March 12, 2014
The sanctuary at Saint Boniface Church looks like a Red Cross center
after an earthquake. People are sleeping two to a pew, spread out on
blankets on the ceramic floor in the back of the church, or slumped,
chins on their chests, on chairs by the old confessionals.
noon, but that's like midnight in the upside-down world of the people
who wait awake all night in alleys, under bridges, in doorways and, more
and more, on the sidewalks, for somewhere they can sleep in peace. At
6am, when Saint Boniface opens its massive oak doors, a few dozen people
are already waiting to get inside. They keep straggling in all morning,
claiming their spot on hard benches designed to keep people awake. Some
take a break late morning and get on the block-long lunch line across
the street at the St. Anthony Foundation, which feeds 2,600 people a
day. Others sleep the sleep of the dead until 3pm, when everyone has to
leave to survive another day and night on the streets.
is San Francisco, booming techtropolis of new brew pubs, fusion cuisines
and $2,000-a-month studio apartments. It's also a city where elderly
homeless women sit at bus stops all day waiting for shelter beds; where
an encampment of 10 homeless men and women kicked out of a patch of dirt
next to an overpass now live under that overpass; and where pup tents
are popping up on leafy, tree-lined streets.
The city has been
getting lots of attention since the Brookings Institution announced last
month that San Francisco is the nation's capital of growing income
inequality, with more haves next to more have-nots than anywhere else in
the country, even New York. The culture war in neighborhoods like the
Mission District, the heart of the heart of the high-tech bubble, has
gotten fierce. Resentment over the big white buses that pick up and drop
off workers from Apple, Google, Facebook and other Silicon Valley
companies to the Mission, is so pervasive, it’s almost a cliche.
Reporters hoping to document the divide keep dropping by, from all over.
The other day, a Japanese news crew and a French freelance videographer
jostled for position at a busy corner on Mission Street. Both wanted to
film workers getting off a Google bus and an elderly couple peddling
Mexican pastries on the corner at the same time. Haves, have-nots,
Lost in all the anguished discussions over the artists,
working-class families and senior citizens getting forced out by
landlords raising rents or startup millionaires buying buildings and
evicting tenants is this glaring reality: thousands of people are living
on the streets of San Francisco, the most in a decade.
the most current numbers of homeless people in San Francisco are
between 6,436 and 7,350. (The city did two homeless counts, one of
homeless adults, for the first figure, and a separate one, of homeless
youth, which counted 914 teens and young adults on their own. City
officials say some in the first count may have been counted in the
second.) About half of the homeless people counted were in shelters,
hospitals and jails.
Advocates for the homeless say
the numbers may be much higher than the official count, since so many
homeless people find temporary quarters, on friends' couches, in cheap
hotels for a night or week, or doubled up with relatives. No matter the
numbers, to anyone who has lived in the city for even five years, it is
obvious that there are more people walking the streets carrying all they
own than there used to be. People who are homeless say so, too. In
talks with about a dozen people living in an encampment under a freeway
ramp in the Mission, everyone said they are running into more people at
the recycling center, sleeping in spots they thought no one else knew
about and vying for the same odd jobs—like sweeping a gas station—for
"It's like more competition for everything," a
43-year-old man who said his name was Jose—no last name,
please—complained the other day. He was sweeping up trash by his camp,
as he said he had promised a Department of Public Works employee.
course, the city is not alone. New York and Los Angeles have an
exploding homeless population, and other large cities experiencing
housing booms are in the same boat. But homelessness has been San
Francisco's signature issue for 20 years at least. It has bedeviled
mayors and caused the downfall of more than one. Its absence from the
current gentrification debate is so striking that one city supervisor,
Mark Farrell, publicly asked why last month. He also scheduled several
hearings to discuss why homelessness remains intractable despite 50
different homeless programs costing $165 million a year. The first
hearing, nearly three hours long, came and went, unnoticed by the
Tourists complain about homeless people all the time, as
they have for years. Panhandlers, homeless or not, have long made the
city's tourist hot-spots their hot-spots. The encampments of homeless
people in the city's so-called mid-Market Street area, where companies
like Twitter have set up headquarters in exchange for tax breaks and a
commitment to invest in the community, have gotten City Hall's
attention. Just not in the way advocates for the homeless would like.
Francisco Mayor Ed Lee has been ordering the police department to
increase patrols to crack down on drug-dealing and other illegal
activities, including loitering, among people congregating on
mid-Market. That has shifted more people to nearby neighborhoods, where
merchants are complaining about people camped out on their stoops or
storefronts. The San Francisco Public Library, which has been touted as a
national model for how to humanely address the many homeless patrons in
libraries, is also suffering repercussions from the crackdown. When the
police started rousting people on Market Street, some moved over to the
library, which is right nearby. After a rash of violent and bizarre
incidents—a man smashing a glass table with a hammer, for one—the mayor
ordered stepped-up security at the library and increased penalties for
those who violate the library's code of conduct, which includes a ban on
offensive body odor.
Other recent developments in the city have
increased street camping. In November, the San Francisco Board of
Supervisors voted to close city parks overnight, where dozens of
homeless people used to sleep. In December, a drop-in center in the
Haight-Ashbury that provided showers, food, a place to sleep and other
services for homeless youth lost its lease. Some of its clients, who
used to sleep there or in Golden Gate Park, have ended up congregating
at a Safeway parking lot. The supermarket recently installed sharp
pointed iron railings around its decorative concrete planters to prevent
people from sitting on them.
St. Boniface, which first opened
its doors for homeless people to sleep 10 years ago, is hosting more
people than ever before—more than 100 each day—in part because the city
swept a large encampment out of a regional commuter terminal, the
Transbay Terminal, in order to renovate it.
All this adds up to a lot of shuffling of the most downtrodden people in the city from here to there.
Dufty, who directs City Hall's homeless programs, called the situation
"frustrating." "It costs more to mitigate the effects of homelessness,"
he said, "than it does to house people."
But there are bright
spots in the city's homeless picture, Dufty added. Homelessness among
veterans is down 30 percent in two years, thanks in part to federal
funding for housing vouchers. Dufty said the city has also just opened
new housing for 40 young adults and is set to open two more facilities
for young adults this year.
If some of the city's deep-pocketed
residents take notice, perhaps some real progress on homelessness could
be made. As Dufty said, "Twitter has made a lot of millionaires."
Evelyn Nieves is
a senior contributing writer and editor at AlterNet, living in San
Francisco. She has been a reporter for both the New York Times and the
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