- Jennifer Friedenbachexecutive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, based in San Francisco.
- Paul Bodenexecutive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, or WRAP, a homeless advocacy group. He was formerly homeless himself.
President Trump is continuing an all-out attack on San Francisco’s homeless population and political leaders. On Wednesday, the Trump administration filed an environmental notice of violation against San Francisco, falsely claiming that the city’s homelessness crisis has caused water pollution. City officials have repeatedly rejected Trump’s unfounded claims that homelessness is connected to water quality. California is home to 12% of the country’s population but half of the country’s unsheltered homeless people. President Trump has been pushing for a crackdown on the crisis for weeks and threatened to destroy homeless encampments, increase police enforcement and even jail homeless people. For more on the issues surrounding the affordable housing crisis and homelessness, we speak with Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, and Paul Boden, executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting today from San Francisco, where President Trump is continuing an all-out attack on the city’s homeless population and political leaders. On Wednesday, the Trump administration filed an environmental notice of violation against San Francisco, falsely claiming the city’s homelessness crisis has caused water pollution. This is Trump announcing the move in a tirade against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose home district is San Francisco.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: She should focus on her own district. Do you see what’s happening to her district? We call it tent city. It’s terrible. In fact, we just sent a violation to the city of San Francisco — unsafe water, unsafe conditions. Environmental EPA, our EPA, which is doing a great job, is sending Nancy Pelosi, with all the talk about EPA — there’s needles and drugs all over the street. There’s tents. There’s people that are dying in squalor, in the best location, in San Francisco. It used to be a great city. Now you have to see what’s happened to San Francisco. You happen to see what — what’s — what the Democrats have allowed to happen.
AMY GOODMAN: City officials have repeatedly rejected Trump’s unfounded claims that homelessness is connected to water quality. The EPA’s action comes a week after Environmental Protection Agency chief Andrew Wheeler said in a letter to California Governor Gavin Newsom that California is failing to enforce the Clean Water Act. Wheeler also has threatened to pull billions of dollars in federal highway funding to California, accusing it of having the worst air quality in the United States. A spokesperson for Governor Newsom has called Trump’s moves “political retribution against California, plain and simple.”
California is home to 12% of the country’s population but half of the country’s unsheltered homeless people. President Trump has been pushing for a crackdown on the crisis for weeks. The Washington Post reported last month Trump ordered the White House officials to launch this effort and that his administration is considering actions like destroying homeless encampments. California Congressman Ro Khanna told The Washington Post, “Yet again this is bravado for Trump’s base with no interest in the actual policy experts’ recommendations to solve an issue,” Khanna said.
For more, we’re joined here in San Francisco by two guests. Jennifer Friedenbach is the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness. And Paul Boden is the executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, or WRAP, a homeless advocacy group. He was formerly homeless himself.
Jennifer Friedenbach, let’s begin with you. The attack by President Trump specifically on California, on San Francisco, saying that homeless people are responsible for water pollution, can you respond overall?
JENNIFER FRIEDENBACH: Yeah. I mean, it’s ridiculous on a few fronts. First of all, of course, San Francisco filters its water; there’s no link to water pollution.
But more importantly is that Trump himself is in a position where he could truly address this crisis. We have a situation where we have, you know, in San Francisco about 21,000 people experiencing homelessness every year. And that can be traced right back to his feet. He has been engaged in massive cuts in HUD. He has also done inaction in restoring the HUD budget, which is where the roots of this crisis begin, when the HUD budget had been cut so dramatically, starting in the late '70s and through the early ’80s, and has continued since, just this divestment from ensuring that people in the U.S. have a safe and decent place to call home. So, it's really ironic that he’s complaining about it and then causing the problem and doing nothing to solve it.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I’d like to turn to HUD Secretary — that’s Housing and Urban Development Secretary — Ben Carson discussing California’s housing crisis on Fox News last month.
HUD SECRETARY BEN CARSON: A lot of these people have mental health issues. A lot of them have drug addiction. Some of them simply have fallen on hard times and don’t know how to deal with it. But as a compassionate society, it is something that we have to do something about. We can’t just talk about it. Should it be the responsibility of the federal government? No. These are local problems, and the things that work best are when the local authorities take appropriate attention to these problems, and then the federal government can help them. The state government can help them.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s HUD Secretary Dr. Ben Carson. Paul Boden, if you could respond?
PAUL BODEN: Yeah. It’s just — it’s so profoundly ridiculous that this is the person that’s running HUD. When you look at the 1937 Housing Act that created HUD, it said very clearly in that legislation that it was the federal government’s responsibility to ensure that people have a clean, safe, adequate place to live. In 1998, they amended that to say the federal government cannot be held accountable to do that, during the welfare reform of the Newt Gingrich, and signed by Clinton. But the reason HUD was created — and this is the individual charged with administering that federal department — is to ensure housing is available to poor people throughout the United States.
