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With the defeat of Proposition A and the budget cuts following the defeat of Propositions J and K, the fate of San Francisco’s homeless people has become even more precarious than before. The 10-year “San Francisco Plan to Abolish Chronic Homelessness” focuses on the most visible aspects of the city’s homeless population. But what is it like to be a member of a homeless family or a homeless immigrant in San Francisco?

The Coalition on Homelessness has just released a report “based upon the voices of homeless families and immigrants themselves – voices that have far too often been excluded from homeless policymaking. It is only by taking the time to listen to these hidden voices, and then by investing the necessary resources and making the necessary systemic changes to address their concerns, that we may truly end homelessness in the United States.” Here is an excerpt. The entire report can be found at http://www.npach.org/hidden_voices_report.pdf.

Hidden Voices

The Realities of Homeless Families and Homeless Immigrants

Prepared by the Coalition on Homelessness San Francisco, November 2004


Recognizing the Hidden Homeless

The studies undertaken in this report were motivated by the Coalition on Homelessness San Francisco’s longstanding experience of the exclusion of family and immigrant issues from public policy discussion on homelessness. This critical policy oversight was documented in the Homelessness In San Francisco report [by Darren Noy, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Sociology at UC Berkeley]. The report demonstrates that despite acknowledgement of homeless families by individuals involved in San Francisco homeless policy, there is little significant analysis by core policy makers of the specific needs and issues that these families face. The Homelessness In San Francisco report also shows an almost total lack of discussion by policy makers about the specific challenges faced by homeless immigrants.

Public policy discussion and media portrayal of homelessness often ignore the existence of and the challenges faced by hidden homeless communities such as families or immigrants. Instead, their attention focuses on the most “visible” homeless people – those homeless people most frequently seen in public and on the streets. Many of these visibly homeless people face significant mental health and substance abuse challenges. Thus, as media and policy forums primarily focus their attention upon these visibly homeless people, homelessness itself is depicted as stemming primarily from personal problems such as mental illness and substance abuse.

It is, of course, true that there are many visibly homeless people in San Francisco who require significant supportive assistance to exit homelessness. It is true that there are many homeless people in San Francisco in need of substance abuse treatment and mental health care. And it is true that San Francisco provides grossly insufficient substance abuse treatment, mental health care, and supportive services to meet the demand. However, by basing our understanding of homelessness primarily on the visible homeless and their personal challenges, we run the risk of falsely classifying all homeless people as substance abusers or mentally ill. We run the risk of incorrectly conceiving of homelessness as stemming primarily from individual personal problems. We run the risk of losing sight of the humanity and the complexity of diverse people, including those who suffer mental health and substance abuse challenges. And we run the risk of further ignoring and marginalizing the “hidden” homeless such as families and immigrants, and of continuing to exclude them from homeless program funding allocations.

The portrayal of homelessness primarily in terms of the personal problems of the visibly homeless neglects the larger systemic causes of homelessness: the decimation of affordable housing and social safety net programs over the last twenty years, growing poverty, declining real wages for workers, racial disparities, and discrimination. It also neglects the way that systemic factors such as poverty and the lack of access to health care underlie the relationship between homelessness and substance abuse or mental health challenges. Substance abuse and mental illness are not independent causes of homelessness, but can lead to homelessness in combination with poverty, a lack of affordable housing, and a lack of access to health care. Many other individuals besides the homeless have substance abuse or mental health issues, yet they remain housed either because they have sufficient resources to do so or because they are able to access the health care or treatment needed to address their personal challenges.

Further, depicting substance abuse and mental illness as the cause of homelessness overlooks the way that these challenges are themselves often exacerbated by homelessness. The painful experience of being homeless – with the constant threat of police harassment or punishment by other public agencies – often leads homeless people to experience psychological disorders or to use substances as a form of self-medication or as an escape from the discomfort of homelessness.

The emphasis on the “visible” homeless in policy and media forums has supported the creation of policies that aim to move visibly homeless people out of sight, rather than to address the systemic conditions underlying homelessness. One of the primary ways that San Francisco has tried to move homeless people out of sight – and out of town – has been by issuing criminal citations to homeless people for such “quality of life” infractions as sleeping in public. This approach has consistently and utterly failed; not only is it extremely expensive for the city, but it also saddles homeless people with fines they cannot pay, and warrants or criminal records which further inhibit their ability to exit homelessness. Another common approach to resolving visible homelessness has been to increase social control of homeless people, either by expanding the legal capacity to forcibly “treat” homeless people or by eliminating welfare cash entitlements to homeless people as a way to “help” them. Again, these approaches fail to resolve the root causes of homelessness, and often create additional barriers for homeless people.

More constructive attempts to addressing visible homelessness have also been undertaken, such as the building of shelters and supportive housing units. While many of these efforts are indeed positive, they have been grossly inadequate to meet the demand for them by homeless people, and they have failed to resolve the overall lack of affordable housing, health care, and living wage jobs in our community. Further, these efforts have rarely addressed the needs of hidden homeless communities, such as families and immigrants. They have thus failed to resolve homelessness and have instead placed important but inadequate bandaids over the problem and served as a distraction from the systemic causes of homelessness.


Business Interests and Homeless Policy

The Homelessness in San Francisco report demonstrates that the pervasive portrayal of homelessness as primarily stemming from personal problems and the consequent push to address visible homelessness through criminal and social control measures is chiefly associated with big business interests. San Francisco’s influential downtown business organizations, along with the city’s moderate and conservative sectors, claim that homeless people are harmful to the economy and to the quality of life in the city, and therefore must be removed from sight.

As documented in that report, big business organizations feel that visible homelessness harms their ability to generate profits garnered from attracting tourists, consumers, and new businesses into the city. They therefore push for the removal of homeless people from sight. This push is particularly powerful in the city’s homeless politics because business organizations have many more resources than other community sectors. These resources allow San Francisco’s business organizations to fund political candidates, election ballot initiatives, and advertising campaigns. Moreover, many mainstream media organizations are themselves large businesses and reflect the business community’s perspective in their coverage of homelessness.

A homelessness policy focus on the visible homeless and their individual problems further serves the interests of big business by denying the systemic failures that cause homelessness. Such a framing allows big businesses to spurn systemic approaches to reduce homelessness, and effectively argue that they have little obligation to pay increased taxes to fund housing, employment, childcare, welfare, educational, and health programs. Big businesses thus maintain personal and corporate taxation rates substantially lower than many other industrialized nations.

The focus on personal causes of homelessness also serves big business interests by obscuring the causal role of economic and housing markets in homelessness. In both the homeless family and homeless immigrants studies presented in this report, high rents and low wages are two of the most frequently mentioned causes of homelessness. High rents and low wages, in turn, are two of the primary ways that big business generates profits. And so it is in the interests of big business to deflect discussion of homelessness away from these issues and towards issues relating to deviant and service-resistant visibly homeless people. As a result, despite the monstrous gap between rich and poor in this nation, much of the public perceives little relationship between the immense concentration of wealth in the hands of very few and the suffering of millions of homeless and impoverished people.

Ironically, while pervasive public and media portrayals depict homelessness as stemming from individual deviances and personal challenges, the majority of people involved in homeless policy in San Francisco do not believe that homelessness is caused by individual problems. As the Homelessness in San Francisco study demonstrates, people who are familiar with the experiences of the homeless, such as those involved in administering and implementing homeless policy, or directly working with or organizing with homeless people point to systemic conditions such as unemployment, low wage jobs, and the high cost of housing as causes of homelessness. The economically powerful minority on the right, however, uses its greater access to resources and political pressure to dominate the policy arena and to influence the media with their perspective.