Homeless People Aren’t The Problem – The City Is

By Aliza Kilburn 

 

How often do you hear someone complaining about the homeless problem in San Francisco? The answer is probably every day. On the other hand, how often do you notice someone questioning the policies in San Francisco that foster perpetual homelessness, addiction, and oftentimes death? The City offers a variety of programs to aid unhoused people and those struggling with addiction, many of which offer valuable opportunities and support to those in need – however, some of these programs and policies are more harmful than they are helpful. 

Some of the most prominent examples of well-meaning “solutions” gone in the wrong direction are the City’s harm reduction programs. These programs offer a multitude of resources, such as sterile drug supply kits, overdose prevention education, and free doses of Narcan/Naloxone, an overdose reversal drug. Overdose prevention education is incredibly beneficial to those who are using and/or are around people that use drugs, and according to the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management, more than 2,700 overdose reversals were performed using Narcan by San Francisco first responders in 2022. With that being said, harm reduction itself is not the issue at hand – the encouragement of drug use through the distribution of drug supply kits is. 

Harm reduction programs in San Francisco are notorious for offering needle exchanges and a selection of free drug supplies, including clean syringes, tinfoil, and pipes. The majority of these programs are based in S.F. neighborhoods most impacted by overdose deaths, such as the Tenderloin and SOMA districts, and have become one of the main components to the city’s overall failure of the drug crisis. For many people battling substance abuse, the distribution of drug supplies often eliminates the idea of getting help, and instead perpetuates the cycle of using potentially fatal drugs in the first place. In the words of Ricci Wynne, a former dealer who now advocates for drug abstinence: “It basically allows these addicts to keep living in a state of bondage – it’s a lawlessness type of situation where there’s no consequences for their actions, and they just continue to be able to live in this way.” The argument that it’s better to have access to clean supplies rather than dirty supplies is true in nature, but it still does not justify supplying those struggling with addiction with the very tools used to continue to dismantle their lives, and potentially end them. 

Irony is strong in San Francisco’s policies towards drug users and the unhoused – “street cleanups,” in which San Francisco Public Works employees harass people into moving, routinely take place in the very same neighborhoods where drug use is openly enabled. Large groups of unhoused people are moved from one block to another in the name of “cleaning up the streets,” and, as expected, they typically return to the areas shortly after – where else are they supposed to go? While the city offers shelters/housing to individuals who accept it, a disturbing number of people die of overdoses inside the city’s housing programs – according to the San Francisco Chronicle, more than 40% of people who overdosed in the Tenderloin and Sixth Street area since 2019 were residents of housing hotels. These numbers only reflect what’s been reported – the city doesn’t keep close track of the exact amount of deaths happening in the hotels, and the programs designed to respond to overdoses are only active in a choice few of the 75+ housing options.

Unhoused people and those who struggle with addiction deserve compassion and support, and the city does put in a lot of work to foster that. Many of the programs and resources are made with good intentions, and continuously do positive things for the San Francisco community. However, negligence has been framed as “help” in too many cases, for too long, and it doesn’t seem to be getting much better. Instead of handing out free drug supplies and letting people die in hotels, they should be focusing on education, job opportunities, rehabilitation, counseling, and similar programs that lead people out of addiction and hardship. At the end of the day, there are always going to be people who use drugs. However, the city’s approach to the ongoing drug crisis needs a drastic improvement, and it needs to happen sooner rather than later. The city of San Francisco’s goal should be to genuinely help those who are in need, and treat them as humans who deserve respect and guidance. The homeless aren’t the problem, the city is.

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