Editor's Notes

Rousting the homeless: cause and effect


OK: a 26-year-old German exchange student was stabbed in the Outer Sunset two weeks ago by a man who appeared to be homeless. It was a terrible incident, an awful crime; we'll all stipulate that. And although C.W. Nevius, the San Francisco Chronicle columnist, splashed it all over the front page of the Sunday paper Dec. 2, it really shouldn't have anything to do with how the city sets homeless policy.

But it's got me thinking.

Nevius is apparently shocked that there's been a sudden increase in the number of homeless people living in the Sunset. I could have told him and the mayor and the police department a month ago that this was going to happen.

See, thanks to a series of Nevius columns about homeless encampments in Golden Gate Park, Mayor Gavin Newsom got election-year tough this fall and created special teams to go into the park and roust the residents. The mayor, of course, said that all he wanted was to get people into shelters, to get them treatment, to provide them the support that he insists his administration is delivering.

But the fact is, there aren't enough decent places for all of these people to live. Some day, I still believe, the people in San Francisco (and the people who run the country and the state) will come to their senses and realize that it's entirely possible to end urban poverty, but that it will take big chunks of money, multiple billions of dollars, and that the wealthy people who like to complain about the folks on the streets will have to pay higher taxes to make it happen. We live in a rich city and a rich country; we can afford to build housing and create jobs and fund welfare programs. We just don't want to — because we're Americans and we've been told for a couple of generations now that we don't have to sacrifice for social progress.

In the meantime, no law-enforcement crackdown or Care Not Cash program or shelter system is going to end homelessness in San Francisco. There are going to be people living on the streets because they can't afford to pay rent on even a nasty single room and they don't want to deal with the rules and structure of the shelter system.

And I have to wonder:

Weren't we all better off when we let them sleep in the park?

I know that's not a terribly satisfying approach to public policy; I know there were and are problems (dirty needles, human waste, befouling of valuable and rare public space) associated with the camps. I know that in theory nobody should be camping in Golden Gate Park; as one city resident reminded me at a neighborhood forum not long ago, the park isn't a wilderness — it's a garden.

But nobody should be sleeping in doorways or on sidewalks or in makeshift shelters in industrial areas either. I refer you to paragraph five above.

I ask you (and Newsom and Nevius): where are these people supposed to sleep? No, the park isn't a home, but a camp hidden in a rarely used corner is more of a home than a bed in a nasty, crowded shelter where you have no rights at all, not even the right to come and go when you want. I know where I'd rather sleep.

Maybe, in the spirit of harm reduction, we should just leave the park campers alone.

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