A Tale of Two Cities: San Francisco and the Spatial Politics of Homelessness

San Francisco is a city of juxtapositions: concrete jungles abut natural havens; postmodern sculptures clash fiercely with the old mission-style architecture; and Angel Island, once emblematic of the United States’ harsh treatment of immigrants, is now being transformed by a new generation of liberal policy makers. In vivid, bold strokes, San Francisco tells the tale of two cities––a tale of injustice and social progress, struggle and innovation, scarcity and affluence. And perhaps this last juxtaposition is most unsettling of all: while men and women in sleek business attire traverse the streets, vague human forms lie huddled in sleeping bags atop cardboard boxes at the pavement’s edge. It’s almost as if they have been swept aside––byproducts of San Francisco’s wild success.

It is a deep and tragic irony that San Francisco –– a city named for the patron saint of the poor –– is a site of intractable poverty. Indeed, homelessness is a prominent feature of the cityscape. According to the latest point-in-time survey, San Francisco has the third highest rate of unsheltered populations in the nation, with nearly 7,500 people on the street on any given night. And while the city is pouring increasing amounts of money into relief programs, the Bay Area remains locked in a perpetual battle to merely manage homelessness while making little progress toward actually solving it.

Homeward Bound, San Francisco’s homeless relocation program, reflects and perpetuates this trend. The program is designed to provide one-way bus tickets to homeless people with families in other cities and states. The theory is that “reunit[ing] people experiencing homelessness…with family and friends willing and able to offer ongoing support [can] end the cycle of homelessness.”

Like other busing programs across the country, Homeward Bound’s impact is as inconclusive as it is controversial. While the program purportedly lifted 800 people out of poverty between 2016 and 2017 (though this in itself is disputed), on a more fundamental level it dehumanizes the indigent by treating homelessness as a spatial problem rather than a social one. The enactment of policies that free up the literal space occupied by the homeless effectively reaffirms their marginal position in society while creating a deliberate illusion: homelessness appears to vanish; but in reality, it only travels elsewhere.

For the cities that implement busing policies, however, the rationale is clear, if not well-intentioned: save money and decrease homeless populations by reconnecting them with supportive family members. As far as social value equations go, this seems to be a winning one. The city is able to reallocate the unspent money on the homeless toward other valuable causes while playing a central role in improving the quality-of-life for bus ticket recipients. Put strictly in financial terms, a chronically homeless individual costs the city $80,000 each year. A single Greyhound ticket, on the other hand, costs $100 or $200. Busing programs thus appear to be an economical and efficient way to tackle homelessness.

"The conscious attempt by the city to make its homeless population disappear amounts to an abdication of its responsibility towards the individuals that have been cast off by structural social forces. Where the market rejects the homeless, the city should fulfill its responsibility to promote the common good by making space and room for the homeless as individuals that deserve to be seen and heard."

But the problem of homelessness extends far beyond city budgets. For a city like San Francisco, the busing imperative takes shape even more clearly when confronted with the sheer size of the city’s homeless population. A study from the Guardian found that in the absence of Homeward Bound, San Francisco’s homeless population would more than double. This means that San Francisco would hypothetically be home to 18,000 homeless people without the program. Faced with the overwhelming need to simply manage this inordinate amount of people, Homeward Bound seems to strike the perfect balance between reducing indigent populations and connecting individuals with the support network needed to lift themselves out of poverty: “It’s a way for people to reconnect with their family support systems and start over,” says Alonso Vivas, an executive director involved in the program’s implementation.

In practice, however, programs like Homeward Bound reinforce a particular state, and public conceptualization, of the homeless. Often perceived as a self-interested scheme to cheaply and effectively reduce indigent populations, “Greyhound therapy,” as it is sometimes known, merely shuffles the homeless from one place to another without actually addressing the issue of homelessness. In fact, the Guardian’s study found that 88% of bus ticket recipients moved to cities of lower median incomes, perpetuating circumstances in which the relocated homeless live amongst “neighborhoods with broken or absent support systems, enervated public schools, and little or no economic prospects to lift themselves up beyond their circumstances.” This statistic demonstrates that the provision of a bus ticket is not a solution to homelessness, especially when it is not coupled with efforts to address the educational, economic, and social agents that trap disadvantaged segments of the population. Perhaps even more tellingly, homeless relocation programs can add a deceptive element to the equation of “solving” homelessness. According to the same Guardian study, San Francisco reported that it had lifted 7,000 people out of homelessness between 2013 and 2016. In reality, nearly half of these people were merely furnished with a one-way ticket out of the city.

Homeward Bound is an overt attempt to push away what is clearly a deep and complex structural problem. Rather than face the root causes of poverty head on, busing policies conveniently place homelessness just outside the city’s consciousness. Indeed, the president and CEO of The Partnership for Homelessness in New York says that busing programs amount to just that: “Moving [the homeless]… to other struggling neighborhoods is just another way of neglecting the root issues that continue to drive the problem.” Even more fundamentally, the concept of relocating homeless populations outside the city’s sphere of jurisdictional responsibility allows that city to effectively wash its hands of the issue. The indigent become a problem to be rid of, rather than human beings to be helped.

Thus, programs like Homeward Bound are tantamount to a “not in my backyard” response to homelessness, the goal for cities being to summarily rid themselves of unmanageable indigent populations. To many homeless San Franciscans, the message of the Homeward Bound is clear. As one resident characterizes it, the program is a polite but overt equivalent to saying, “get your ass out of here.” Though crudely put, this statement captures something vital about the fundamental injustice embedded in busing systems. Everyone takes up “space” in society. The privileged occupy a vast majority of that space, but the homeless also have a place––even if it’s merely the sidewalk upon which they stand. By “shipping” the problem of homelessness elsewhere, Homeward Bound denies the homeless even that small amount of space. Busing programs ultimately reaffirm the “unwantedness” of these homeless populations, seeking to make homelessness –– and, more fundamentally, the individuals that comprise the homeless population –– invisible.

This conscious attempt by the city to make its homeless population disappear amounts to an abdication of its responsibility towards the individuals that have been cast off by structural social forces. Where the market rejects the homeless, the city should fulfill its responsibility to promote the common good by making space and room for the homeless as individuals that deserve to be seen and heard. Busing programs are only a small piece in the very complex puzzle of homelessness, and therefore must be weighed within the context of poverty as a whole. But it seems fundamental that the individual, and the literal space that he or she occupies in society, be considered as a key part of the equation when formulating policies involving the homeless. Then, and only then, can we identify the kinds of transformative interventions that will allow us to engage in solving poverty rather than merely managing it.

Photo: “Homeless people sleeping in front of the City Hall”

About the Author

Emily Skahill '21 is a Senior Staff Writer for the US Section of the Brown Political Review. Emily can be reached at emily_skahill@brown.edu

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