San Francisco's untouchables

Is San Francisco trying to help the homeless -- or drive them away?


In one sense, San Francisco's homeless residents have never been more visible than they are in this moment in the city's history, marked by rapid construction, accelerated gentrification, and rising income inequality. But being seen doesn't mean they're getting the help they need.

Not long ago, Lydia Bransten, who heads security at the St. Anthony's Foundation on 150 Golden Gate, happened upon a group of teenagers clustered on the street near the entrance of her soup kitchen. They had video cameras, and were filming a homeless man lying on the sidewalk.

"They were putting themselves in the shot," she said.

Giggling, the kids had decided to cast this unconscious man as a prop in a film, starring them. She told them it was time to leave. Bransten read it as yet another example of widespread dehumanization of the homeless.

"I feel like we're creating a society of untouchables," she said. "People are lying on the street, and nobody cares whether they're dead or breathing."

Condominium dwellers and other District 6 residents of SoMa and the Tenderloin are constantly bombarding Sup. Jane Kim about homelessness via email — not to express concern about the health or condition of street dwellers, but to vent their deep disgust.

"This encampment has been here almost every night for several weeks running. Each night the structure is more elaborate. Why is it allowed to remain up?" one resident wrote in an email addressed to Kim. "Another man can be found mid block, sprawled across the sidewalk ... He should be removed ASAP."

In a different email, a resident wrote: "The police non-emergency number is on my quick dial because we have to call so often to have homeless camps removed."

It's within this fractious context that the city is embarking on the most comprehensive policy discussions to take place on homelessness in a decade.

In 2004, city officials and community advocates released a 10-Year Plan to Abolish Chronic Homelessness. One only needs to walk down the street to understand that this lofty objective ultimately failed; people suffering from mental illness, addiction, and poverty continue to live on the streets.

Most everyone agrees that something should be done. But while some want to see homelessness tackled because they wish undesirable people would vanish from view, others perceive a tragic byproduct of economic inequality and a dismantled social safety net, and believe the main goal should be helping homeless people recover.

"The people living in poverty are a byproduct of the system," said Karl Robillard, a spokesperson for St. Anthony's. "We will always have to help the less fortunate. That's not going to go away. But we're now blaming those very same people for being in that situation."


Sabrina: "The streets can be mean."

Guardian photo by Rebecca Bowe



A common framing of San Francisco's "homeless problem" might be called the magnet theory.

The city has allocated $165 million to homeless services. Over time, it has succeeded in offering 6,355 permanent supportive housing units to the formerly homeless. Nevertheless, the number of homeless people accounted for on the streets has remained stubbornly flat. The city estimates there are about 7,350 homeless people now living in San Francisco.

Since the city has invested so much with such disappointing results, the story goes, there can only be one explanation: Offering robust services has drawn homeless people from elsewhere, like a magnet. By demonstrating kindness, the city has unwittingly converted itself into a Mecca for the homeless, spoiling an otherwise lovely place for all the hardworking, law-abiding citizens who contribute and pay taxes.


The progressive premise that street people and vagrants should be kept in the face of the rest of us, free to occupy our parks, housed in the middle of the city, etc, because that will motivate us to help them and improve their lot is such a huge backfire.

If anything, it undermines any romantic notions many of us had when young of the homeless as unfortunate, but honorable Tom Joad-type characters. I feel less and less sympathy the more I'm around them as well.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 29, 2014 @ 9:22 am

Great comment. Sounds like the future of all large cities. I hated moving back to my hometown, but I would not want to be as poor as I now and trying to get by in my former city. It's much easier to get by in a small town when you are working poor. The only things I really miss are cheap ethnic food and mass transit.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 03, 2014 @ 11:02 am

Hey SHRIMP BOY changed his ways, why not the homeless ...... NOT

Posted by Guest on Mar. 28, 2014 @ 11:55 am

One of the financial assistance programs offered to legal residents is General Assistance (G/A) . This is a cash grant of 60.00 per month that must be paid for by working 6 hours per week for how many weeks there are in the month unless you are 55 years+.

The other program is "Cal Fresh" (food stamps). This is 189.00 per month , is available to anyone who is a U.S. resident who falls under certain income limits and does not have to be worked for.

That said: with the free food ("soup kitchens") to be had, anyone who begs, claiming to be hungry is either too lazy to go to a soup kitchen or too lazy/stupid to apply for Cal Fresh.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 28, 2014 @ 12:10 pm

I always tell all the "hungry" beggars to go to Martin de Porres- House of Hospitality. They then say they don't like the food there? I guess beggars can be choosers.....

Posted by Guest on Mar. 28, 2014 @ 12:59 pm

and not by punishing hard workers through taxes.

Can we at least put the homeless to work in exchange for throwing money at them?

Posted by Guest on Mar. 28, 2014 @ 1:20 pm

care for each other in ways most of us never have to; share in a way most of us can't imagine; make due in ways many of us couldn't.

Just like trees or plants growing in tight or shady spots- people find ways to bend and twist- living life with their breathes held, not sure what safe feels like anymore or normalizing and comfortable in situations that are clearly dangerous.

The daily forecast is unpredictability- living on the margin of city life- outside of routines, economies, cycles, circles, community.

It can be hard to disguise homelessness and pretend to strangers you are housed, or hide drug use if it is part of the fabric of your life and helps you cope with your circumstances, emotions, mental health challenges, or things you have endured or survived. I would bet most homeless people would choose invisibility if they could. Most people avoid looking at them anyways or worse- they look right through them or castigate them with their eyes.

