Approaching San Francisco’s Homeless Problem With Neighborhood-Based Solutions

SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS)— Sometimes, all it takes is one or two bad apples. That’s what San Francisco’s point man on solving homelessness says about the community that makes its home on the streets of the city by the bay.

Former Supervisor Bevan Dufty is San Francisco’s Director of Housing Opportunity Partnerships and Engagement or HOPE. He says most of the homeless encampments he visits and the people he brings into shelters are non-aggressive and merely in need. But often, he says there are one or two hiding amongst the others with a criminal bent. Dufty has a very clear message for those bad apples.

“When I go to the neighborhood meetings I hear that one of the tents is dealing drugs and one of the others is breaking into cars, stealing bicycles. We need a high level of coordination between the police and the DA. We have to set a tone that this activity is going to be sanctioned and that there’s going to be consequences.”

Dufty said if prosecutions take place that word about it would spread quickly.

“I want to solve homelessness. I do not want to perpetuate criminal activity.

A common roadblock to finding housing solutions is the so-called “nimby-ism”, that is the “not in my back yard” attitude of residents who want the problem solved, but don’t want it solved near their patch of real estate.

But that isn’t always the case; Dufty says there are those within the community who are willing to help.

A few weeks ago he attended the groundbreaking for North Beach Citizens, a non-profit group that addresses the needs of the homeless and low-income in the community. Dufty says he’s a “huge fan” of the group that started a dozen years ago.

“Washington Square Park would be a very different place if it weren’t for North Beach Citizens. They took a former adult cinema at Kearny and Broadway and they’re opening a facility there. It’s just beautiful to see so many people in the community turn out and the restaurant next door, Tomasso’s, welcomed North Beach Citizens to do this building there and to have these services. They served us a pizza lunch. They’re such an iconic business. I could have seen them being like, ‘We don’t want this.’ But they’ve embraced it. People recognize that we’ve got to have neighborhood-based solutions.”

Dufty says one of the most important tools for creating permanent housing solutions, is the ability to see life from the perspective of those on the street and then offer shelter which meets their needs.

“Once you live on the street, you’ve acquired possessions. You’ve got sleeping bags and tents. You’ve got things that you need. If you get a shelter bed, you’re going to get a drawer underneath that bed. We don’t have robust storage for the homeless people of San Francisco.

He explains shelters are a “non-starter” for the homeless who have pets that aren’t registered as service animals or people who have opposite-sex partners since they can’t stay in the same shelter together. Others simply want or need more storage for their belongings.

The city recently acquired an old school district facility and the will be able to use it as a temporary shelter for the next 12 to 18 months until ground is broken to build 125 units of permanent affordable housing for families.

“We have the ability now to go out, and we’ve done this, to bring out eight, 10, 12 people from an encampment. A lot of times people just see them as tents, but they are often communities. I can tell you, seeing one of these encampments being brought in was a powerful thing to see. People had relationships and they were there supporting one another.”

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