San Francisco battles growing homeless problem

A recent head count in San Francisco revealed that about 7,500 people have no place to call home. Every night, about 60 percent or 4,500 are left to fend for themselves on the streets. Last year, the mayor created an entirely new department to tackle the issue, aptly named the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing or HSH.

KTVU spoke to the HSH's Director, who's been trying to find long-term solutions to the problem, as well as to the head of Public Works who's working on short-* term solutions.

We caught up with Public Works underneath Interstate 80 and crews were doing a sweep of a homeless encampment near 8th and Brannan.

Marc Siino lives in a red tent there with his dog Bandaid. He became homeless years ago after losing his job after suffering a head injury.

"Suddenly I no longer had a place to stay so I bounced around as I could and ended up out here," said Siino, who is originally from Antioch. The 36 year old suffers from PTSD.

"It gets stressful, noisy," he said. "[You] kind of get the fishbowl syndrome because you never really get any time away or time to decompress without people always watching you or calling the cops on you."

On this day, Siino is upset because he stands to lose most of his belongings. Random bits of bicycles are stashed in a wire crate. Clothes strewn about, a package of brightly colored plastic balls, cooking ware and even a mattress frame that will all have to go. He doesn't admit to being drug addict but there are a handful of needles lying in his tent.

It looks like a bunch of junk to most people, but for Siino, it's all he's got.

The Public Works crew tells KTVU is doesn't want to leave Siino with nothing. One crew member tells him he can keep his mattress, which is wrapped in plastic and appears to be new, a gift from a Burning Man attendee who dumped it off upon returning from the desert.

Meanwhile the crew hoses down urine and feces that are caked into the sidewalk.They toss encampment trash into a few city trucks, which will be hauled to the recycling center first and then the dump.

"They're picking up anywhere from two to four tons of garbage a day just from these encampments," said Mohammed Nuru, the head of the Public Works Department, who sees the "dirty" side of homelessness.

"[The homeless] don't have bathrooms, they poop, they pee.. you know, right outside their tent," said Nuru.
Nuru's crews can pick upwards of 17, 500 needles every single month. It's a job that can not only be hazardous, but downright dangerous.

"We've had quite a number of assaults to our workers on a a very regular basis," admitted Nuru. Some call his teams "janitors" for the city's homeless.

"Or as we say in public works- uh maid service," said Nuru.

Nuru says homeless encampments seemed to spike when San Francisco hosted the Superbowl in 2016.
"Right after the Superbowl we started seeing more tents," said Nuru.

Officials admit the city's building boom, especially in the South of Market Area and Mission Bay, has forced homeless out, only to crop up in other neighborhoods.

"There was nothing here three months ago. It's a problem," said Jeff Sheehy, as he walked on Market Street in front of the Castro Safeway supermarket, where several homeless have pitched tents and sleep on the sidewalk in broad daylight.

"Why this is acceptable?" Sheehy asked, gesturing. "We have an encampment and I've asked the Department of Homelessness that we don't have encampments in my district. Yet nothing seems to happen."

Sheehy oversees District 8, which includes Glen Park, Noe Valley and the Castro.

"When I see my district suddenly getting worse because of what's going on in the Mission or because they're cleaning up Civic Center and people just get on Muni and come here or they get on BART and go to Glen Park that's not helping!" said Sheehy, believes the city needs to be more aggressive in its tactics to solve homelessness.

"We called outreach teams here," said Sheehy. "The outreach teams would come and talk to people and the people have refused services, the outreach teams just walk away! There's not a solution. We flush money down the tube when we we're paying people to interact with people and not solve the problem!"

But Jeff Kositsky, the Director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said the homeless crisis is getting better.

"This problem was 40 years in the making, it's not going to disappear in a year or even two," said Kositsky, "but I do think we're going to see a substantial and sustained reduction in homelessness over the next couple of years."

While a recent census put the number of reported homeless at 7500, that's actually an improvement from the previous year.

"That represented a one percent reduction and although that's small," said Kositsky, "it compares very favorably to cities like Oakland, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, all of whom had very significant increases."
Kositsky gives us a tour of the newly opened Waterfront Navigation Center in the Bayview.

This past year, he says his department has placed nearly 2000 homeless folks into permanent housing or reunited them with their families.

"Really the best way is to solve all of these problems is to get as many people into housing as possible," said Kositsky.

"I feel like everything fell apart after my mom passed," said Quintar Wright, who now lives at the Waterfront shelter. Just two weeks ago Wright was living in a tent in an alley.

"The HOT team was like a blessing in disguise," said Wright, who received help from members of the city's Homeless Outreach Team and is now taking college classes and says things are looking up.

"Everything's goin good so far," said Wright. "My job is a balancing act between trying to meet the needs of people who are on our streets and who are suffering and who are struggling - and remind folks, these are people these are somebody's son and somebody's daughter and when they were young they didn't grow up wanting to be living on the streets," said Kositsky. He says America's homeless crisis has been brewing for decades.

"In 1944 FDR talked about how housing is a right for all Americans but by 1978 we started to dismantle the Department of Housing and Urban Development and if you took it in real dollars, it's sort of the equivalent of an 80 percent cut in the HUD budget from 1978 to today."

But it's not like San Francisco isn't spending money on the homeless problem. Last fiscal year, the city spent 258 million dollars to combat homelessness. Some residents have long complained that San Francisco is too generous.

Remember Siino? He's not even from San Francisco.

Reporter: "Why not go to Antioch and try to get housing?"

Siino: "They don't even have shelters or anything out there and the wait list is just as long as out here for any sort of subsidized housing. Out here at least they have the raffles for any new housing development they build."

But Kositsky says if you don't spend money on the homeless now, you'll pay more for it later.

"I can tell you for somebody who's chronically homeless and living on the streets, it can cost $50,000, $80,000 even $100,000 a year in medical costs , trips to the hospital," said Kositsky.

He believes a universal housing subsidy is key.

San Francisco, California... we can't do this by ourselves, we need help from the federal government and we need a more compassionate and common sense approach to housing policy in the U.S."

And for those homeless who refuse services?

"Those that don't want to go to those sorts of facilities then need to be asked to move, -out of the city frankly," said Nuru.

"Nobody wants to take everybody and put them in jail but we have to have solutions to get people off the streets," said Sheehy. "I don't get it, I've only been in office nine months now and it's so frustrating when you actually get money, you propose programs and they don't happen and nothing changes."

"Unfortunately, once your life gets this bad," said Siino, "it's really hard to salvage it and then once you get out on the street, it's really really hard to get back indoors."