Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
A ballot measure is no way to try to solve a problem as complicated as homelessness.
If #Brexit has taught the world anything, it’s that ballot measures may carry unintended consequences. For both the United Kingdom and the European Union, the fallout from the “Leave” vote appears to be profound. The Economist’s Intelligence Unit predicts that the June 23 referendum will reverse the U.K.’s economic recovery. With leadership uncertain and hard-right politics rising across the continent, the fate of the European Union is in question.
Voters in San Francisco face nothing so cataclysmic on the ballot this fall (save for the vote for the U.S. presidency). But one referendum that voters will decide will have enormous consequences for the city’s most vulnerable population: people experiencing homelessness. In its own way, the San Francisco referendum suffers from the same hastiness as the vote that led to the crisis that is now tearing apart the U.K.
The ballot measure, which is supported by San Francisco Supervisor Mark Farrell, would effectively ban homeless camps and tents from San Francisco streets. A “yes” vote on the referendum would enable the city to forcibly remove encampments 24 hours after providing notice and an offer of shelter. The measure is an answer to residents’ mounting frustration with encampments in the city and the hygiene problems that attend them.
Residents are right to be distressed. Many must be angry that the city isn’t doing more to help its most vulnerable residents, and refuse to accept homeless camps as an answer. Other voters may not care, of course; they may simply want to see the city remove public eyesores from the sidewalks, and in November, they’ll pull the lever for this measure to make it happen. Either way, voters will “get the chance to prove just how willing they are to see [encampments] forcibly cleared,” as The San Francisco Chronicle’s Emily Green puts it.
The ballot is a heinous way to decide the fate of San Francisco’s nearly 7,000 homeless residents. A referendum enables the city’s most callous voters to indulge in indifference, but that’s not even the worst of it. A referendum asks many more voters to accept a short-term solution to homelessness by pushing them out of sight and out of mind, which helps to foreclose on the possibility of a viable long-term structural solution. This ballot measure, like almost any ballot measure, shifts the risk of unintended consequences off of San Francisco’s elected representatives and onto its residents—specifically, those experiencing homelessness.
Consider this ballot measure specifically. The measure would require the city to identify short-term shelter for a person before she can be evicted from an encampment. But there currently aren’t enough shelter beds for the homeless population of the city. (This is one reason why so many resort to sidewalk campsites, though not the only reason.) So the measure may be doomed to fail—or rather, it may be doomed to fail homeless residents.
Farrell, the measure’s sponsor, tells the Chronicle that the city is adding to its number of beds and shelters. But if the shelters don’t add up—if the law as enacted is unworkable, meaning that the city either cannot evict the homeless from encampments because it cannot shelter them, or that the city will evict the homeless without providing them adequate shelter—no one winds up paying the price for the measure’s shortcomings. Except for the homeless.
If a law were to be passed by the Board of Supervisors, on the other hand, it would work differently—even if the law is identical to an ordinance passed by ballot referendum. The difference is accountability. Voters can hold representatives responsible for their votes on laws, which gives representatives an incentive to make sure the law works. Voters are less likely to hold themselves responsible for a failed ballot measure. Even if they did, what would that look like? And what would it matter to the homeless?
Come November, San Francisco voters may in fact face a second ballot measure regarding homelessness, one supported by Supervisor Aaron Peskin. This measure would call for stricter requirements for how much notice the city must give a person before eviction and for how long the city must provide shelter afterward. While this ballot measure does more to provide for the safety and well-being of residents experiencing homelessness, it does so through shelters that, again, do not appear to exist.
Ballot measures disguise political downsides. Tackling the homelessness crisis in a meaningful way involves a lot of political downsides. In Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser introduced a plan to build a network of homeless shelters around the city, short-circuiting the typical neighborhood objections to specific shelters by planning one in every city ward. Residents and D.C. Council members have called for some changes and won some concessions, but the mayor has blunted neighborhood-level objections by asking for sacrifice and compassion from everyone.
A more detailed plan for San Francisco would no doubt prompt the same criticisms that Mayor Bowser’s plan has drawn in D.C. A less-detailed plan, on the other hand, may win more votes at the ballot—even if it won’t work for removing encampments in a respectful way. A ballot measure that bans tents without providing for the welfare of their occupants is a less-detailed plan.
One complaint that critics have about #Brexit is that its motivations were more political than policy oriented. Another is that it forged common cause between voters motivated by hate and voters working with a lack of information. Still another complaint is that it was enacted without a plan for what the country would do if it succeeded. Too often, ballot measures are instruments that politicians use to accomplish goals that run contrary to the interests of the people affected most by them. San Francisco deserves a better answer to a complex infrastructure policy question like homelessness than an up-or-down vote.