Commentary

Commentary: Julie Pitta

Myth Busters

By Julie Pitta

The job of a journalist is to inform and educate. The discussion prompted by last month’s column on homelessness made me realize, all too painfully, that many of my Richmond neighbors hold mistaken beliefs about unhoused people. Some of those misconceptions, intended or not, seem tailor-made to justify denying unhoused people the support they so desperately need.

I’ll attempt to set the record straight on the most frequently repeated myths regarding homelessness.

Unhoused People Are Not “From Here.” This is one of the most stubborn myths about homelessness and peculiar for a city where few can call themselves natives. Each year, the City takes a census of its homeless population, a requirement for any municipality seeking funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In 2022, the City reported 7,754 people experiencing homeless. Of those, more than two-thirds were previously housed in San Francisco. Interestingly, this myth is one frequently used in other cities with significant populations of unhoused people. It’s used as a reason for withholding services to the unhoused.

Unhoused People Come to San Francisco Because of the City’s Welcoming Attitude Toward the Homeless. Most unhoused people lack the resources for travel and, if they did, it’s hard to believe that San Francisco would be their dream destination. A recent Los Angeles Times article chronicled the challenges faced by one family seeking an apartment. After Reyna De La Cruz lost her job, she and her three children were reduced to living in a camper. Even with an emergency voucher from the San Francisco Housing Authority — a piece of paper that would pay most of her rent for years — De La Cruz could not find a single landlord willing to rent to her. Those not fortunate enough to hold an emergency voucher can — with difficulty — cobble together less than $1000 each month, a pittance in a City where a one-bedroom apartment rents, on average, for more than $3,000 a month. 

“With the frequency of homeless sweeps, which were recently challenged by the Coalition on Homelessness, San Francisco is downright hostile to the unhoused.”

The City’s cruel attitude toward its unhoused population has infected the average San Franciscan, as evidenced by the recent attack on a homeless woman by a San Francisco art gallery owner.

Unhoused People Prefer Life on the Streets. Unhoused people, like the rest of us, want a home. More than half are living on the streets. Those able to secure shelter space or other subsidized housing often live in miserable conditions, as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle. Mayor London Breed has yet to spend a nickel of the $5 million she pledged to fix homeless housing.

Homeless people live on the street because they have no options. The City’s failure to provide housing for those experiencing homeless is at the center of the Coalition on Homelessness recent lawsuit. 

“In violation of the U.S. and California Constitutions, San Francisco enforces a series of laws that prevent unhoused residents from sheltering in the City’s open spaces when there is no other shelter available,” the suit alleges. “The City has also embarked on a campaign to seize and destroy the property of unhoused people with the express purpose of removing visible signs of homelessness from San Francisco’s streets.”

Unhoused People are Responsible for Crime. A recent study from the University of Oxford found no correlation between property crime and homeless settlements. 

“On average, an increase in the number of tents and structures in an area is not associated with any increases in property crime — very close to zero,” said sociologist Charles Lanfear, the study’s author. University of Miami sociologist Alexis Piquero added: “It’s very difficult to say that the encampments themselves are what’s creating the crime.” Homeless settlements, Piquero noted, are often in crime-prone neighborhoods.

In fact, unhoused people are frequently the target of violent crime. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Nuala Bishari recently reported on “the epidemic of violence” against the unhoused. These attacks, she maintained, are the inevitable consequence of a “narrative that homeless people’s personal failings led to their state of despair.”

Most Unhoused People Lost Their Homes Due to Addiction and Mental Illness. State Senator Scott Wiener stated it clearly: “Most homeless people are neither mentally ill nor addicted — most simply lack the financial means to afford the shortage-induced obscene cost of housing.” Most, like Reyna De La Cruz, have lost jobs. Others work and still can’t afford San Francisco’s sky-high rents. Addiction and mental illness are not the causes of homelessness, but an all-too-frequent outcome of life on the streets.

The sight of unhoused people is distressing and has caused some of us to lash out at the most vulnerable in our community, both in word and deed. Our frustration must be focused our City’s leader, Mayor Breed, who has failed to grapple with this humanitarian crisis. Breed must do better.

Julie Pitta is a member of the executive board of the Berniecrats. 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.

5 replies »

  1. Thank you Richmond Review and Ms. Pitta for this incisive and insightful editorial. I’m a long-time Richmond neighborhood resident and homeowner, for what its worth, and agree that “sweeps” are at once inhumane and ineffective. We need long -term major investments in the knot of problems – social and personal- that lead citizens of our town to wind up on homeless on our streets. For those indignant citizens who feel “entitled” to streets without the tents of the unhoused, I want to ask: Where is it that you think these people, these neighbors, who have ended up without homes, where is it you believe they are being swept to?

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  2. This article is itself somewhere between a statistical slight of hand and willful misinformation. The census cited is based on self-reported data. Someone who came to SF and couch surfed as they sought out readily available fentanyl would report themselves as previously housed in SF.’. Any Richmond resident who has walked down Geary, strolled in the park, or driven down Masonic to Bush has seen the concentrations of almost exclusively middle aged men. If these folks we mostly displaced families in the mould of Ms de la Cruz, should we not see a more representative sampling of the Richmond demographic living in tents? Yes, and we should draw the logical conclusion. Homeless addicts and i house’s families have very different needs and circumstances. Ms Pitta should know better that her attempt to lump them all into one bucket is both gaslighting her readers and obfuscating nuances that must be understood to craft effective public policy. Her doing so is journalistic malpractice in pursuit of her agenda based on faulty priors.

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    • Agree 100%. I have YET to meet a homeless person FROM San Francisco when I ask them, they’re usually from the east coast. But why NOT more to San Francisco, with the benefits and weather so favorable? Even Willie Brown said it was a no-brainer.

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