And this isn’t a California or a San Francisco issue. California may have a larger number of people according to HUD’s point-in-time head count, but that’s because they go out on January 25th every other year and do a head count, and that’s how they come up with the number of homeless people in the United States. That’s ridiculous, and of course warm weather climates are going to have a higher number. We don’t know what the number of homeless people is with any specificity, because it’s something that poor people go in and out of all the time.
This is a federal responsibility to ensure that people in the United States have a decent place to live that they can afford. And we now spend $54 billion a year, in 2004 constant dollars, less on affordable housing than we did before the homeless crisis kicked in in the early 1980s. Restore that funding, look at the cause and effect of eliminating that funding, and you’ll see the numbers of homeless people go way down, because we all know nothing ends homelessness like a home.
AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to turn to San Francisco Mayor London Breed talking about the causes of homelessness in San Francisco. She was interviewed on PBS last month.
MAYOR LONDON BREED: Housing affordability is at the core of what I know is a challenge for even middle-income families struggling to live in San Francisco. Between 2010 and 2015 in the city, we concentrated on jobs, jobs, jobs. We have a 2.6% unemployment rate. But during that same time, for every eight jobs we created, we created one unit of housing. And then it was like a battle between people who were moving here, people who have lived here; folks were being pushed out of communities that they were born and raised in, like my friends and family, and including the public housing I grew up in. It was 300 units. It was torn down, and only 200 units were built. So there were a lot of mistakes that were made around housing and housing production and around affordable housing in particular, because if we don’t have the places for people to live, that they can afford to live in, that’s a big part of why we see even more people living in their vehicles.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s San Francisco mayor — the mayor of San Francisco, London Breed. She grew up in public housing. Paul Boden, you also were homeless for a time. Can you talk about how you were able to — well, you say nothing solves homelessness like a home. Talk about what happened with you and how you ended up not being homeless.
PAUL BODEN: I mean, my circumstance of ending up homeless was rather different than what we see in the streets today, or even than what we saw in the early 1980s. Mine wasn’t a HUD-related issue. It was something that I think we’ve experienced for years. It’s just there were so many fewer of us. My mom died, and my father didn’t want us there, so we ended up bouncing around on the streets.
I got very fortunate in that I ended up at Hospitality House in the Tenderloin, a community organization that way predates the advent of contemporary homelessness. And I became part of a fabric of a community in addressing the fact that so many of our neighbors and our community members were finding themselves with nowhere to live. And I actually was able to use the experience that I was going through and how I was — you know, get over feeling sorry for oneself by helping out other community members that are even in a worse place than you’re in.
And that’s how we should be managing this issue. This homelessness should not be a career choice for people, and poverty shouldn’t be a career choice for people. We should be looking at how to systemically address the massive economic inequalities that we see, the commodification of healthcare, the commodification of housing, education. We’re commodifying our public parks and our public streets through business improvement districts that are now running whole neighborhoods.
So, we need to understand that neoliberalism is killing our country. And we need to really understand that there is a massive human rights organizing campaign, you know, like with the Poor People’s Campaign. Like, we have to connect these issues and understand that it’s not a San Francisco issue. Like, homelessness exists. There’s 62,000 shelter beds in New York City. There’s over 50,000 in Chicago, over 40,000 in L.A. This is a serious problem that’s been around since Reagan cut the affordable housing budget in the early 1980s, and we’re all living Reagan’s wet dream of neoliberalism in America. He called it the Reagan revolution.
London Breed talked about the units being torn down and replaced with fewer units. She didn’t mention that the new units are all mixed-income units, so only a third of the people that were living in the public housing buildings, that Clinton, under HOPE VI, tore down, were ever able to get back into those units. And family homelessness went sky high when that program was implemented in the 1990s.
AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Friedenbach, can you talk about the connection between gentrification and homelessness, I mean, San Francisco, the enormous disparity in wealth, the tech-com boom here, the tech companies that have just changed the landscape of this city?
JENNIFER FRIEDENBACH: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we had an existing homeless crisis that was dramatically worsened. We have a situation where today it’s so hard to get off the streets, because those informal housing arrangements or being able to move into a residential hotel, share a room, all these — even living in a garage, I mean, all of these options have basically disappeared. The real estate speculation here is out of control, and we have thousands of folks who lose their housing in San Francisco and end up homeless. And for many of them, they’re stuck homeless, because there’s really not a way out.
And, you know, that’s a big reason why we saw a 30% increase in homelessness with this last homeless count, was because of this. And the estimates are between about — you know, while we have some housing for homeless folks in San Francisco, there’s — you know, for every one housing unit, we have about two or three people who are stuck homeless. And we have a couple more people for each unit that are becoming homeless every year.
