Famed for its iconic landmarks from Alcatraz Island to the Golden Gate Bridge, its long-established LGBT and Asian American communities and the city’s cable cars dominating the steep, rolling hills, I was excited to explore the diverse and cosmopolitan vibes of San Francisco. I wasn’t, however, prepared for the staggering homeless population that became my plus one along the way of my solo trip.
I arrived at my hotel on Bush Street, a close walk to downtown’s Union Square, suffering with a serious bout of sleep deprivation and ended up collapsing on my bed – scrapping any plans of finding a Franciscan fish restaurant and heading out to the lively bars crammed with locals and tourists celebrating the start of Mother’s Day weekend.
I slept right through until the next morning, and I was ready to start exploring the city. The historic architecture and picture perfect ‘Queen Anne’ houses were visible from my hotel room window. Quaint neighbourhoods and the downtown skyscrapers screamed innovation, ambition and drive; comprising the story of America’s most expensive city.
As I began my quest to find a traditional American pancake breakfast, a smell so powerful was overriding the fresh air I was expecting from my first full day bright, sunny morning in California. Urine, flattened cardboard boxes and shit-stained sleeping bags decorated shop doorways and beggars occupied most of the street corners. I did notice some sleeping bags and even groups of tents during the taxi ride from the airport, but my ignorance put that down to my driver cutting through the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ to beat the infamous San Francisco traffic.
Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s and Tiffany & Co. are just some of the high-end stores that surround Union Square; beggars with small children or dogs desperate for tourists to take pity and spare some change replace store greeters. The short walk to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) was a replica of my earlier breakfast journey, and the City Bus tour I took in the afternoon featured homeless people swigging from bottles, intimidating passers by and, just a stone’s throw away from City Hall, a man no older than 30 strapping a blue band around his right arm and injecting, what appeared to be, heroin.
To say my mind was blown is an understatement. I was used to seeing people sleeping rough on Oxford Street and the occasional one or two scrounging for spare change or a cigarette at Tottenham Hale station, but to travel across a majority of San Francisco and find this recurring theme in almost every district was a disturbing revelation.
Later on in my trip, I was invited to dinner by a guy I met at Mayes Oyster House along with his friends at a pizzeria in the Castro district. Most of evening was taken up by them asking questions on London life and, before I could even steer the conversation to my thoughts of San Francisco so far, one of the friends commented on the number of homeless people that were roaming the streets outside the restaurant. I initially hesitated to comment as I didn’t want to spoil the atmosphere of the evening. But when I mentioned how surprised I was to see so many people – old and young – sleeping rough, I was given a summarised rundown on the San Francisco homeless community.
Despite the city spending $275 million on homelessness and supportive housing in the 2016-2017 fiscal year (up from $241 million the year before) the most recent 78-page ‘Homeless Census’ revealed things are as bad as they’ve ever been. The total homeless population was calculated at 7,499: 41% claim to have a drug or alcohol addiction; 39% are dealing with mental health issues; and 11% are living with HIV or AIDS. As for the distribution of San Francisco’s homeless population, 3,680 people currently live on the streets of District Six – including a majority of SoMa and the Tenderloin – which grapples with the highest homeless population.
The San Francisco Travel Association’s (STFA) CEO, Joe D’Alessandro, has placed partial responsibility at the city’s homeless crisis for narrowly missing their 2017 prediction of 25.6 million tourists visiting the city; its annual report found 25.5 million visited last year and, aside from a possible downfall in America’s reputation since the inauguration of President Donald Trump, D’Alessandro told CBS San Francisco earlier this year: “They [Tourists] wonder why does one of the wealthiest cities in one of the wealthiest states have streets that look like this? Why are there people living on the streets in these conditions? And it’s not acceptable honestly. And we’re failing as a society for not addressing this.”
Extortionate rent prices are also a main contributor to the homeless crisis. The cost of housing has greatly exceeded the amount of income that people earn working minimum-wage or acquire from disability support, pensions or other benefit plans. To put this into perspective, the average one-bedroom apartment in the San Francisco Bay Area is much more expensive than it is in the New York City metro area, and apartments in San Francisco are listed at a higher price than those in Manhattan. According to Expatistan, the average monthly cost for a 900 Sq/Ft apartment in a ‘normal’ area in San Francisco will set you back $3,576; whereas the same size apartment in New York City is listed at $2,805 (except from transport, costs for food, clothing, personal care and entertainment are also considerably higher than in NYC).
Although study after study has concluded with troubling statistics, the city announced last month it will spend $305 million in the next fiscal year out of its approximate $10 billion annual budget in its long-lasting attempt at combatting the growing issue. The additional amount will help to finance Homeward Bound – an initiative that reunites individuals with friends and family members (serving nearly 900 people last year) in addition to expanding shelter capacity and providing 200 housing units for former homeless residents in affordable housing buildings, as well as a hotel in the SoMa district.
Mayor Mark Farrell said: “San Francisco’s homeless problem has become a crisis, and as Mayor I have been committed to tackle the issue head on. These investments focus on programs and policies that have been proven to work, and will make a difference on the streets of San Francisco. Our residents deserve it.”
The increased budget has been welcomed by Jeff Kositsky, director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH), stating the proposal will add “significant resources” to San Francisco’s Homelessness Response System: “To be successful in our efforts to make homelessness rare, brief and one-time we have to invest in proven programs that help prevent and end homelessness. The proposed budget will help us reduce the number of people who are becoming homeless and in need of emergency services while also investing in proven solutions like permanent supportive housing and navigation centers. This budget reflects the priorities outlined in HSH’s strategic framework and moves us closer to our goal of reducing homelessness in San Francisco.”
It seems a lot of hope is riding on this proposal. From my brief experience walking the city’s streets and listening to the anguish of locals, I have to say San Francisco has a vigorous journey ahead in order to make some positive change. Human feces, dirty needles, the tent cities that continue to pop up around the city, and homeless people with mental and alcohol or drug-related problems ranting at passersby are scaring the tourists away. But, as former mayor Ed Lee said, “there is no silver bullet” solution.