San Francisco: The year of hardening my heart

San Francisco: The year of hardening my heart

You can know that policy and not personal charity is the only answer to homelessness. You can know about American inequality and poverty. Living adjacent to San Francisco’s Tenderloin while surrounded by the city’s tech wealth is another thing entirely.

We were there for a year, the city chosen by a judicial clerkship (not mine), the neighborhood chosen for the commute. I had plenty of reasons for being homesick, for not liking San Francisco specifically, but the grinding poverty and soaring inequality everywhere around me ranked high. How do you see such misery day in, day out and not become at least a little broken, whether by grief or indifference?

We lived on a corner, with the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium across the street from us. I started work at 6 AM PT, and on days the Bill Graham had a show, a white pickup truck with handicapped plates and a camper would pull up right at 6, when the overnight street cleaning parking ban ended. I only saw the man who drove that truck a few times, heading to or from what was obviously a regular gig working shows at the auditorium, but his cane was often visible laying across the dashboard of his truck. The truck was in good shape, and I always wondered where he parked on other nights, whether he had a regular spot or left the city altogether. People like that, people with jobs, are a major part of the current reality of homelessness in San Francisco and on the west coast more generally:

“I’ve got economically zero unemployment in my city, and I’ve got thousands of homeless people that actually are working and just can’t afford housing,” said Seattle City Councilman Mike O’Brien. “There’s nowhere for these folks to move to. Every time we open up a new place, it fills up.”

There were parts of the city where there were homeless encampments of people with tents and possessions, obviously fighting hard for some stability. In my neighborhood, though … not so much. The first few months we were there, I saw used needles on the sidewalk, but never saw them in use. Then, suddenly, people were shooting up all around me. What had changed, of course, was that I’d learned to see it. I never did learn not to wince a little at the sight of someone sticking a needle in their neck on a city sidewalk. The trifecta, I decided, was public drug use (needles; smoking didn’t count), public urination, and visible open sores. There was one block within sight of our front door where you could usually count on seeing at least two of the three even if you kept your eyes locked straight forward. Two blocks later the same street entered Hayes Valley, a neighborhood of upscale boutiques, and it was like you’d passed through a forcefield that didn’t admit homeless people.

When it rained, the area under the fire escapes of the Bill Graham became a little homeless colony. There we were, in our fancy new apartment building, with a giant picture window looking out on it, as if we were the rich people at Cipriani looking down on Occupy. We rarely saw tents in our neighborhood. The best-equipped people outside our windows had tarps and umbrellas for this very rainy year. On rainy weekends when that little colony sprung up, ambulances came frequently, sometimes more than one in a day. Someone across the street would go still, their friends would gather round and shake them, then debate, then someone would pull out a phone or run down the street to call for help and the ambulance would arrive. Otherwise, the police would generally let people stay until the rain stopped, then drive by and tell them to pack up.

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