festival will help solve the problem just by being there — in the short term, anyway. When you think of the Chinese New Year Parade, Outside Lands, the Pride Parade or the Union Street Festival, he said, you don’t think of homeless people.
“Among the best way to curb street behavior is to activate a public space,” he said.
He added there will be around-the-clock security and 5,000 volunteer ambassadors whose jobs will include “making sure homeless people are redirected to the services they need.” There will be an increased police presence, but it won’t be focused on harassing the homeless, Ballard and Dodge said.
Ballard, a Democratic strategist who served as spokesman for the homeless-focused Mayor Gavin Newsom, said that when it comes to dealing with perhaps the city’s longest-standing problem, a mayor is guaranteed to anger somebody.
“On the one hand, if you say you are going to connect homeless people with services, activists say it’s a crackdown,” he said. “On the other hand, if you say the status quo is working fine, then you’ll get more criticism from the law-and-order types.”
Asked whether he’s glad he doesn’t have to field angry calls from the Coalition on Homelessness anymore, Ballard laughed.
“No comment,” he said.