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A man without a home takes shelter in a doorway at Cabrillo Mall

At the end of the safety net

Homeless, helpless people seek respite at Ocean Beach

David Romano.
David Romano

• • • • • • • • • • April 2024 • • • • • • • • • •

January 1, 2024, 9 AM - La Playa St.
A young man, perhaps thirty, with a metal cane and backpack, one bare foot in a flip flop, the other foot bandaged and in a shoe (his walking looked painful), wearing a camouflage hoody. He found a spot on the sidewalk, in the corner made by two buildings, and sat there on his backpack, resting against the building for the next two hours, sipping takeout coffee, reading the Richmond Review picked up from a nearby doorway, smoking cigarettes and then some kind of dope in a glass pipe. He was looking at a smartphone, letting the newspaper scatter on the sidewalk—matted hair, dirty clothes, and the look of a man who’s been beaten down. After two hours, he got up and limped away. I called 311 to get help for him, and they said they would put it on the list, but he was gone before anyone came. That was after he passed out and before I saw that he had a phone. What help can be found for this poor lost soul?

Later that night, at about 8 PM
Horrendous screaming coming from the direction of Cabrillo Mall, a man’s voice. It doesn’t seem possible for a person to be so loud and so angry and despairing that they could still be alive after 30 seconds of it, but still, it goes on, minute after minute, for I don’t know how long. Someone suffering the torments of the damned could not sound more pitiful.

February 19th
I observed two young people, a man and a woman, for several hours this afternoon. They were on and off barefoot, taking shelter with their belongings in the entrance to OB Apartments. A resident, a middle-aged woman, shouted at them. As her dog barked at them, she threw something at them. The young man had a makeshift cast on his left leg. By the evening, they had both gone.

February 21st
A white man, about thirty, looking somewhat battered and the worse for wear, was sitting against the La Playa Safeway wall with his dog asleep beside him, holding a sign saying “I don’t need cash $$.” I gave him three dollars. “Thank you,” he said. His hands were black with dirt.

February 24th, 8:00 AM
Young man, he could have been Latino or Native American, wearing what looked like pajamas and a dressing gown with a long coat over the top and a hooded sweatshirt over his shoulders, puffing away on the barest bit of a cigarette butt, his two plastic bags parked on the sidewalk by the planter square. Clearly in a crazed state, he walked up and down, talking and gesticulating, stopping as if lost in thought or looking at something, and then starting again. I assume all his earthly belongings were in those two plastic bags. A half-hour later, he was gone.

quote marks

If you do get into a shelter, this is what will happen: they’ll take away your belongings, you can’t have a pet, you can’t have visitors and after a few days or a week, you’ll likely be turned out on the street again with nothing. If you’re lucky enough to make it into an SRO, you’ll have all the same restrictions with substandard housing, bad ventilation and broken elevators...”

March 3rd, 6 PM, Sunday night
A young black man with two bags and a rolling suitcase stops under the awning across the street. He arranges his bags to make a slight barrier on the sidewalk and opens the top of the rolling cart. He takes out a black tarp, which he shakes out and carefully lays on the sidewalk. Next, he takes out two ragged blankets and wraps them around him, stretching them out next to his suitcase. This will likely be his bed for the night. It’s cold tonight. Two hours later, he is gone. I see him the next morning, a little way down the street, camped in the entrance to OB Apartments, which affords a little more shelter.

Thursday, March 12th

Outside of the Pt. Lobos Walgreens, a young white man, dirty and disheveled is sitting on the sidewalk, nodding out, his belongings scattered on the ground around him.

Sunday, March 24th
A young white woman, demented and violent, is in the street throwing things. She grabbed a ceramic pot from the Ocean Beach Cafe and smashed it into the street. Her clothes are filthy and her face dirty, and she talks in a raised voice, protesting the life injuries she has sustained. A large, orange plastic bag holds whatever belongings she has. We call 311, and after hearing the same recordings three times, including the high-pitched beeps for the hearing impaired, a woman answers; she is curt and impatient. “Will you send someone out?” Sarcastically, “That’s what usually happens, Ma’am.” The poor, crazed woman is now sitting on the sidewalk, her feet in the gutter, her bag beside her, seemingly worn out by her despair and anger.

Tuesday, March 26th
In the aisle at the La Playa Safeway. A tall, blond young man wearing what looked like several pairs of pants, the outer ones badly torn, and a large backpack. We said hello, and I went on. When I looked back, he was still standing there, reaching out, taking an item — then putting it back, looking like he couldn’t decide if he could afford it or not. I walked back and handed him $20 and told him, “Please buy whatever you like.” He didn’t seem like he was all there, poor guy. I saw him two days later, dressed the same and carrying the same pack, walking up past the Cliff House and then at the stairs in Sutro Heights Park, with the same vacant expression on his face.

Who is going to help these people?

Most of these people are far gone into illness, madness, addiction and despair. Nothing short of a full-scale intervention by social workers, doctors, nurses, and counselors would help them. And who’s going to pay for that? It will take years of treatment for them to recover — if they can recover at all. What should we do? Call the police?

