The rising rent, increase in gentrification and propositions on this fall’s San Francisco ballot have boosted the volume on the homelessness crisis discussion. Less audible are the conversations addressing concrete actions for the long-standing problem, but Communication Studies major and homeless rights activist, Shaun Osburn, has been taking the issue into his own hands for the 10 past months.
Almost $20,000 have been raised on his GoFundMe page, “Tents for San Francisco” — a project dedicated to replacing tents that police have seized from homeless residents in an effort to clean up the area. The project recently won Osburn the 2016 “Best In-Tent-ions” Best of the Bay award by 48Hills.org. Although Osburn is stunned at the overwhelming support so far, he is hopeful for more aid toward solutions, both short and long term.
Osburn has personal motivations for advocating for the cause. It was only a decade ago when he was recovering from homelessness and substance abuse himself.
“I went through a series of city-funded programs that have now either been drastically cut in their scope or don’t exist at all,” he said. “[I] started working, started paying rent again and my first full-time salary job since getting out of my unhoused situation ended up being at St. Anthony Foundation, which is San Francisco’s oldest and largest social services nonprofit. … I got to see the more logistical side of serving the population that I [was a part of].”
Ten years later, he has worked in communications jobs for nonprofits, earned multiple degrees and certificates from community college and is engaged to his partner. He has experience as a graphic designer and works for Academy of Art University as art director for its online content.
Come May, he will graduate, which he says is an accomplishment capping the 20 years he has been in and out of public colleges. “Tents for San Francisco” earned him work experience credit toward his degree, thanks to Professors Amy Kilgard and Frederick Isaacson, who heard Osburn’s pitch about this undertaking and encouraged him to pursue it.
“I’m thrilled that Shaun is connecting his important community activist work with his Communication Studies degree,” Kilgard says. “Social justice is an important tenet of our departmental and University mission. Seeing students like Shaun apply their communication acumen to important social issues is a light during a dark political time.”
Osburn started the “Tents for San Francisco” GoFundMe page in late January. Each tent houses two to four people and costs $30 – $40. With more than 400 tents and 566 donors to the cause so far, his efforts have been met with responses of both congratulation and resistance. The tents have been the sole safe haven for some. Osburn recalls a woman whose tent was seized and replaced three times. He was touched when he learned she was a talented artist, painting him a piece depicting a peaceful rendition of her tent in the San Francisco landscape as a thank you.
How bad is the situation for homeless people living in the most expensive city of the country? In Osburn’s extensive social work experience, he finds it worse than ever. Data from a 2015 count by the city show more than 6,600 people are homeless in San Francisco — the second largest in the United States, next to New York City.
In 2002, San Francisco implemented Care Not Cash, a policy that aimed to provide emergency shelter, counseling services and permanent housing search services in lieu of monetary general assistance — money that voters were afraid supported drug and alcohol addictions. The efforts included city-made deals with building owners to help the unhoused take a step forward. However, 14 years later, the solution has hit a snag; these Single Room Occupancy (SRO) housing contracts are expiring, and building owners are increasingly opting to make more money by moving recently unhoused people out of their units and Airbnbers in.
Displacement, inadequate mental health services, wealth disparity and hyper-gentrification of the area are to blame, Osburn says. As the Tenderloin becomes a district tourists are increasingly comfortable in, the purposes of its buildings shift from help to hotel. Furthermore, retired elderly receiving benefits who never thought to work again are being evicted but lack the means of care, resulting in no choice but living on the street. “We’re in the death throes of late-stage capitalism,” Osburn insists, “and homeless people are the unintended consequences of it.” Osburn’s GoFundMe page speaks to his dislike of local officials’ decision to push unhoused people out of living quarters without, what he says, are real, solid plans backed by policy or guaranteed funding promises.
What does the city and Osburn propose as solutions when trying to solve this homeless crisis? Osburn sees success in the city’s efforts to install navigation centers. The purpose of navigation centers is two-fold: shelter and one-stop shop for counseling and permanent housing services. For now, it is a pilot project. Osburn laughs when opposers on the internet suggest they have better solutions than his temporary ones.
“It’s funny because people will constantly give the dissenting opinion that having people sleep in tents is a Band-Aid solution, and I totally agree,” he says. “But sometimes you need to put a Band-Aid on something before you make it to the emergency room. And I think we’re on our way there now.”
Osburn is excited about potential change as four more centers are slated to open in the next year, but he knows social stigma might hinder the progress made toward real change as people attempt to exclude the centers from opening in their neighborhoods. Misconceptions about homeless people continually undermine aid efforts, a consistent one being that most of them are addicts lacking job ambitions.
“I’ve replaced tents for people who drive Google buses, ride share drivers, for chefs at restaurants,” he says.
Although a percentage of the homeless population abuses substances, Osburn wants to address it as an issue of mental health, rather than morality. He stresses that the homeless population is diverse when it comes to background and previous circumstance.
Most of all, Osburn wants society to stop alienating the homeless and start seeing the population as real people. He believes the perception of “otherness” in regard to the chronically homeless perpetuates a cycle of destruction and despair for the entire community. Empathy is key; he is grateful for those who showed it to him and helped him get back on his feet.
“If there was a list of those worthy of saving, I wouldn’t be on it,” he says. Now that he has the means, he plans on displaying empathy to those in the position he was in not so long ago. He appeals with compassion: “If people still have a pulse, they still have a chance.”