A Brief History of Homelessness in San Francisco

The issue of unaffordable housing, and subsequent homelessness, has been an issue for the majority of native SF Bay Area residents’ lifetimes. But it hasn’t always been the issue that it is now. As early as the 1970’s, the homeless population was so small it went relatively unnoticed. “Homelessness wasn’t always this bad. ‘In the 1970s, there was an adequate supply of affordable units for every low-income household that needed one — and we really didn’t have homelessness,” said Nan Roman, President of National Allegiance to End Homelessness in NPR. 

Starting in the 1980’s homelessness became a much larger issue. During the Reagan Presidency, many mental health services and public housing facilities received federal and state funding cuts. This, mixed with an increased surge of Vietnam veterans desperately needing these services, created a perfect storm that caused many to flee to the streets. To add to the fire, home prices in the 1980s skyrocketed, and a global recession causing increased unemployment was well underway. San Francisco is hit hard, well above the national average. 

Dianne Feinstein was mayor during this tragic struct era. Her solution to this rapidly growing problem was to create church based emergency shelters, city funded overnight stays, and soup kitchens. Ultimately, after years of mismanagement and lack of capital, the effort was unsuccessful. The city’s homeless population continued to grow despite preventative actions. 

Starting in 1988, Art Agnos, a social worker, took office as Mayor. His “Beyond Shelter” solution to homelessness would provide two multi-service centers, where clients could be examined and given health and counseling services. These buildings were only open for a brief moment in time, and were ordered to be dismantled just years after construction.

Agnos’s successor, Frank Jordan, had a much different approach to tackle the issue. He instituted the “Matrix” program, shortly after taking office in 1992. Police officers would forcibly clear homeless from the streets and direct them into health and housing services. The program criminalized the poor and didn’t provide any solutions to end homelessness, just simply manage it. Many returned to the streets after the health and housing services proved inadequate. 

After Jordan’s failed re-election campaign, Mayor Willie Brown stepped on to the scene in 96’ with ambitions to create affordable housing despite the Dot Com bubble fueling the Bay Area’s gentrification. He created thousands of new units, and subsidized the rent of many SF apartments. Unfortunately, during his second term, he changed his opinion on homelessness, and declared the problem to be unsolvable. He discontinued most of his work helping the homeless, and populations subsequently jumped to 8,600, as stated by KQED.  

Gavin Newson’s approach, “Care Not Cash” would prevent payments to homeless people and instead fund new housing projects. His 10 year plan started in 2004 moved thousands of homeless people off the street. After just the first year, 3,000 homeless people were able to find affordable housing. Despite the momentum, numbers froze, and for the remainder of the program, little progress was made. 

Mayor Ed Lee began his term not devoting nearly enough time as his predecessors to homelessness. After heavy criticism, he opened up a 24 hour multiservice homeless shelter providing housing and drug abuse rehabilitation. After doubling down spending on the issue, the department was able to report double digit decreases in homelessness. 

Currently, London Breed, San Francisco’s current mayor, has pledged to further support programs established by her predecessor. She has goals of opening up safe parking sites for people living in their vehicles, and injection sites for users to do drugs safely. Since taking office in 2018, London has drastically decreased homelessness, with a 15 percent drop in unsheltered homelessness, and a 3.5 percent decrease in overall homelessness, according to medium.





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