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Why homelessness in San Francisco appears to be growing when, in fact, it isn’t

Liza Veale
A tent encampment in San Francisco

Many San Franciscans have the impression that homelessness has been growing in recent years. In 2016, residents called 311 to complain about encampments five times more than in the previous year.

What’s confusing is — the population of homeless people in San Francisco has actually stayed relatively flat.

So, if the numbers aren’t changing, what is? Three things.

The growth of encampments

The number of homeless people isn’t changing, but the number of tents definitely is. They really began proliferating at the end of 2015.

Back then, I reported about a crew of San Franciscans known to some as “the Tent Mafia,” who’d gotten angry watching the Department of Public Works trashing tents, and then crowd-sourced money to hand out new ones to people without.

The head organizer, Shaun Osburne told me back then that they raised $4,000 within hours of kicking off the campaign. There was an outpouring of support that has tapered off in the last year. The whole operation “wrapped” this past October.

In cities up and down the West Coast, charity groups like the Tent Mafia handed tents out, and when municipalities tried to clear them like trash, they got community blowback.

Now, the tents are a mainstay.

Fewer places to hide


Another reason why homelessness is more visible in San Francisco: development.

With so much building going on, there just are fewer secluded places for homeless people to live out of sight, says Mohammad Nuru, director of San Francisco’s Department of Public Works.

“With all the construction downtown — the Transbay Terminal, Mission Bay, the Eastern Waterfront — the boom in construction has displaced a lot of people,” he says.

Meaning, people who lived in alleys and parking lots away from foot traffic. Also, people that lived in cheap rooms that were redeveloped, and ended up on the street.

Nuru takes a lot of pride in his caretaker role for what he sees as a beautiful city.

“Our goal is to make sure that our city is presentable. At all times things need to look clean, green, beautiful flowers, beautiful buildings,” Nuru says. “That’s a reflection of a healthy city.”

Nuru says he believes in a zero tolerance approach to people living on the streets. It’s his department that disbands and clears out tent cities.

Still, he’s glad that development has made homeless people more visible, because this way it’s easier to connect people to services

“At least we can see the people, we can interact with them,” he says. “A lot of the population we’re talking about has been on the streets for a while, and the city is trying to bring everyone together and find the right place for these individuals.”

One man, who introduced himself as Wynden, said he used to live in China Basin. It was pretty secluded, he says, until construction sent him on the move. He doesn’t want to live in a tent encampment — mainly because he’s worried about safety.

“I’d rather stay alone, by myself, no one next to me, and mind my own business,” Wynden says.

He briefly tried to live in Golden Gate Park, but he says that without a dog to protect you, it’s too dark in the park to feel safe.

Now Wynden is in Potrero Hill, by the freeway, the only tent on the block.

It’s one of the last remaining places where he can get some space without being in anyone else’s.

So, why does it seem like there’s more homelessness even though the numbers don’t bear that out?

Development has pushed people out of seclusion, into concentrated neighborhoods.

And, tent encampments have led to a streetlife that draws attention.

How do these changes affect the people that actually live on the street?

Outside a row of tents in the Mission, a man named Curtis says over the course of his time living on the streets, the encampments have gotten crowded.

“It’s getting worse,” he says. “A lot of people be on drugs, people be getting stabbed, people be raping the woman and the homosexuals.”

Curtis says he recently got a spot in an SRO hotel — he’s carrying a potted plant he plans to bring home. He’s glad to not be living out here anymore.

But, for other people, the encampments are just about the only stability in their lives.

“It’s better than I would have imagined,” says a woman named Rachel. “There's a sense of community. In this little circle we try to keep an eye on each other's stuff.”

Stemming family homelessness


The last big factor explaining why the number of homeless isn’t growing despite all appearances is this: certain segments of the homeless population are growing while others are shrinking.


The group that’s shrinking is the least visible: homeless families. That’s where the city is focusing its efforts.

Mianta McKnight’s is one of the nearly 1,000 families San Francisco has helped house in the last three years. She just moved in to a brand new one-bedroom apartment for her, her baby, Aiko, and her father — Aiko’s grandfather.

It’s clean and bare, with wall-to-wall carpeting.

“She loves it,” says Mianta, “she’s never stood on carpet before.”

When Mianta applied for rent support she was living in a temporary transitional housing facility, like a halfway house. This was after 17 years in prison.

“I was a teenager when I went to jail and had never lived on my own as an adult,” says Mianta.

She was pregnant with Aiko and working two jobs, but she was worried about making rent once her lease at the facility was up.

“I needed to find somewhere to bring her back to because she deserves to be born to a space that is like a home.”

In transitional housing, and pregnant, Mianta was vulnerable to becoming homeless.

But, a nonprofit called Hamilton Families stepped in to temporarily cover her rent.

It’s part of their Rapid Rehousing program — even though Mianta wasn’t on the street, living in the facility meant she was counted as a sheltered but homeless person.

In 2014, The city of San Francisco partnered with Hamilton Families to scale up the Rapid Rehousing program, with the goal of assisting people before things fall apart and homelessness locks in.

According to Tomiquia Moss, the director of Hamilton Families, the city aims to ensure that any family that experiences a housing crisis won't be exposed to that crisis for any longer than 90 days.

“We had a doubling in family homelessness in San Francisco past the recession,” says Moss. “Many have been living with relatives, and that's why you don't see the visibility that you do with single adults.”

San Francisco also has an initiative to house the roughly 1,300 families that have been homeless for a long time.

That, combined with Rapid Rehousing, is “what we’re talking about when we talk about ending family homelessness in San Francisco,” says Moss.

One big way the city is housing more people is by looking outside its own borders.

“We know that if a family is homeless in San Francisco, but we can find them an affordable unit in Sacramento, they're going to take the unit. We were housing 75 percent of our families in San Francisco and in the last three years that's flipped,” says Moss.

Mianta’s family moved out of San Francisco with assistance from Hamilton Families. That was two years ago. She’s been covering rent on her own for a year, and this new apartment is an upgrade.

“It feels safe, it feels clean, feels like a home,” says Mianta.

Hamilton Familes says 91 percent of the families they assist stay housed after their subsidy ends — and Mianta’s not worried about backsliding.

She was a teenager when she went to prison, but she’s a go-getter. She worked as an organizer during her incarceration, and now she’s employed as an advocate with Justice Now.

So, the number of homeless people in San Francisco hasn’t changed in over five years.

But, in most cities around the country, the numbers are rising.

And, there are still over 4,000 people living on the streets in San Francisco. And another 3,000 in shelters. The problem may not be worse, but it’s bad.



Liza got her start in radio with KALW's Audio Academy. Now, she is KALW's econmy reporter and a mentor for in the KALW Audio Academy.