Understanding Homelessness in San Francisco

Albeit being a city decorated with rich history and golden views, San Francisco currently faces a large issue, one that has troubled the city for nearly fifty years: homelessness. Although San Francisco is one of the most economically and socially prosperous cities in the United States, it also has the highest population of people experiencing homelessness. 

How did this come to be? How did the homelessness crisis in San Francisco grow to become one of the worst in the nation? And, most importantly, how do we understand this crisis in such a way that progresses towards a solution?

In the early 1980s, homelessness became a national problem, and San Francisco was no exception. The crisis was a decade in the making, rooted in deindustrialization, state and federal cuts to public housing, rising home prices, and increasing unemployment. 

Over the past four decades, mayors have worked tirelessly to reduce homelessness in the city, implementing numerous policies and plans. However, plans such as Diane Feinstein’s Muni bus shelters and London Breed’s Homeless Recovery Plan have been unsuccessful, as the number of people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco remains a pertinent and acute issue, particularly in areas such as the Tenderloin and South of Market (SoMa). 

While there has been recent data showing that the city’s unhoused population has dropped 3.5%, going from 8,035 in 2019 to 7,754, San Francisco still has one of the highest populations of people experiencing homelessness. According to Forbes, San Francisco only falls behind New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Jose, and Oakland as of 2020. 

Why is San Francisco home to one of the largest populations of people experiencing homelessnes in the country? What forces people out of their homes and into tents, vehicles, and the streets?

As mentioned previously, San Francisco is one of the most economically flourishing cities in the country. However, along with the growing businesses and large corporations comes high prices, specifically high rent prices. In 2019, 63% of people experiencing homelessness reported that inability to pay rent was the cause of their homelessness. Loss of job was reported as the second leading cause at 26%, while 18% cited addiction; only 8% of people experiencing homelessness cited mental illness. While these may be common causes, it is important to note that each individual who is homeless has a different story and experience.

With a brief history of homelessness in San Francisco, we can better understand ways in which we can move forward to find and implement solutions. 

Recent data from the 2022 federally mandated Point-in-Time (PIT) count shows a slight decrease in the homeless population, with the number of people who are homeless being around 7,800. This decrease points San Francisco in a positive direction after the city endured an exponential increase between 2013 to 2019, as the population skyrocketed from 5,700 to 8,000 people experiencing homelessness. Thanks to the city’s large investments over the years, San Francisco saw a 3.5% decrease in the homeless population, the first decline of such in years.

However, despite the city’s push for more supportive and affordable housing, homelessness continues to be a visible issue. Although the PIT data suggests movement in the right direction, it does not fully measure the extent of the homelessness situation. London Breed and the city’s efforts are valiant, as seen in the implementation of housing programs, but housing is not the only solution. Homelessness is a multidimensional issue and one that needs to be addressed as such.

Ultimately, the underlying question remains: what can San Francisco do to stay on the path towards progress and not let history repeat itself?


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