Monday, November 22, 2010

Homelessness in San Francisco

A model of what can be done right and what has been done terribly wrong, the City by the Bay has a twisted history of dealing with homelessness and the public disorder it has brought to the city streets.

That history is chronicled by Heather McDonald, the best writer on the issue in America, in City Journal.

An excerpt.

“The homelessness industry has pulled off some impressive feats of rebranding over the years—most notably, turning street vagrancy into a consequence of unaffordable housing, rather than of addiction and mental illness. But for sheer audacity, nothing tops the alchemy that homelessness advocates and their government sponsors are currently attempting in San Francisco. The sidewalks of the Haight-Ashbury district have been colonized by aggressive, migratory youths who travel up and down the West Coast panhandling for drug and booze money. Homelessness, Inc. is trying to portray these voluntary vagabonds as the latest victims of inadequate government housing programs, hoping to defeat an ordinance against sitting and lying on public sidewalks that the Haight community has generated.

“The outcome of the industry’s rebranding campaign—and of the Haight’s competing effort to restore order—will be known this November, when San Franciscans vote on the proposed sit-lie law. That vote will reveal whether San Francisco is ready to join the many other cities that view civilized public space as essential to urban life.

“Four filthy targets of Homelessness, Inc.’s current relabeling effort sprawl across the sidewalk on Haight Street, accosting pedestrians. “Can you spare some change and shit? Will you take me home with you?” Cory, a slender, dark-haired young man from Ventura, California, cockily asks passersby. “Dude, do you have any food?” His two female companions, Zombie and Eeyore, swig from a bottle of pricey Tejava tea and pass a smoke while lying on a blanket surrounded by a fortress of backpacks, bedrolls, and scrawled signs asking for money. Vincent, a fourth “traveler,” as the Haight Street punks call themselves, stares dully into space. All four sport bandannas around their necks—to ward off freight-train exhaust as they pass through tunnels, they explain—as well as biker’s gloves and a large assortment of tattoos and metal hardware. The girls wear necklaces and bracelets of plastic disks and other hip found objects; their baggy tank tops and stockings are stylishly torn.

“A petite Asian woman passes the group and smilingly hands Cory the remains of a submarine sandwich. Suddenly, all four are on their feet, tearing at the sub. As Zombie stuffs the bread into her mouth, partly chewed chunks fall back out onto the ground.

“Such juvenile hobos see themselves as on a “mission,” though they’re hard-pressed to define it. Sometimes they follow rock bands, and other times more mysterious imperatives, between Seattle, Portland, Santa Cruz, Berkeley, Venice Beach, and San Diego. Some are runaways; some are college dropouts; others are years older. Eeyore says she got kicked out of her Riverside, California, home at 14 because she was “a punk and an asshole.”

“Of all the destinations on the “traveler” circuit, the Haight carries a particular attraction to the young panhandlers, thanks to the Summer of Love. Starting in late 1965, waves of teens from across the country began pouring into what was then a ramshackle, blue-collar neighborhood of pastel Victorian houses and low-rent businesses, drawn to the emergent drug culture and its promised liberation from the bourgeois values of self-discipline and hard work. “The time has come to be free,” a local flyer proclaimed. “Be FREE. Do your thing. Be what you are. Do it. Now.” This insipid philosophy was eventually co-opted by consumer capitalism, while the hippie ethos gave way to punk, daisy chains to piercing, acid to meth, and mindless utopianism to mindless nihilism. In the Haight itself, national chain stores like American Apparel, McDonald’s, and Ben & Jerry’s found a place next to the head shops, tie-dye boutiques, and check-cashing outlets. But the kids kept coming.

“The defining characteristic of all these “travelers” seems to be an acute sense of entitlement. “If you can afford this shit on Haight Street, then goddamn, you can probably afford to kick down $20 [to a panhandler] and it won’t fucking hurt your wallet,” a smooth-faced blond boy from Spartanburg, South Carolina, defiantly tells the camera in The Haight Street Kids, a documentary by Stanford University’s art department. I ask the group on the blanket: Why should people give you money? “They got a dollar and I don’t,” Cory replies. Why don’t you work? “We do work,” retorts Eeyore. “I carry around this heavy backpack. We wake up at 7 AM and work all day. It’s hard work.” She’s referring to begging and drinking. She adds judiciously: “Okay, my liver hates me, but I like the idea of street performance. We’re trying to get a dollar for beer.” More specifically, they’re aiming for two Millers and a Colt 45 at the moment, explains Zombie. Aren’t you embarrassed to be begging? “I’m not begging, I’m just asking for money,” Cory says, seemingly convinced of the difference. How much do you make? “In San Francisco, you don’t get much—maybe $30 to $40 a day,” says Eeyore. “When you’re traveling, you can make about $100 on freeway off-ramps.”