A friend of mine, whom I greatly respect, posted this video about an organization providing showers to the homeless in San Francisco, with a comment about how this is a yet another reason to love the city:
For 24 hours, I’ve had trouble thinking about how to respond. I don’t like starting arguments or debates on Facebook, but this post has really gotten under my skin, in a bad way. Of course, providing showers to the homeless is a great idea, and should be admired and copied in other cities. And as my friend’s post pointed out, the video does a good job of showing the face of homelessness in the city.
However, to hold this up as an example of how great San Francisco is strikes me as missing the point. This is a classic example, in my opinion, of celebrating a band-aid solution while ignoring the root causes of the problem. Homelessness and inequality in rapidly growing cities is a complex issue, one that has much more to do with housing policy and NIMBY-ism (citizens arguing against development in their backyard) than it does with the available of services such as showers that are available to those that are already homeless. San Francisco, unfortunately, is a the ultimate example of a city that has completely failed to develop inclusively – for a great history of this, check out this blog post on How San Francisco’s Progressives Betrayed the City they Love. Inclusive development is driven by the city’s wealthy, who need to recognize how their (usually) well-intentioned arguments in favor of historic preservation, higher housing pricing, and maintenance of a city’s character impact the ability of the city to build enough housing supply to keep up with demand.
I’m guilty of this. I purchased a home in Washington, D.C. and I definitely want the value to go up. I paid more for a roof deck, and I absolutely do not want that view taken away by a new building. However, I try to at least be aware of how this conflicts with my desire to live in a diverse neighborhood. For another great blog post on this struggle, read this on Philadelphia’s gentrification.
Inclusive development that includes a variety of ages, races, incomes, and cultures takes continued, intentional action from both citizens and local governments, as is being modeled in Seattle, a city actively trying to learn from the lessons of San Francisco’s unequal development.
So, in sum, showers for the homeless are great. Even better: attending community meetings on development, accepting change, recognizing how your own choices impact the place you live, and recognizing that systematic change comes through changes in institutions,policies, and attitudes.