So, this is a huge issue. And, you know, who we’re talking about primarily is who gets preyed on, and you look at the eviction data and see it. It’s seniors. It’s people with disabilities. The poor communities where people of color lived have been particularly targeted. We have rent control in San Francisco, but we don’t have vacancy control. So what that means is that if a landlord gets the household out, they could jack up the rent as much as they like. So there’s this huge incentive among real estate speculators to push tenants out, and then, that way, they can rent the unit or sell off the unit at much higher income. So, it’s a massive problem, and that’s why we’re seeing up and down the West Coast such a dramatic rise in homelessness.
AMY GOODMAN: Certain neighborhoods in San Francisco have begun to place boulders, big gigantic rocks, on sidewalks to keep people from setting up tents on the sidewalks. Is that true, Jennifer?
JENNIFER FRIEDENBACH: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s pretty emblematic of the lack of any kind of action on this issue. We’re not going to solve this issue. And, you know, it’s tough for the neighbors, of course, to have homelessness out there, but it’s so much worse for the folks who are homeless. I mean, we’re talking about losing decades off your life through this experience. We’re talking about really just massive misery. And the city’s primary response is a police response, like cities across the country, to move folks from place to place. In this particular situation, this encampment had been moved around, basically in a circle, instead of, you know, solutions coming forward to get folks off the streets and into housing.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk —
JENNIFER FRIEDENBACH: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about those solutions. For example, what do you think of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ housing plan?
JENNIFER FRIEDENBACH: I’ve looked at that really closely, and it’s exactly the kind of thing that we need to be talking about. I think it’s kind of troubling that it took Trump to bring it up, though, for this to become infused in the presidential debate. I mean, Bernie has had this in his platform for a while, but I’m really hopeful that the other Democratic candidates will look at this, as well.
Because what’s going on here? I mean, we have millions of people who can’t afford housing on minimum wage jobs. We have folks with disabilities and elders that are out on our streets. We have families with children. I mean, in San Francisco alone, we have 3,000 children that experience homelessness every year. We have pregnant women who are ending up in preterm labor, mostly African-American. This is affecting two more generations to come. And so it’s really time to get serious. One of our members just the other day lost her — she was pregnant and lost her baby. And, you know, this is really a very dramatic situation. It’s a huge human rights issue that this country is facing.
The things about Bernie’s platforms that are really positive is he is looking at investing in public housing and improving the conditions and expanding public housing. He’s also got in there the creation of new social housing, which is kind of a type of public housing where you have child care and a kind of democratic self-governance that’s in place. That’s a really beautiful concept used in Europe and different places.
But, you know, we need to make sure that poor people in this country have a safe and decent place to call home, just as a basic, because there’s this massive disparity everywhere in the country, not just on the West Coast. Every city in the country has the same problem. There’s no place where you can really afford rent on a minimum wage job. You’re overpaying, or you don’t have enough to cover it. And so, we really would like to see this be taken a lot more seriously in this presidential —
AMY GOODMAN: According to The New York Times, the median home price in San Francisco is $1.3 million. Paul, a headline in the San Francisco Chronicle at the end of July, “Alameda County agrees to lease former jail to Oakland for homeless shelter.” As we begin to wrap up, if you can say what, at this point, you feel needs to be done?
PAUL BODEN: I think that the VA needs to get back into providing housing for veterans. I think the United States Department of Agriculture needs to reinvigorate and refund its housing program. They used to build over 30,000 units a year of affordable housing in rural communities. Those programs are completely and totally gone. I think that HUD needs to replace the $54 billion a year — and this is every year over now 35 years.
Homelessness is not new. These boulders are not new. The state of California puts out boulders all the time. The city of Portland, Oregon, puts out boulders to keep people from camping there. These neighbors didn’t just make this up; they’re emulating what it is that they see their local and state governments doing.
The federal government, all the candidates for Democrat — or for Republican — should be looking at the role of HUD in ensuring that people have a decent place to live, because housing that isn’t a commodity, that is for people, is a worthwhile housing program, just like the homeowner housing subsidy program through the IRS, which is over $140 billion a year. If we can afford $140 billion a year in housing subsidies for homeowners, we sure as hell can do better than $34 billion a year in housing subsidies for poor people.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. And, of course, we’re going to continue to follow this issue, not only in San Francisco and Los Angeles, but around the country. I want to thank Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, based here in San Francisco, and Paul Boden, executive director of WRAP — that’s the Western Regional Advocacy Project, a homeless advocacy group.
When we come back, the Trump administration recently revoked California’s authority to set stricter auto emissions standards, but the state is fighting back. Stay with us.