Homeless by the bay

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The Article

When San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom initiated a program in conjunction with Google last month to provide phone and messaging facilities to the homeless, it was the latest chapter in the city’s seemingly never ending quest to tackle homelessness. While the program may prove useful for those inclined to better their situation, it is unlikely to have an impact on the chronically homeless.

San Francisco has the highest per capita number of homeless in the nation, and city officials have quite a challenge on their hands. And to hear Mayor Gavin Newsom or Angela Alioto, his appointee to chair the Homeless Ten-Year Plan Council, tell it, they are making great strides. City officials seem determined to put on a happy face when it comes to combating homelessness. But it’s hard to believe any of them actually live here.

For the residents of San Francisco, the blight of homelessness has only gotten worse over the years, and today it has reached critical mass. One is hard pressed to walk around just about any neighborhood without having to run a gantlet of panhandlers, step over passed-out drunks or drug addicts, maneuver around the mentally ill or try to avoid the stench of urine and the human feces littering the sidewalk. These days, the streets of San Francisco resemble the streets of Calcutta.

Having lived in San Francisco since the early 1990s (with the exception of a year spent in the East Bay), I’ve witnessed my fair share of street scenes involving the homeless. I’ve seen the same apparently homeless people standing on the same street corners doing the same panhandling routines for over 10 years. Many of them have drug and alcohol problems, and a fair number, I suspect, are not in fact without shelter.

The latter includes those who inhabit the city’s residential hotels and rent-controlled apartments and can be seen regularly on certain street corners asking passers-by for spare change. I’ve spoken to several of them and discovered that they are actually able to make a living this way: professional panhandlers, as it were.

Some of them even incorporate acting into the equation. I once saw a Union Square denizen walk to his corner in perfectly normal fashion, and then suddenly adopt a limping gait and speech impediment. Another time, I actually saw a man get up out of his wheelchair and step aside so that someone else could take over his panhandling shift. I also witnessed the sad spectacle of a woman directing her two children to stand in front of her throughout the day while she solicited money on the street. The children, who would have been better off were their mother seeking a more long-term solution, were in effect props.

Then there were my own experiences trying to help the homeless. In my earlier, more naive days, I still believed giving a buck or two away to the various inhabitants of the city’s street corners was beneficial. But having witnessed the majority of them taking their earnings straight to the liquor store or the drug dealer on the next corner, I realized I was merely funding their respective habits.

I even tried to give away food on several occasions, only to be refused because it wasn’t to a homeless person’s particular liking. A restaurant I worked at years ago in Union Square threw its bread away at the end of each night and a coworker and I would try, often futilely, to give it away on the streets. “Is that more bread?” I was asked on several occasions, before being turned down. Another time, I coaxed a man into accepting an offering of banquet extras, assuring him it was barbecue this time. “OK,” he grudgingly conceded.

That was last time I gave food away on the streets.

Those who refuse assistance and insist on living on the streets in order to pursue their addictions used to be known by the politically incorrect term “bums” or, as my British aunt called them when she last visited, “tramps.” But these days using such terms may garner one censure from city officials, as a friend of mine discovered when she wrote to Supervisor Chris Daly about homelessness in her district. In the course of their e-mail exchange, she referred to “bums,” at which point Daly accused her of using “hate speech” and ordered her to “cease and desist.” Apparently, the only thing worse than bums on the streets of San Francisco is saying that there are bums on the streets in San Francisco.

A fair number of San Francisco’s homeless population inhabit Golden Gate Park, using it as a long term camp ground. The enforcement, or lack thereof, of laws against sleeping in city parks has been a source of ongoing contention. The fact that the weather in San Francisco is relatively mild doesn’t help. It’s gotten to the point where many city parks are devoid of benches or suitable areas for visitors to sit because they would all be filled with sleeping or passed-out homeless.

One of the worst spots, ironically, is the Civic Center Plaza Park located behind the gilded dome of City Hall itself. The lack of benches and the strategically placed spikes atop the roomy, street-level window sills of the nearby court house are a testament to the uninviting nature of the area.

San Francisco city officials are famous for ignoring the elephant in the room while taking measures to avoid its droppings. When the fountain in the nearby United Nations Plaza had to be fenced off temporarily in 2003 because the plaza’s permanent homeless encampment inhabitants were using it as both a shower and toilet, it was another example of the city’s unwillingness to address the true problem. All too often, cosmetic fixes are the order of the day.

Perhaps most worrisome among San Francisco’s chronically homeless population are the mentally ill — those who clearly cannot function normally and are a danger both to themselves and to those around them. On more occasions than I care to remember, I’ve seen them walking straight out into the middle of traffic, just barely avoiding death, as well as lurching onto buses or trains, mumbling to themselves incoherently, while passengers and drivers alike avert their eyes.

