This article is available also in spanish here

Billions of dollars spent in vain: why is San Francisco unable to stop its homelessness problem

My list

Author | Jaime Ramos

The homelessness problem has become deeply embedded in California. Within the Golden State, San Francisco's situation clearly represents how the good intentions of politicians and administrators are not quite working. What is going wrong?

Homelessness in San Francisco: a problem spiraling out of control

Neighborhoods turning into shanty towns. Drifters emerging from tents set up on the sidewalks. Within one of the wealthiest areas of the west, areas that previously represented San Francisco, are now a true gateway to urban degradation.

This is how it was described by the UN special rapporteur Leilani Farha, in 2018. Five years and an investment of 3.5 billion dollars later, the number of homeless people has not only failed to drop, but it is increasing uncontrollably. When Farha visited, the figure was estimated to stand at around 7,800, in 2022 this figure has increased to more than 20,000.

At the center of the political battle

How can this major urban problem exist in the same bay as Silicon Valley? Given the situation, it is worth clarifying that the homelessness situation in San Francisco is at the center of a heated political debate in the United States.

In recent years, the issue hit the public headlines in an attempt to find a simple solution to a complex problem. Both runaway capitalism and disastrous liberal aid strategies involving even greater bureaucracy have been blamed for the situation.

In fact, the immense outlay of public spending has led to viral strategies suggesting that the city subsidizes this lifestyle. Despite it being a healthy debate in a democratic society, it has actually added to the confusion in terms of identifying what is happening and how to contain the situation.

Causes or effects?

From the point of view of urban planning, there have been a series of culminating factors in San Francisco.

Gentrification and unequal growth

From the start of the millennium, the city has experienced a harsh process of gentrification which has led to greater inequality. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that it is the place in the United States with the highest cost of living.

In the complex diagnosis of San Francisco, we have symptoms that are not causal, extremely high average rent prices (2,174 dollars per month) and that the city moves to the beat of the economic power of local tech companies. Unsurprisingly, prices are expected to drop with layoffs within these companies. Likewise, it is no coincidence that San Francisco is the US city (within the group of major cities) with the lowest percentage of kids per family.

Town planning regulations and strict zoning

Many, particularly free market defenders, believe the origin of this relationship between poverty and the high cost of living could lie in the tough restrictions applied to urban planning reforms. These have reduced the number of homes on offer and affected prices.

Drugs and mental health issues

Does poverty lead to addiction or the other way round? What is clear is that it certainly forms part of the desolate situation of the homeless population. Withing the city's panorama, fentanyl is at the center of this deadly battle.

Conservative sectors suggest that the support policy is not working. San Francisco provides its homeless population with relatively high financial assistance, up to 687 dollars per month, not including additional services, but this is still not sufficient to guarantee them a home and, its main critics claim that this assistance is more often spent on drugs, increasing the problem.

Whatever the case, it is clear that there is no easy solution to San Francisco's homelessness situation. It seems that a plan is required that attacks all the factors involved.

Images | Wikimedia.commons/Christopher Michel

Related Content

Recommended profiles for you

Remember to activate your profile to network!
Activate profile
Juan Campo
Casa Blanca\\n
Fateme Rezaee Varchaghi
Fateme Rezaee Varchaghi
I am researchist
Helen Wilkins
The Creative Planet Foundation
Managing Director of a Start up charity on the outskirts of Barcelona, aligned with the 17 SDGs
Alexandra Burnet
Alexandra Burnet
Quebec Governement
International Affairs Advisor
Katherine Lee
Katherine Lee
Nutter Consulting, LLC
Senior Associate
Kunika Konaka
Nippon Koei Co., Ltd.
Urban planning and development
André de Beisac
Stadt Augsburg
Smart City Manager
Ricardo Andrés Portilla Villota
Ricardo Andrés Portilla Villota
Universidad externado de Colombia
Comisario de Familia
Maria Jose Pineda
Alcaldía Municipal del Distrito Centrall
Department of Cadastre
Giuliano Gonzales
Giuliano Gonzales
Consultant TI
Omer Cavusoglu
Buro Happold
Insight Leader
Michael Goetz
Global Brand Manager (Category and User Experience)
Shigeomi Shibata
Shigeomi Shibata
Institute of Industrial Science, the University of Tokyo
Cindy Vargas
Cindy Vargas
Mireia López Álvarez
Mireia López Álvarez
Project manager and researcher
Thiago Garone
Working at the Department of Social Work. Interested in exchanging ideas.
Estefania Villalobos
Estefania Villalobos
Project Manager
Elizabeth Breedlove
Elizabeth Breedlove
HOLO Barcelona
Managing Partner, Founder
Erica Miranda
Erica Miranda
My House
I'm interested in urban planning in smart cities.
Menno Lammers
Menno Lammers
PropTech for Good

Thank you for registering to Tomorrow.City. You can now start exploring all the content for free!
Only accessible for registered users
This content is available only for registered users
TO: $$toName$$
SUBJECT: Message from $$fromName$$