San Francisco

Mayor Breed's First Year: Feces, Needles Complaints Decline; Trash Gripes, Homelessness Rise

The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit spoke to San Francisco Mayor London Breed and reviewed thousands of city records to determine what her administration has accomplished, and what it has been unable to achieve over the past year

A figurative and literal mess awaited Mayor London Breed as she officially took the helm of San Francisco City Hall last July.

At the time, the city averaged more than 2,000 complaints per month over feces, car break-ins were at a record high with roughly 92 smash-and-grabs a day, and 568 homeless tents lined neighborhoods across town. 

The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit obtained and reviewed thousands of city records to determine what San Francisco’s 45th mayor has done to address the city’s most pressing issues, including homelessness and the level of filth strewn across the city's streets and sidewalks.  

Since July 2018, the number of homeless tents in San Francisco has declined from 568 to 380, according to the city's latest tally that was completed in April.

Homeless Population Rises as Homeless Tents Decline

Breed rounds out her first year as San Francisco mayor boasting a decline in homeless tents across the city. Her administration plans to make good on a campaign promise of eliminating “long-term homeless encampments” by the end of the month. 

While the number of homeless tents has declined 33% since Breed took office, the number of homeless in the city has increased to 8,011 people – a 17% increase from the city’s last tally two years ago.  When using San Francisco’s “expanded” definition of homelessness – which includes individuals in jail, hospitals, and residential treatment facilities – the spike is even more dramatic, a 30% increase that equates to a total homeless population of 9,784 people.

Since Breed took office, the city has added 216 shelter beds, bringing the total to 2,974. According to the administration, the city has helped more than 1,300 people exit homelessness since Breed was sworn in as mayor. For every homeless person housed, however, about three more people in San Francisco wind up homeless.

In a recent interview with the Investigative Unit, Breed discussed what she has accomplished during her first year in office, what she hasn’t, and what she now views as the biggest challenge facing San Francisco.

“My proudest accomplishment is helping almost 1,500 people exit homelessness into permanent housing, permanent supportive housing, reconnecting with their family members and other cities throughout the country,” Breed told the Investigative Unit.

"My proudest achievement is helping almost 1,500 people exit homelessness into permanent housing," said Mayor London Breed while reflecting about her first year in office (June 28, 2019).

‘The Biggest Challenge Our City Faces’

The mayor describes her actions as “progress,” saying she is “trying to address what we know is the biggest challenge our city faces and that is homelessness.”

As a candidate, Mayor Breed also promised to eliminate long-term clusters of tents within one year of taking office. According to the city’s last count, there are nine encampments of six or more tents across San Francisco. The city, however, said it is on track to eliminate those encampments by the end of the month.

“People don’t just disappear,” said Kelley Cutler, Human Rights Organizer for the Coalition on Homelessness. “It's like this sidewalk shuffle that keeps shuffling people around because they're not actually being given a real alternative.”

Cutler believes city officials focus too many of their resources on cleaning out tent encampments, rather than focusing on providing more housing to the homeless.

“As the cost of housing goes up, homelessness is going to go up. It just goes hand in hand,” Cutler said.  “We have a housing and a health crisis, and this city is often responding with law enforcement."

Kelley Cutler, Human Rights Organizer for the Coalition on Homelessness, says that as the cost of living goes up, so does homelessness (June 25, 2019).

‘They Took My Tent’

Since 2014, San Francisco police have issued 1,200 citations to people “lodging” on city sidewalks, according to data obtained by the Investigative Unit.

“They came up and they took my tent. My tent was about right here,” said Marquis Ausby, a homeless man who said police and public works officials swept through Willow Alley in San Francisco and removed tents, clothing, and bedding. 

Since Mayor Breed took office, the number of tents across San Francisco dropped from 568 to 380, reflecting a 33% decline, according to the latest city survey completed in April.

Marquis, 30, said losing his tent means he is left without any sort of protection and no place to go. He’s said he’s tried the shelter system, but the current waiting list has about a thousand people on it.You have to go through the process of going to a shelter signing up, waiting, coming back. It's a whole process." 

“My goal is to change that,” said Breed. "I mean since I've been in office, we've had almost 400 new shelter beds. I'm pledging to make sure that we have a thousand by 2020.”

City officials say the homelessness problem is growing faster than they can fix it, adding that while the city is able to help 50 people out of homelessness and into housing each week, another 150 people wind up homeless during the same time period.