City residents mostly ignore the mentally ill homeless, as interactions can turn violent. A friend of mine was once punched in the stomach by a homeless woman she was unlucky enough to pass by while crossing the street.

Other cases have been much more dangerous. In 2002, a homeless man snatched a woman’s baby away from her and attempted to throw it over the railing above the Powell Street MUNI/BART station, but was stopped by several onlookers. In 2003, a nine-month pregnant woman was attacked inside her home in the normally placid Bernal Heights neighborhood by a deranged homeless man. She and her unborn baby survived, but it was a chilling reminder that uncertainty lurks around every corner. It was also indicative of the attitude of indifference that city residents have adopted to cope with the problem. As one of the woman’s neighbors put it at the time, “I just thought he was some loony, walking around with a pole. You hear crazy people talking all the time.” Indeed.

For a city that relies on tourism, the current state of affairs is quite perplexing. I often feel sorry for the confused tourists who take a wrong turn off Union Square only to find themselves in the sudden squalor of the Tenderloin or the Hell-on-earth intersection of Sixth and Market streets. Then there are those waiting in line in the theater district as homeless urinate on a wall nearby, or those or coming out of a concert at the Warfield Theatre only to find themselves face-to-face with the lunatic fringe wandering down from the Civic Center train station. Even with San Francisco’s advantaged locale and scenic beauty, tourists will eventually return home with tales of Third World squalor and their friends and relatives may reconsider visiting the city by the bay.

Despite this unavoidable reality, Newsom continues to tout the alleged success of his Care Not Cash program, a strategy designed to replace the city’s once-hefty monthly cash giveaways to the homeless with various social services. According to Alioto, the Homeless Ten-Year Plan Council is making progress in its goal of creating “3,000 units of new permanent supportive housing designed to accommodate the chronically homeless.”

Meanwhile, San Francisco’s homeless advocacy community is more focused on protecting the civil rights of the homeless (not to mention their own livelihoods) than those of everyday, working residents, while charitable organizations, although well-meaning, offer only a temporary fix.

From where I’m standing, none of them are providing real solutions.

San Francisco would do better to take a page from New York City, which under Mayor Rudy Giuliani successfully eliminated widespread homelessness. Giuliani took a tough-love approach, strictly enforcing laws against criminal behavior, pursuing arrest warrants and no longer allowing homeless to sleep on the streets. At the same time, he made use of the city’s already plentiful shelter system for those displaced in the process. No longer were violence and drug use tolerated in shelters. Also, state regulations making work and other welfare rules conditions of residence for the able-bodied were enforced. Giuliani addressed the disparate conditions among the homeless population, including the mentally ill and, above all, he promoted self-reliance.

Giuliani’s reforms were met with howls of protest from New York City’s homeless advocacy community and its defenders, including then senatorial candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton. But in the end, it was Giuliani’s approach, and not their enabling, that actually got people off the streets. It also led to improved conditions for all city residents and today the proof is in the pudding.

Where Giuliani succeeded, San Francisco continues to fail, and the city’s bleeding-heart politics may have something to do with that. Given that San Francisco has been governed by liberal Democrats for years, the problems of homelessness can hardly be laid at the feet of the typical local bogeyman, Republicans. But this hasn’t stopped some from trying to pin the blame elsewhere, and the late California Governor-turned-President Ronald Reagan is the usual target.

The common refrain about the plethora of mentally ill on the streets of San Francisco is that it was all Reagan’s fault for callously letting them all out of mental institutions in the 1970s. During Reagan’s tenure, the treatment of mental illness in California was, in fact, deinstitutionalized; based on the idea that asylums infringed upon patients’ civil rights and that community mental health clinics would offer a more humanitarian approach. But the patients’ rights movement, as it came to be known, actually originated in the 1960s under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and by the 1970s such policies were popular across the political board.

However, due to funding priorities, new restrictions on involuntary treatment, and the relegation of psychiatrists, as one later put it, “to the role of medication management,” the community-based clinics were not able to address serious mental illness. The end result was that a substantial number of those unable to fend for themselves were let loose in California to do just that.

Still, this hardly accounts for San Francisco’s entire mentally ill homeless population, particularly since statistics have shown that the city attracts its fair share of newcomers. It does, however, indicate that solutions to these sorts of societal problems must be based on facts, not fantasies.

Unfortunately, in San Francisco fantasy reigns supreme.

Cinnamon Stillwell
Latest posts by Cinnamon Stillwell (see all)

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