Commentary

Commentary: How to Be an Ally to Our Unhoused Neighbors

By Julie Pitta

Earlier this month, the Coalition on Homelessness released a damning report on our City’s efforts to support homeless San Franciscans. According to the study, San Francisco’s Healthy Street and Operations Center has swept through homeless encampments, evicting people from their homes — and frequently discarding their belongings — without offering them alternative housing.

Two years ago, Mayor London Breed formed the Healthy Street and Operations Centers to address the growing numbers of San Franciscans living on city streets. Its stated goal was to transition the homeless into housing. The reality has been very different. The uncomfortable truth is that the City has never had enough affordable housing for those living in poverty. Nor does it have any real programs to acquire it.

Mayor Breed has done what some consider the next best thing: Removing from San Francisco streets what she deems an eyesore. The attacks on San Francisco’s homeless have been ruthless and, quite possibly, illegal. According to the Coalition on Homelessness, the City “prioritizes displacing people and tents as quickly and efficiently as possible, not leaving sufficient time to (give) notice (to) unhoused residents nor effectively connect residents with adequate and appropriate services.”

San Francisco, a city that prides itself on hospitality, has become a cold place for those experiencing hard times. 

The City has an opportunity to change its approach to homelessness. Proposition C, passed in 2018, sets aside $350 million each year for mental health services and affordable housing, including supportive units for the unhoused. More than 1,800 new units for unhoused residents are expected to be built in the coming year.

In the meantime, San Franciscans must find their compassion. Richmond District Supervisor Connie Chan reminds us that “becoming homeless could happen to many of us. Fifty-nine percent of Americans are just one paycheck away from becoming homeless.” The reasons for homelessness are many. They include a lack of mental health care, low wages and unemployment, and the government’s failure to invest in affordable housing. The unexpected COVID-19 pandemic has simply exposed the weakness of our social safety net.

The consequences were quickly felt. The beginning of the pandemic saw homeless shelters reduce their populations by about two-thirds. The end of the state’s eviction moratorium promises to send many more onto the streets. In the Richmond, that has meant an increase in homeless encampments along our neighborhood’s most well-trafficked corridors. As their numbers have grown, our City — and our neighborhood —  has seen a rise in anti-homeless sentiment. 

The Coalition on Homelessness offers an invaluable guide called “How to be a Housed Ally to People Experiencing Homelessness.” It dispels common myths  surrounding homelessness, among them is the often-repeated falsehood that unhoused people move to San Francisco because of its permissive attitude. In fact, nearly all who live on our City’s streets were previously housed here. Another popular myth? Homeless people prefer street life. In truth, they have few options and COVID-19 only made a bad situation worse. As the virus forced shelters to close their waitlists, hotel rooms were made available. However, they are offered only to the elderly and medically compromised, a fraction of our homeless population.

There are ways to help. First and foremost, be a good neighbor. Introduce yourself. Once you’ve built trust, ask people what they need. Often, it’s as simple as directions to the nearest public bathroom or a trash bag. Learn about the homeless services in your neighborhood. Make your voice heard: Lobby the mayor’s office to open more hotels rooms and safe campsites as well as to create permanent affordable housing. 

Finally, organize neighbors to bring aid. Recently, two groups, Richmond District Rising and the Planning Association for the Richmond [PAR], joined Project Homeless Connect on a successful clothing drive for unhoused neighborhood residents.

More recently, Supervisor Chan’s office piloted a monthly free laundry day for the unhoused, the first of its kind in our neighborhood. The event will continue under the auspices of One Richmond, created by former Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer to build community through public service. 

Free Laundry Day for the Unhoused would not be possible without the support of a neighborhood business leader. Haitham Shammaa, owner of the 1010 Wash & Dry at 1010 Clement St., hosted the first two free laundry days and has offered his laundromat when the event resumes in the late fall. Several neighborhood groups leant generous support including PAR, Richmond District Rising, the San Francisco Neighbors Solidarity Network and the Westside Tenants Association.

I was fortunate enough to attend the first free laundry days and to witness a diverse group of Richmond residents come together in support of our unhoused neighbors. For information on how you can become a part of Free Laundry Day for the Unhoused, email Naomi Hui, One Richmond community relations manager, at naomi@richmondsf.org

Julie Pitta is a neighborhood activist. She is a former senior editor for Forbes Magazine and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. You can email her at julie.pitta@gmail.com.

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