- Conditions for homeless residents in San Francisco are among the worst in the world, with many living in crowded camps filled with trash, faeces, and discarded needles.
- In September, United Nations Special Rapporteur Leilani Farha released a report calling the crisis a “human rights violation.”
- Business Insider spoke with Farha about the root causes of homelessness – and what she sees as the most viable solutions.
- Farha doubled down on her previous comments, arguing that San Francisco’s homelessness crisis suggests a “cruelty that is unsurpassed.”
When Leilani Farha paid a visit to San Francisco in January, she knew the grim reputation of the city’s homeless encampments. In her four years as the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Adequate Housing, Farha has visited the slums of Mumbai, Delhi, Mexico City, Jarkarta, and Manila. The crisis in San Francisco, she said, is comparable to these conditions.
While New York City and Los Angeles have the highest numbers of homeless people in the US, San Francisco has the highest rate of street homelessness nationwide. On any given night, more than 4,300 citizens sleep without a roof over their heads.
But not even this knowledge could prepare Farha for what she witnessed in January.
In the city’s core, homeless residents were denied basic access to water, toilets, and sanitation facilities. There were piles of trash and scattered faeces on the ground. In the neighbouring camps in Oakland, rats dug through the mud and families huddled outside in the cold. The experience, she said, shook her to her core.
“The idea that a government would deny people those services … when they have nowhere else to go suggests a kind of cruelty that is unsurpassed,” Farha told Business Insider. “It’s an attempt to erase people. Worse than erase – I can only use the word annihilate. It is a denial of someone’s humanity.”
San Francisco’s homeless are often victims of hard times
At one point on her trip, Farha encountered a young man living underneath a highway underpass, cooking quesadillas on a small stove with an open flame.
“The last time I had seen someone cooking on the footpath like that was in India, with the pavement dwellers there, and here I am in San Francisco in a state with the sixth largest GDP in the world,” said Farha.
She asked the man about how he came to be homeless, and found that he had travelled from the Midwest after his mother died and his family broke down.
“I think he was in the midst of developing a psychosocial disability from the trauma of being on the streets,” she said.
While many homeless residents in California are native to the area, the man’s story is relatively common. Farha said most of the homeless residents she met in San Francisco were victims of hard times.
“They were working and then their apartment building got sold to someone, the investor raised the rents, the person couldn’t afford it anymore, they couch surfed for a while, and then they hit the street,” she said.
Her comments echo the understanding among homeless residents and advocacy organisations like the National Coalition for the Homeless, which attributes homelessness to “a complex set of circumstances that require people to choose between food, shelter, and other basic needs.”
A crisis of open air drug markets, discarded needles, and poop piles
These policies allowed the private sector to wrest control of investments in the affordable housing market, while the government slowly retreated. In 1986, President Reagan signed a housing tax credit that gave big corporations more oversight over low-income housing. By the 2000s, companies were selling off social housing – dubbed “housing of last resort” – for major profits.
“It’s very hard for a city to compete against a private equity firm in terms of buying up land,” Farha said. “Private equity firms have such a huge amount of capital at their disposal. They call them vultures for a reason. They can go in and use their power and wealth and buy up a huge amount of property very quickly.”
After the global financial crisis in 2008, firms like Blackstone and Goldman Sachs began purchasing single-family dwellings and charging high rents, rendering them unaffordable for most residents. These properties were then bundled together so that shareholders effectively became landlords.
In the current market, investors in cities across the country frequently buy units and flip them into short-term rentals on services like HomeAway and Airbnb. All the while, the world’s wealthy billionaires are scooping up luxury apartments, creating a demand for high-end real estate.
To make sense of the San Francisco crisis, Farha has had to sift through this winding history. “I’ve had to get my head around all this stuff just to understand homelessness,” she said.
Resident blame tech companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook
Many residents have been quick to blame San Francisco’s housing crisis on major tech companies like Google, Intel, Apple, Facebook, and Twitter. As early as 2013, San Franciscans took to protesting the private buses that shuttle Google workers from their homes in the city to the company’s Silicon Valley headquarters.
The protestors have even come up with a name for the massive influx of high-tech firms: “techsploitation.” In May, protestors in the Mission District – home to a number of the city’s homeless residents – stood outside chanting the phrase, “Sweep tech not tents.”
Though Farha acknowledges the stark contrast between the city’s multi-billion-dollar tech firms and residents sleeping on the streets, she doesn’t think techies are exclusively to blame.
“I absolutely do not want to only point the finger at the big tech firms,” she said. “I think they actually come to the table late on this.”
Even so, she said, companies with massive amounts of wealth have a responsibility to share it.
In early November, Farha praised Salesforce chairman Marc Benioff’s decision to support Proposition C, a controversial ballot measure in San Francisco that will tax the city’s largest corporations to fund services for the homeless. The measure passed on Tuesday, but was just shy of a two-thirds majority, meaning it could be stalled by legal proceedings for years to come.
In a New York Times editorial, Benioff said homelessness was an even bigger threat to his business than a “small tax” because “companies can truly thrive only when our communities succeed as well.”
Housing is a human right
At least one key player in California has taken note of Farha’s concerns. After releasing her report in September, Farha received a call from Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, who wanted to start a dialogue about addressing the Bay Area homelessness crisis.
Despite the complicated nature of the issue, Farha isn’t short on solutions. But first, she said, people have to understand that housing isn’t a commodity – it’s a human right.
“No international human rights treaty codifies the right to gold, but several codify the right to housing,” said Farha. “That’s because housing goes to the core of what it means to live in dignity. You can’t live in dignity without decent housing.”
For Farha, these resources include taxes like Proposition C that go toward identifying and addressing the root causes of homelessness. It also means getting rid of forced evictions from homeless camps, adopting inclusionary zoning laws, and offering skills training programs for homeless residents. In the past, Farha has also criticised laws that prohibit the homeless from living out of their vehicles.
“It’s not to say that we want to bring down capitalism,” Farha said. Instead, she said, the human rights obligation lies with the government, which is responsible for regulating private actors.
One of her dreams as Special Rapporteur is to get people to understand the role of government in homelessness.
If a person is walking along the street and sees someone homeless, it’s ok to think whatever you want, she said. “But also think, ‘That homeless person represents my government’s failure to implement the right to adequate housing.'”
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