Strapped for housing, San Francisco weighs creative responses to homelessness

Apr 7, 2015

There are at least 7,000 homeless people in San Francisco each night, and only enough shelter space to house a small fraction of them. This is one of the reasons San Francisco recently held the first Town Hall to End Homelessness in which city officials and community leaders renewed their commitment to do just that.

But if you’re going to talk ways to end homelessness in San Francisco, why not start by talking to the people with the most experience?

Gary Parkinson says he knows too much about being homeless, as he speed walks down Larkin Street with a big black garbage bag over his shoulder and a full cup of coffee. He’s really tall, middle-aged, and wearing a baseball cap and leather jacket.

Civic Center has a large and visible homeless population. Today is Project Homeless Connect, a day when people get access to a variety of free services. It draws a crowd from all over the city, and Parkinson feels drawn to discuss his situation.

He relates homelessness to “Groundhog Day” syndrome. By that he means that every day he relives the same challenges and setbacks, like being robbed and frequent hospital visits.

Parkinson sleeps by the waterfront at night and walks the city by day trying to sell things he collects in his big black garbage bag. Unpacking the bag on the sidewalk, he displays an array of found items like a puppet and a bicycle pump.

He needs the money for a driver’s license. He says imagine trying to get housing, or do anything, without an ID.

“It's really just a very frustrating thing,” Parkinson says. “I'm close and yet I keep going back to zero.”

Parkinson thinks about the homeless condition a lot, even though he can’t necessarily see his way out of it. But he stays on top of current events, and talks about a newspaper article he saw that morning.

“It was about this guy who was a CEO of a company and he was down on the homeless all bad, and then now he wants to be a hero for the homeless, he wants to do something for them,” Parkinson says.

The guy he’s referring to is Greg Gopman, and the “Town Hall to End Homelessness” later that day was his idea.

The point of the town hall is to join the community together to envision ways to help people like Parkinson. But Gopman’s connection to this issue is from a totally different vantage point. Think tech CEO.

“I had a very privileged upbringing,” Gopman says. “It was part of my upbringing to care about people, it wasn’t to literally think about every single person on this earth.”

Gopman became Internet infamous about a year ago when he ranted about homeless people on Facebook and it went viral. He lost his credibility, and this town hall is part of his effort to get it back.

Those efforts have been met with quite a bit of skepticism. But ultimately he found a partner with Project Homeless Connect, which held the earlier event at Civic Center.

Kara Zordel is executive director of Project Homeless Connect. She addressed the audience of about 500 people, a lower turnout than was expected. Zordel introduced five creative responses to homelessness in different cities that speakers from the projects would elaborate on.

Some were new and some were experimental, including a pilot program in San Francisco to get people housed in 10 days or less.

The Homeless Aid Navigation Center is designed to appeal to people who don’t want to go into shelters because it would mean leaving their partners, pets, and belongings.

“This is a really great idea because it says 'you and your friends, your whole little community, we can keep you together,'” Zordel says.

But the project that perhaps created the most buzz came from Seattle. It’s called Camp Unity, a permitted homeless tent encampment with supportive services. A resident, Arondo Washington Cox, came to discuss it.

Cox doesn’t just live in Camp Unity, he helps run it. He’s an Air Force veteran who became homeless after being honorably discharged.

“I live in the same tent as everybody else,” Cox says. “I don't get paid, my job is I deal with 51 different personalities every day and it's my job to determine what's what and to make sure everything is running smoothly in camp.”

While the Town Hall to End Homelessness didn’t end homelessness, it advanced the conversation. Zordel points out that San Francisco actually doesn’t have a much bigger homeless population than other major cities. It just may seem bigger so because in San Francisco homeless people aren’t as hidden.

“We have more permanent supportive housing per capita than any other city,” Zordel says. “I think there are a lot of things we can do better, for us to be able to solve it, we have to start with where things are really at.”

Where things are really at seems clear back at Civic Center Plaza with Gary Parkinson.

When asked what why he’s still homeless, Parkinson says he continually asks himself that question.

“You're not able to do anything that has to do with success or productivity, or eventual end result getting your life back because of a fear,” he says. “A fear that if you get your life back it won't be a good enough life that's left for you to live.”

And when asked what it would take for him to get off the streets, Parkinson doesn’t know the answer. But he says he knows why other people should care about housing the homeless, citing reports that it’s less costly to the public.

Numbers from studies across the country bear that out. Housing the homeless is less expensive than giving them perpetual emergency services. And how to do it is sparking experimental approaches in San Francisco and beyond.