San Francisco Spent Millions On Super Bowl Stadium, Builds 500 Housing Units For Homeless Displaced By Festivities

National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell at the opening of the new San Francisco 49ers stadium in 2014 CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ERIC RISBERG
National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell at the opening of the new San Francisco 49ers stadium in 2014 CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ERIC RISBERG

When it hosts the National Football League’s championship game in February, San Francisco will invite locals and tourists alike to congregate, dine, and play games at a pop-up complex called Super Bowl City.

Homeless people need not RSVP, though. They’ll be cleared from the site before the NFL hordes arrive, Mayor Ed Lee (D) said Monday.

Lee hopes to peaceably and productively remove the people who make Justin Herman Plaza their home. “We’ll give you an alternative. We are always going to be supportive. But you are going to have to leave the streets,” Lee told a local CBS affiliate. The mayor hopes to have built 500 new apartments targeted to the homeless by the time Super Bowl City starts to go up and aid workers, public health officials, and police drive homeless people out of the plaza. “I have to have an alternative; otherwise we are just moving them from one area to another,” he told the station.

Adding 500 new units of supportive housing for the homeless would be a significant improvement in San Francisco’s offerings to the homeless. But the enormity of the city’s homeless population casts doubt on the idea that even several hundred new, free homes would be sufficient to prevent the Super Bowl festivities from displacing indigents.

There were 7,539 homeless individuals in San Francisco as of late January — more than 6,800 of them sleeping outdoors — during the most recent annual “point in time” census of the city’s homeless. As San Francisco’s economy has boomed thanks to the tech industry, the contrast between immense wealth and absolute destitution in both the city proper and nearby Silicon Valley has grown profound and inescapable.

The actual game will be played almost an hour away in Santa Clara, in a stadium built with significant taxpayer assistance. The public is on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars in lending that financed the construction of the building. Other cities that have used their own credit to subsidize construction on behalf of sports leagues with billions of dollars in annual revenue have gotten into dire financial straits when those loan payments ballooned and revenue projections for the stadiums turned out to be too optimistic.

The money taxpayers spend on stadiums would likely be more than enough to fund the kind of ambitious-but-relatively-cheap homelessness mitigation efforts that are proven to both reduce existing homelessness and protect low-income families from ending up on the streets. Such Housing First programs have helped eradicate homelessness in some of the nation’s largest cities, and studies indicate that the approach saves cities gobs of cash compared with relying on the police and hospital systems to deal with homeless people.

The Super Bowl puts football and poverty on a collision course almost every year. Previous host cities have taken a variety of approaches toward the problem Lee is hoping to solve with a mix of housing construction and simple relocation. Dallas tried to crack down on panhandling ahead of Super Bowl XLV, banning begging in certain tourist districts and promising to levy $500 fines for homeless violators. The Green Bay Packers won that game with the help of wide receiver James Jones, who grew up homeless and lived primarily in shelters for the first 14 years of his life.

Other cities’ efforts to keep the unsheltered out of sight in the weeks around the big game have been more subtle. In past years, both Detroit and Jacksonville have tried to draw homeless people away from the action by building and promoting temporary shelters. After drawing bad press in 2008 for using police to round up homeless people who were too close to the festivities and drop them a mile away, Glendale, Arizona took a hands-off approach in 2015. Initial reports suggested that the Indianapolis police were preparing to conduct aggressive sweeps to disperse the homeless ahead of the game in 2012, but the city instead spent weeks doing outreach to encourage people to seek shelter beds — and did not interfere with those who declined. New Orleans forcibly cleared a homeless encampment a mile from the Superdome in the weeks ahead of its own 2013 hosting duties.

Football’s big show brings a narrow yearly spotlight to the ongoing failure to address homelessness at its roots, but the disruptive and shortsighted reshuffling of America’s homeless through temporary shelters, jails, and hospital wards is an ongoing and national phenomenon. Local governments have long enjoyed a free hand to treat the daily activities of homeless people as crimes, or to break up and tear down informal camps. But the federal government is starting to discourage such laws and practices, which remain common among cities of all sizes and are enforced throughout the year.