San Francisco spends millions on homeless, but problem persists

The Associated Press
Monday November 05, 2001

Hotel honcho wants New York-style cleanup 


SAN FRANCISCO – San Francisco spends more than $200 million a year on its homeless, but money has not answered the problems connected to drugs, alcohol and mental illness that abound on the streets, a newspaper reported Sunday. 

The problem has gotten so bad, it’s not unusual to walk down the city’s sidewalks and see homeless doing drugs, urinating or defecating in the open. The city’s last count found about 2,000 living on the streets. 

“You walk down Market Street and step over comatose bodies, debris and human waste. It’s just not a pleasant experience,” Dave Myers of Cupertino told the San Francisco Chronicle. He and his wife used to regularly visit San Francisco, but now they go elsewhere. 

“It’s where people walk and take their kids,” he said. “It’s dirty and nasty and not healthy.” 

Despite spending about the same amount annually for the homeless as for San Francisco’s fire department, city officials admit the problem is not improving: There are about the same number of homeless on San Francisco’s streets today as 10 years ago. 

But homeless advocate George Smith, who heads the Mayor’s Commission on Homelessness, said San Francisco’s homeless are all concentrated in one area, and there are solutions to helping the homeless while also cleaning up the streets. 

“In San Francisco, it is in your face. All the shelters, social services programs, all systems of care are downtown and with the density downtown, you are going to see people,” said Smith, who spent five years living on the street. “Once we spread it out, it is going to have a whole different tone to it, a lot more people discussing it, a lot more people influencing what we do and a lot more people supporting what we do.” 

Unlike New York City, which cleaned up its streets by offering shelter every night to anyone who needed it, San Francisco took the long-term approach. Much of its money went toward full services for those who were accepted. 

“If you divert money from housing and put it into homeless shelters, then you have your homeless and indigent populations living in huge warehouses,” said Marc Trotz, director of the city Department of Public Health’s housing program. 

The last census in the city found 5,300 total homeless, including the 2,000 street people. The others were in hospitals, shelters, treatment centers or jail. 

San Francisco has about 1,700 emergency shelter beds, and most of those shelters do not serve the mentally ill or those exhibiting bizarre behavior, according to a draft city application this year for federal funds, the Chronicle found. 

Mayor Willie Brown declined to be interviewed by the Chronicle, but he recently said the city’s dirty streets and large visible homeless population are keeping tourists from visiting San Francisco. 

“It makes no sense to spend San Francisco taxpayers’ dollars to arrest and prosecute those whose only crime is poverty,” Brown said early in his term. 

But last month, after national media attention on the issue, Brown admitted: “Right now, you get a negative impression of the city.” 

In New York City, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani cleaned up the streets full of homeless a decade ago. He threatened to arrest those who did not go to shelters provided by the city — enough to hold nearly 27,000 people a night. 

They invested in outreach services that encouraged homeless to come to shelters and began citing homeless for nuisance crimes such as public urination to help get the mentally ill into treatment. 

Bob Begley, executive director of the Hotel Council of San Francisco, said it’s time for change here, too. 

“If New York can do it, why can’t San Francisco?” he said.