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Business owners, cities struggling with homeless crisis

FILE - Tents line a sidewalk on Golden Gate Avenue in San Francisco, Saturday, April 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)
FILE - Tents line a sidewalk on Golden Gate Avenue in San Francisco, Saturday, April 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)
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Comedian Dave Chappelle took aim on the homelessness crisis during his act last week in San Francisco.

"What the f**k happened to this place?" he said, according to a culture editor at SFGate who was at the show.

Chappelle reportedly told a story about going to eat at a restaurant in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, which is riddled with homelessness and drug addiction. He said someone defecated in front of the restaurant as he was walking in, according to SFGate.

Chappelle told the crowd that San Francisco had become "half 'Glee,' half zombie movie," and said, "Y'all ... need a Batman."

The city’s "homeless crisis is taking a real toll," Hans Hansson, president of San Francisco-based Starboard Commercial Real Estate, wrote in 2021.

"Throughout almost any neighborhood in the city, you will see empty retail stores, which were once flourishing businesses," Hansson wrote. "Union Square, Market Street, and of course the downtown financial district is seeing retailers struggle. One challenge to our retailers, unique to San Francisco, is the negative impact of our homeless issue."

San Francisco isn’t alone in this struggle.

Seattle and Portland are among the American cities trying to deal with large homeless populations and the impacts they have on the communities.

Homelessness slightly increased nationwide since before the pandemic, though there’s been a more marked increase in unsheltered homeless people.

The most recent Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress showed around 580,000 homeless people in the point-in-time estimates.

Four in ten were in unsheltered locations, such as the streets or in abandoned buildings. Unsheltered homelessness increased 3.4% from 2020, though all homelessness is down compared to 15 years ago, according to the point-in-time estimates.

More than half of all people experiencing homelessness in the country were in four states: California, New York, Florida and Washington.

California accounted for half of all unsheltered people in the country.

But Oregon saw a bigger increase over the last couple years in the rate of homelessness compared to its neighbors to the south and north – 22.5% increase, compared to California’s 6.2% increase and Washington’s 10% increase.

And Donald Whitehead Jr., the executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said those estimates only reflect a portion of the true scale of the problem.

Whitehead estimates the nation actually has between 3.5 million and 5 million homeless people. He said pinning down the actual numbers is impossible given varying definitions of homelessness, the migrancy of homeless people, and myriad other factors.

Homelessness isn’t only a West Coast problem, of course. Whitehead noted that Louisiana, Tennessee and Arizona were among the states to see the largest increases in homelessness, according to the most recent point-in-time count.

But he said San Francisco, Portland and Seattle have a few commonalities.

Aside from simply being big cities, he said the high cost of housing is the leading factor.

“It’s clearly a lack of affordable housing that causes the numbers to rise in communities,” he said.

Whitehead pointed to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s “Out of Reach” report that says there’s no state where a full-time minimum wage worker can afford a “modest two-bedroom rental home at fair market rent.”

The group says a Californian needs to earn nearly $40 an hour to afford the rent on a two-bedroom home, for example.

Asked about the fentanyl crisis, Whitehead said, “Drug use alone, or mental health issues alone, won’t cause you to be homeless. It’s the cascading issues that happen as a result of those issues.”

He added that a law-and-order approach isn’t the most effective for reducing homelessness.

“As long as we continue to treat these medical issues as criminal issues, we’ll see a negative impact on people experiencing homelessness,” he said.

Those folks return to the streets once they emerge from the correctional system, and with a harder time getting a job or steady housing, he said.

He kept pointing back to the need for more affordable housing as the most effective and lasting way to reduce homelessness.

“We can fix a lot of other things if people have a roof over their head,” he said.

Housing takes a lot of time and money. In Seattle, for example, the mayor is advocating for a $970 million housing levy that would be used to build 3,000 new affordable housing units.

Whitehead said cities need to invest in “innovative approaches” to homelessness. One example would be repurposing abandoned hotels, schools and government buildings for housing to get people off the streets. That “adaptive reuse” would be cheaper than building completely new housing units, he said.

Folks in Seattle might also be considering an ordinance to crack down on people for using drugs in public.

“I think we’re all kind of sick of what’s been happening,” Seattle business owner Matt Humphrey told KOMO TV.

"We’re tired of being scared in our city," he said, "and being able to walk the streets and not worry what this person is going to do because they are so far gone, and they have been allowed to do this on the streets without consequence. So, we’ve got to have some consequences."

Whitehead said he understands the frustration felt by business owners and urged them to join forces with advocacy groups for the homeless to push for more resources to address the crisis.

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“We want the same thing,” he said. “Business owners don’t want to see people living on the streets of our country. Advocates don’t want to see people living on the streets of our country. What’s preventing that? More resources. If we could get business owners to partner with us, to talk to their elected officials where they have a lot more leverage than the average person working in the social services world, we could start to put an end to homelessness.”

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