When voters were asked to consider Proposition Q, it was billed as a “housing not tents” initiative. Now that it’s passed, the city and Department of Public Works are given license beginning in January to remove tents from public sidewalks with a minimum of 24-hours’ notice, offering one night’s shelter space in exchange.
But what will happen when there aren’t enough shelter beds to house San Francisco’s homeless population?
Christian Calinski, founder and director of Taking It To The Streets San Francisco, pointed out that the city has a current shelter capacity of approximately 600, with more than 6,000 homeless people who need assistance. Calinski said that the counts are underestimated by what he thinks is close to 1500 people.
“Front line workers do the count and they don’t document families living in single room occupancy units,” Calinski said. “They don’t document people who are living in their cars or recreational vehicles…and the Latino population is barely counted.”
Rey Lopez represents that portion of undocumented homeless in the city. For the past year, the 25-year-old SF State student has lived in his car and on couches when a friend makes one available. The car has doubled as his home and his source of income as a Lyft driver.
“I actually did have housing. I had a scholarship, a Cal Grant and that stuff and it all added up to enough to get a place,” Lopez said. “But then I couldn’t afford it and so I eventually cut my contract with my landlord and ended up in my car.”
Lopez is all too familiar with homelessness, as this is the third time in his life that he’s survived without a permanent residence beginning when he and his family hotel hopped when he was 13 years old.
Although his friends often help out with a safe place to sleep and a shower when they can, there are still times when Lopez is left without a roof over his head. However, the Asian-American studies major has yet to spend a night in a shelter or reach out to resources here on campus.
“The resources they’re offering are resources that I don’t feel like I need or I’d feel comfortable with, like last resort sort of options like shelters and programs,” Lopez said. As a self-identified “free-spirited kind of person,” Lopez believes the curfews and guidelines at the shelters would burden his spontaneity.
For others, the options are the shelters or the streets. Calinski agrees that the shelter curfews pose a problem for many people just based on an ability to get there on time with limited transportation and resources.
Calinski acknowledges that many people have an illusion of safety in their tents where they keep what’s most important to them, but that safety is threatened with the increased encampment sweeps that will come with Proposition Q-related activities next month.
“You walk away from it for a second and the city takes everything you own,” Calinski said.
He often accompanies homeless youth to help them jump through the loopholes of retrieving their belongings or establishing general assistance.
“Making it more difficult by taking away their belongings and place to stay dry, a place to feel a little bit safer than you would outside – I think it’s horrible and dehumanizing,” Calinski said.
Instead, his organization focuses on finding spots in SROs for homeless youth in the Haight Street area in exchange for street cleaning and graffiti abatement work. Calinski has rented one entire and one partial SRO building to help house the 61 people currently in the program and he has helped 100 people get off the streets since October of 2014. His program also connects people with much-needed services such as clothing, toiletries, therapy and help obtaining IDs and birth certificates – all things needed when somebody is attempting to reestablish themselves after being homeless.
Calinski was driven to help others after he himself changed his life. As a former heroin addict, he spent years living on and off the street from the ages of 12 to 34. His moment of clarity came in a jail cell when he realized how comfortable he was in that situation. That was his wake up call and he has dedicated himself to helping homeless youth find theirs as well.
According to Calinski, the reasons for homelessness are varied and can’t be solved with any one solution. The work that nonprofits like his do will be more important than ever when Prop Q takes effect.