If the homeless problem is something you care about- or if it makes you feel angry or powerless- volunteer and your feelings will shift- fundraise to help the many amazing organizations already helping and invest in new solutions that will benefit ALL San Franciscans by creating pathways to housing, harm reduction, substance use treatment, mental health care, medical care, vocational training and employment programs.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 28, 2014 @ 9:38 pm

Life is rough for everyone. I have to get up every morning and go to work and stay on a ridged schedule to pay my bills and TAXES. It would be nice just to sit around all day and wait for other people to help me, I tell you the stress is making me old fast. It might be nice to slow down and coast for a while an make other bear responsibility for my existence….

Posted by Guest on Mar. 29, 2014 @ 8:11 am

More Homeless Industrial Complex propaganda, 30 years of this hogwash has proven it's futility and waste….FACTS and RESULTS don't lie.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 29, 2014 @ 8:13 am

Fundraising to help the organizations in San Francisco is absolutely the stupidest thing you could do. Plenty of tax money goes to these organizations already.

Instead, if you feel the call, fundraise and donate for homeless service providers in places such as Bakersfield, Fresno, Redding, Reno, which should be sharing the burden, er, joy of supporting those who can't support themselves.

Your charity money goes a hell of a lot further in supporting most vulnerables in Bakersfield than it does in San Francisco. Plus, San Francisco organizations are quasi-political organizations that have proven themselves effective only at recruiting homeless to the city,pawns in the left vs right pissing contest, enabling them on their path self-destruction, free of judgement.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 29, 2014 @ 8:42 am

It would be different if the "homeless" contributed to the community by doing volunteer work instead of wasting their days away getting intoxicated.
The only time they make their presence known is when they stand in line for "free" food and clothing or complain about how hard life is for them.

When the occupy encampment was on Market Street during the fall of 2012 , no one amid the homeless who lingered, participated in any of the protest activities. But when food was to be had-then they came awake.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 29, 2014 @ 9:59 am

getting any benefits or services.

Then we'd see them pull their weight

Posted by Guest on Mar. 29, 2014 @ 10:28 am

I never thought I would ever agree with anyone who dares say that San Francisco is handling the homeless issue wrong. but now I find myself forced to speak out an experience I had here not even a month ago. Let me explain my situation and then maybe we all can find a solution to the problem of "homeless mess" here in this wonderful city.
I am 60 years young and have lived right here in S,F all of my life. I went to schools here, specifically Alvarado school, James Lick junior high and finally graduated from Lowell High school in 1970. Lowell High was and still is a great college prep public high school. Most. I'm sure will agree. I worked at jobs I liked back then for long periods of time. but the times they were a changing even then. Most here had a choice: go to college ,or find a union job and go to college or stick with that easy union job forever. And if you were in the retail business in the 70s and 80s you sort of had it made here.
Commissions were high, there was no internet buying people. we actually had to talk to each other: from salesman to stock to bankers , waiters, you get my point. But most of those fine and very sociable people left our city in a different way! primarily the two waves of AIDS deaths. one in the early 80's and then another wave in the early 90's. The city seemed even then to grow cold. I myself managed to avoid HIV but lost almost 20 very close friends to it. And let me tell you all of them could have and did sleep on my couch and were welcome. I was never brought up that way here and unfortunately most of us here in sf weren't. I watched and supported the gay mecca in the Castro become what it is today.
We took chances with our lives , and I did , I left a 25 year position at Macy's because I could bare no more of my city . Gay was becoming some new banner with parades of stuck up self centered LGBFT homosexuals who really had forgotten what the gay freedom parade was even about.( I mean really ,guys. yesterdays celebration was the most lackluster ,monitored and mis- directed ones I've ever attended,! Old "schoolers" don't you agree? Anyway here's my point I realized how much I missed my city immediately upon leaving it. I landed a few good jobs when I came running back but like the Pretenders found "My City was gone". But rents had already went up my old place's rent had went up to almost twice the cost and I became semi-homeless in my own city and now like the gentleman said I was living pay check to paycheck , A big thing ! How are you ever gonna get out of the SRO stage doing this. And i didn't have to do major drinking or drugging to get in this position. But I continued struggling till I was disabled 5years ago. Got some help for housing found alot of SROs suitable, and met a lot of "homeless" people just like me.
Then just last year it happened I won a lottery for a new building in the Mayors Office On Housing, Its one of those luxury condominium option high rises. Swimming pool . views and ammenities almost like a dream come true, right. but my problems began right away. I paid far less than the normal renter here. My friends most of them still in SROS began feeling unwelcome and maybe they were right. Which gets, finally to my point, I was matched at a TNDC SRO redo that I was perfectly happy with and waited almost 8 months to get. question was new place with kitchen or TNDC SRO which would you take?. I took the studio at the new place.Why not it is absolutely gorgeous. But right from the start I recognized the total problem here EVERYONE including my friends were so filled with: jealousy and cove try that objections and noses were turned if I ever spoke of it, Why they thought to themselves does he get to live here. And so the cycle of have and have nots begins. right in my building Top !%ers. This lottery win was becoming a nightmare, In fact I am being forced out thats a whole other thing. (if interested why just email me for full story) My point being still today I feel the stigma of the street will never go away and after six months of luxury here at ___ I may be forced there again So I ask are BMR units really helping people like me break out of the SRO cycle or actually have they pushed me back to thoughts of suicide again. Soon I'll Know and keep all of you housing advocates informed. That is if you really care. more fun talk in a week. tomorrow I'll tell you how easily it was done, not trying to write a novel here, ok? But to think about it is all I ask at Love me or Hate me that.s the question on all our minds Oh the times? They have already changed in "San Francircus"

Posted by Guest dboyzee415 on Jul. 02, 2014 @ 4:42 pm

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