San Francisco is famous for its large, visible homeless population. As a Bay Area native, I grew up thinking that it was simply another part of the city’s identity, along with the fog and difficult parking. I assumed that most of the homeless residents were not locals but drug-addicted panhandlers who came to the city to make an untaxed living while enjoying San Francisco’s mild climate, social assistance programs and famously tolerant culture.
These stereotypes are so persistent and the homeless population so large that it’s hard to think about the problem in any other way. But as I got older, I became more and more uncomfortable with my assumptions. It seemed impossible that such a persistent, complex problem could be explained with a few clichés, and so I began to research the problem and found that most of our beliefs are wrong. Here’s what I found:
San Francisco has always had a large homeless population.
Large numbers of visibly homeless residents only started to appear during the 1980’s, when many of the social protections introduced in programs like the New Deal were eroded in the name of the free market. Notably, President Reagan cut the budget for Section 8 assistance in half during his first year in office. This funding was meant to keep low-income Americans off the streets by subsidizing their housing costs. In 1987, an economic downturn did even more damage to people on the brink, who had already been left behind by unequally distributed prosperity earlier in the decade. According to the 2013 Homeless Point-In-Time Count & Survey released by San Francisco’s municipal authority, the last decade has seen the same relationship between economic failure and increased homelessness.
Most homeless people are from out of town.
According to the same report, 61% of the city’s homeless lived in San Francisco before they lost their homes. Of those who did arrive after losing their homes, only 14% reported that they came seeking access to homeless services.
Homeless people are all drug addicts or mentally ill.
The common belief that homelessness is mainly caused by addiction is not borne out by the report’s findings, either: 29% of respondents said they became homeless after losing a job, while only 11% cited alcohol or drug use as the main cause.
However, 1 in 3 homeless people do suffer from a mental health condition with 23% citing a specific illness such as Schizophrenia, 42% suffering from chronic depression, and 15% with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. According to Dr. E Fuller Torrey’s 2013 article, “Ronald Reagan’s shameful legacy: Violence, the homeless, mental illness,” the increase in mentally ill homeless people is also relatively recent. Just as Reagan ended many of the New Deal programs, he also closed state mental hospitals and cut mental health funding during his time as Governor of California and as President of the United States.
Homeless people are making a ton of untaxable income.
Finally, the mythical “wealthy panhandlers” are just that. Only 24% of those surveyed reported that they engaged in panhandling and when they did, they made an average of $6.37 per day.
Some news is good. The 2013 PIT Count & Survey does report that chronically homeless people are the minority of San Francisco’s homeless population and that percentage is shrinking with the help of municipal initiatives. Even better, since 2004 more than 18,000 homeless people have found permanent homes away from the street and shelter system. And the number of new programs offering medical care and mental health services is growing every day, but mass change won’t happen until we work together to understand homelessness.
Clearly, the roots of poverty are complicated, and it’s easy to assume we understand it. My belief that the city has always had a large homeless population led me to believe that it always would, so I didn’t feel the need to understand why the situation existed in the first place. As individuals, we can echo the positive changes San Francisco has achieved by informing ourselves about the realities of homelessness and treating its victims with compassion. If we challenge long-held assumptions, we can create an environment that will promote meaningful solutions to extreme poverty.