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In San Francisco's Mayoral Special Election, Homelessness Is A Big Issue


Californians go to the polls tomorrow to vote in that state's primaries. Voters in San Francisco will also be choosing a new mayor. And a big part of that election has been how to deal with the city's growing homelessness crisis. KQED's Scott Shafer reports.

SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: Before the sun comes up on a recent weekday morning, a crew from San Francisco's Public Works department is busy cleaning up one of the city's many homeless encampments.

GUILLERMO PEREZ: Excuse me. Good morning.

SHAFER: The workers are cleaning up around the campsite, offering city services and pressure washing the sidewalk. Crew leader Guillermo Perez has pretty much seen it all.

PEREZ: Sex trafficking, there's drug selling - you know, just all kinds of illegal things at these encampments - bike chop shops.

SHAFER: Over the past few decades, San Francisco has spent billions of dollars on its homeless problem - yes, billions with a B. And yet the issue has continued to fester. With the proliferation of tents and people with mental illness roaming the streets, residents of this famously tolerant city of St. Francis seem to finally have run out of patience. On a recent weekday morning, literally every voter I talked to - every single one - said the same thing when asked what was the top issue facing the city.

LINDA ZARETSKY: Homelessness - walking each day in this neighborhood and seeing everybody sleeping in doorways.

SHAFER: Linda Zaretsky has lived in San Francisco for about 30 years. She sees poverty as the fundamental problem and says she'd pay more taxes to address it.

ZARETSKY: It's just intolerable, painful and morally wrong.

SHAFER: Voter Paul Miller also feels compassion, but he's weary.

PAUL MILLER: No one should live in a city where they walk past people on the street that may or may not be shooting up or dead or needing help.

SHAFER: The three leading candidates, all Democrats, are all talking about homelessness, with some minor differences. Board of Supervisors President London Breed emphasizes cleaning up the streets, while Supervisor Jane Kim and former state Senator Mark Leno talk more about adding to the city's stock of housing and shelters along with expanded homeless services. It's gotten so bad that even the head of the agency charged with promoting the city's tourism industry decided enough was enough.

JOE D'ALESSANDRO: Many times, visitors come here for the first time, and they're going, oh, my God. You know, I travel around the world, and this situation on the streets is worse than some Third World countries.

SHAFER: Joe D'Alessandro is CEO of the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau. Standing in a cable car turnaround, D'Alessandro says he's pleased all the candidates are talking about the issue.

D'ALESSANDRO: We just want to make sure that there's some action and it's not just talk, that there's really steps being taken.

SHAFER: The city's interim mayor is Mark Farrell. He's filling the job after Mayor Ed Lee's unexpected death late last year. In recent weeks, Farrell has moved aggressively to clean up encampments, raising the bar for whatever the next mayor decides to do. The city's homeless services coordinator, Jeff Kositsky, says things are going in the right direction now. He just hopes the next mayor doesn't change course with a new set of priorities.

JEFF KOSITSKY: Because if we keep pivoting from shiny object to shiny object, and - or if we keep panicking, we're not going to get the job done.

SHAFER: Voters will decide Tuesday which mayoral candidate gets to tackle San Francisco's homeless problem next. For NPR News, I'm Scott Shafer in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Shafer
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