While San Francisco’s homeless population is up 17% from two years ago, other Bay Area counties are experiencing larger increases: Santa Clara County, 31% increase; Alameda, 43%; Contra Costa, 43% increase.

Mayor Proposes $364 Million to Tackle Homeless Crisis

The mayor is proposing to spend more than $364 million next year on the city’s homeless crisis – that’s $80 million more than this year.   

Her plan includes expanding housing grants to help keep families from becoming homeless, adding more shelter nurses and social workers, and building another 820 permanent housing units for the homeless.

Another $4 million would go towards the city’s efforts to clear away homeless encampments. It remains unclear, however, just how many homeless get housed after being forced to give up their tents and ordered to move elsewhere. A recent report by the San Francisco Controller’s Office found “at present, there is no means to track … linkage to care.”

‘Things Have Gotten Worse’

“They're still homeless. Just because they don't have a tent doesn't mean the homeless people are gone,” said business owner Matthew Zimmerman. He and his fiancée Andrea Boomer run the Aspect Framing Studio and Art Gallery on Polk Street, but the view outside their studio isn’t so picture perfect. Heaps of trash, sleeping bags, and used syringes line the alley bordering his business.

“The last couple of years, things have gotten worse as far as the amount of people that are on the streets and the amount of open drug use is another thing that is pretty detrimental to the community,” said Zimmerman. 

He’s convinced conditions on the streets are hurting his studio’s bottom line. 

I actually just checked my revenue from last year to this year, and I'm down 25%,” he said.

Matthew Zimmerman blames the growing homeless population outside his San Francisco business for his 25 percent drop in sales. He and his fiancée, Andrea Boomer, run the Aspect Frame Studio and Art Gallery on Polk Street.

Breed Struggles to Open Nation’s First Supervised Injection Site

While campaigning, Breed said as mayor she’d work to have San Francisco open the nation’s first supervised injection site, where people can openly use drugs under the care of medical supervision. While controversial, the centers claim success abroad in European countries and Canada. The sites, which have been the subject of previous NBC Bay Area investigations, offer clean syringes, drug counseling, and have been shown to decrease the number of discarded drug needles along streets and sidewalks. 

When California lawmakers struggled to legalize the centers in San Francisco, Breed vowed to move ahead anyway, even though the sites would violate federal law.

The mayor, however, now concedes her plan to forge ahead isn’t a realistic one.

“If it were just me and, you know, I was only putting myself at risk, it would be one thing, but in looking into the weeds of safe injection sites, it does potentially put, unfortunately, nonprofit and city workers at risk of being imprisoned,” Breed told the Investigative Unit. “I want to make sure that when we do this, we do it responsibly and we don't create another unintended consequence as a result. We need the support from the state.”

Breed Proposes $3.4 Million Hike for Street Cleaning Budget

San Francisco’s dirty streets have also been a focus for the mayor. Last year, an NBC Bay Area investigation went viral after exposing an alarming amount of trash, feces, and used syringes scattered across parts of San Francisco.

The city now has a dedicated four-person team to clean feces five days a week. 

The city contracts a separate crew to pick up used syringes 12 hours each day. The San Francisco AIDS Foundation, which is paid $700,000 a year to run the program, began its work one month prior to Breed taking office and has collected 142,781 syringes since Breed was sworn in as mayor.

As part of the mayor's $12 billion budget proposal, Breed plans to add $3.4 million to the city’s street cleaning budget over the next two years.

San Francisco already spends more on street cleaning than many other larger cities, including Los Angeles and Chicago.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors reviews Mayor Breed's $12 billion budget, which includes $364 million to combat homelessness (June 20, 2019).

Trash, Needles, and Feces

“The fact is the number of calls [311] are down for needles, for feces, for trash pickup all over the city. If you look at the data … to me, that's progress,” Breed said.

Complaints over feces have declined 17% in the past six months compared to the mayor’s first six months in office. Complaints over needles declined, too, about 12.3%. Trash complaints, however, have increased nearly 3.9% over the same period, according to city records.

In comparing Breed’s first year in office to the year prior, complaints increased across all three of those categories: trash, up 13.1%; needles, up 10.2%; feces, up 30.7%.

In the past, the mayor has argued spikes in complaints over dirty streets does not mean San Francisco is any dirtier. Instead, Breed has said the city’s cleanup efforts have helped people become more aware on how to complain.

“There has been change,” Breed said. “Everyone has to feel responsible for cleaning up after themselves whether you're homeless or not.”


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