Editorial: Growing homeless crisis could spur awareness needed to solve it

Originally posted on SF Chronicle here

A defining part of homeless policy is frustration. The Bay Area numbers worsen, public sentiment wavers, and local leaders scramble for quick answers such as parking lots for rundown RVs or tiny cabins to replace tents.

But that’s not the full picture of a social catastrophe that must be healed. More than ever, there is broad awareness, that critical quality that can open the way for solutions. No corner of San Francisco is free from the sight of sprawled bodies, makeshift camps, or tin cup panhandlers. Homelessness is a shared worry, and that should be a starting point for serious work.

This week The Chronicle will explore the changes, both positive and negative, in life on the streets. The series will offer a close look at the mix of people mired in homelessness, answer questions on the topic and offer ways for readers to help.

More must be done, especially with the $300 million in city funds devoted to the problem. A one-night count pegged the population at 9,784, a figure that’s jumped from previous levels partly because of new measurements but also because more people are without shelter. The number takes in street sleepers along with others in shelters, jails and hospitals. The last head count showed an unhoused population of 7,499. The worsening numbers are also felt in San Mateo, Santa Clara, Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

The surge in local homelessness isn’t typical of elsewhere. Seattle, whose booming economy and housing pressures are often compared with the Bay Area’s, saw a 7.4% decline in its homeless population over the past two years. Homelessness during that period fell more than 18% in the Las Vegas area, nearly 10% in Miami-Dade County, Fla., and 12% in the Washington, D.C., region.

While a few areas, including Dallas and Phoenix, saw substantial increases in homelessness over the past two years, the sheer numbers in San Francisco are alarming. Nearly 1% of the city’s population is homeless under the federal definition, or more than five times the national rate. The city has more homeless people than the state of Maryland has.

Such high and rapidly increasing rates of homelessness are as unique to California as the gravity of the state’s housing shortage. The details of San Francisco’s latest figures also point to the housing deficit. More of the city’s homeless are employed, and more are citing high rents as a primary cause of their homelessness.

Expanding homeless care will take courage and common sense. As a planned 200-bed Navigation Center on the Embarcadero shows, neighbors can be furious, worried about crime and blight. But there are counter examples that show little impact when a similar plan is tried. Residents and businesses near centers in the Civic Center and Dogpatch report little trouble. A youth foster care facility on Lombard Street in the Marina was opposed by neighbors but hasn’t brought on the predicted problems.