In 1975, the end of the Vietnam War marked the beginning of an era of massive state and federal budget cuts in mental health services and public housing. These cuts, paired with an influx of returning war veterans, high rates of unemployment, escalating home prices, and a nationwide recession caused an unprecedented level of homelessness throughout the country. San Francisco’s Tenderloin District and other downtown neighborhoods were among some of the areas severely impacted by this phenomenon.
Before then, “[W]e didn’t even call [the homeless] homeless people,” recalled journalist Steve Talbot in an interview with KQED. However, by the early 1980s, it became clear that the number of people who were homeless in San Francisco was only increasing and that the local government needed to step in.
Between 1982 and 1988, Mayor Freidenbach approached homelessness as merely a passing problem, relying on churches and emergency services to aid San Francisco’s unhoused population, as well as temporarily converted Muni buses. However, inadequate supervision by city officials resulted in vandalization and the eventual closure of facilities.
From 1988 to 1992, Mayor Agnos implemented “beyond shelter” policies, which assessed clients who were unhoused and provided them with needed health services. Though his idea was considered forward-thinking at the time, in the wake of the Loma Prieta earthquake, limited access to resources caused his hastily opened shelters to become overcrowded and understaffed quickly.
Resultantly, homeless encampments became more widespread, including one that Agnos later ordered to be dismantled by the police under mounting pressure from the public. In an interview with CBS 5, Agnos stated,
“[V]irtually every year we now have the conversation of whether it’s morally just to criminalize homelessness, shuffling them off one sidewalk and onto another in order to make the public temporarily believe the issue is being handled, while we remain chronically short on supportive housing or long-term solutions.”
Mayor Jordan held office from 1992 until 1996, during which time he introduced the Matrix Program. This enforcement-based strategy utilized the police to forcibly remove individuals who were unhoused from the streets. The public heavily criticized Jordan’s program because it criminalized the homeless rather than executing people-first measures to manage the homeless crisis.
Things seemed to take a turn for the better when during his 1996 election campaign, Mayor Brown pledged to use government funding to expand social services and develop a regional housing plan. However, another economic crisis and rising gentrification in San Francisco caused the project to fall through. Though he successfully increased housing stock by subsidizing rent and leasing and renovating residential hotels in his first term, he took little stance on the issue in his second. In 2002, Mayor Brown declared homelessness a problem “that may not be solvable.” By this time, San Francisco’s unhoused population had skyrocketed to 8,600.
Between 2004 and 2010, Mayor Newsom championed the “Care Not Cash” policy, which redirected cash payments to the unhoused into funding for housing, which, although controversial, allowed Newsom to move thousands of individuals off the streets and into housing. Despite the unhoused population dropping 30% from 2002, it remained at 6,000 individuals until the end of his second term. He claimed that homelessness is
“[The] manifestation of complete, abject failure as a society” and said, “we’ll never solve this at City Hall.”
From 2010 to 2017, Mayor Lee served a controversial two terms. Heavily criticized for clearing homeless encampments to woo tech companies into the city, he responded by opening the first 24-hour multi-service homeless shelter in 2015, and in 2016 implemented the “Coordinated Entry” initiative to consolidate city-funded service groups under one department. The $1 billion in funding to this department helped decrease family and youth homelessness, but the increase in single individuals remained.
Now, San Francisco’s current Mayor, London Breed, has moved roughly 1,500 individuals off of the streets, the majority of which has included youth and veterans. In addition, she has multiple proposals in place for bed increases, including the Homelessness Recovery Plan. However, her office has run into numerous roadblocks since her election in 2018, including litigation over a 200-bed navigation center on the Embarcadero and her angering of key homeless advocates by opposing Proposition C. She has also only netted 2,500 beds since the beginning of her term, a 42% decrease since 2017, which marks the lowest gain in five years. Now, her office is advancing the most significant affordable housing bond in San Francisco’s history, which would yield $600 million.
It has clearly been a constant, uphill battle to “solve homelessness.” Every mayor of San Francisco from 1982 to date has implemented different policies to mitigate the mistakes that caused individuals to fall through the cracks in the 1970s and continue to fall through the cracks today. However, their differing policies have resulted in inconsistencies in the approach to the homeless crisis, and it remains just as if not more of a prevalent social issue today.