London Breed hasn’t helped them; to Breed, they are just so much litter to be swept away from any place she’s going to make an appearance, their belongings seized and trashed. She will make life so unpleasant for them that they’ll go somewhere else. But where? Breed has been the mayor since 2017, and the homeless crisis has not abated. A front-page article in Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle (March 30th, 2024) lists the failures and financial mismanagement (or worse) of the non-profits the City contracts with for homeless services.

Daniel Lurie, how are you going to help them? They’re a long way from being able to hold a job or responsibly live in a house. How about the man I saw recently sitting on the sidewalk on Mission Street, near 2nd Street? He was literally covered in dirt, his clothes filthy, puffing with manic concentration on a joint, while his pit bull snoozed nearby. Are you going to take this man and put him in an apartment and find him a job? Good luck with that. Where is Tipping Point, Lurie’s non-profit dedicated to people experiencing homelessness, for this man? There are hundreds like him on the streets of San Francisco. Tipping Point has been in existence since 2005. Although it may have helped some, it doesn’t seem to have made any real impact.

How about the other candidates for mayor, Mark Farrell and Asha Safai? Have you got a plan to help these individuals? Candidates, what do you have to say about this? Do you think San Francisco is an island insulated from the rest of the world? Do you think building market-rate housing is the answer to all our problems?

“Income inequality in the US is at its highest level in more than 50 years, according to new Census data. The gap between rich and poor is the widest in five states: California, Connecticut, Florida, Louisiana and New York.” CBS News September 26th, 2019

The Rich and the Poor

“Income inequality in America is the highest it’s been since Census Bureau started tracking it, data shows. In the midst of the nation’s longest economic expansion, the separation between rich and poor is at a five-decade high.” By Taylor Telford, Washington Post, September 26th, 2019

“The growth in income in recent decades has tilted to upper-income households. At the same time, the US middle class, which once comprised the clear majority of Americans, is shrinking. Thus, a greater share of the nation’s aggregate income is now going to upper-income households and the share going to middle- and lower-income households is falling.” PEW Research Center, Pew Research Center, January 9th, 2020

“America’s estimated homeless count stood at 580,466 as of 2020 and 18% ...were 55 or older, according to data from the US Dept. of Housing and Urban Development” AARP Bulletin, January/February 2023

“Poverty among older Americans is the highest it has been in two decades. Roughly 38 million adults over 50 are living in or on the edge of poverty.” AARP Bulletin, April/May 2023

“The non-profit (All Home) says that in the Bay Area every time one homeless person is housed three hit the streets. That will not change quickly it maintains, unless more federal support for affordable housing and poverty programs makes up for the funding cut decades ago and never restored... More than 35,000 homeless people were counted across all nine Bay Area Counties in the federally mandated one-night tally taken in January 2019 and about 30,000 of them – 86% - were unsheltered” - SF Chronicle, July 12th, 2020

If you do get into a shelter, this is what will happen: they’ll take away your belongings, you can’t have a pet, you can’t have visitors and after a few days or a week, you’ll likely be turned out on the street again with nothing. If you’re lucky enough to make it into an SRO, you’ll have all the same restrictions with substandard housing, bad ventilation and broken elevators (SF sat on $10M to fix elevators at SROs, Delay of disbursement left vulnerable residents trapped – SFChronicle, February 18th, 2024)

Affordable Housing to the Rescue?

GrowSF, Brian Quan (recently elected to SFDCCC and a columnist for the Richmond Review), and Michael Moritz, billionaire founder of the SF Standard, think that building market-rate housing and giving the police permission to do whatever they want will solve all our problems. Like Mayor Breed, they have no use for poor people living in rent-controlled apartments or even families living in single-family homes. Why? There’s no money to be made from them. Tear that house down and put up a six-story building with market-rate (read luxury) units. Now we’re talking real money to be made!

Affordable housing? That will trickle down eventually.

Like Alex Wong, who recently wrote a letter to the editor of the Sunset Beacon waffling on about families, schools, and neighborhoods and how we need to build more housing, the GrowSF crowd all sound the same notes. Did they have a group training on what to say? “...when I learned that San Francisco had to build 82,000 housing units — many of which would be on the west side — I welcomed the challenge!” says Wong. Breed and State Senator Wiener, who are in the pocket of real estate speculators and venture capitalists, engineered the up-zoning of the Westside with no real community outreach or feedback, and Alex Wong welcomes the challenge! Mr. Wong, if you didn’t know, Neighborhoods United SF (www.neighborhoodsunitedsf.org) is a citywide coalition of about 50 neighborhood organizations opposed to the Planning Department’s proposed up-zoning.

The very people whose policies, money and ideas have resulted in gentrification and displacement, reactionary City Hall policies and regressive taxation are the ones backing Breed, Wiener and GrowSF. Their battle cry is more housing, more development! If there’s an elected official we don’t like, we’ll spend whatever it takes to recall them. We’ve got the money to do it. Witness the recall of Chesa Boudin and three school board members, as well as the campaign of vilification against Supervisors Dean Preston and Connie Chan. It’s right out of the Donald Trump playbook: exploit people’s fears and prejudices for political ends.

Taxes

Anyone who talks about the homeless and housing and who isn’t talking about raising taxes on the rich and reallocating tax money from the bloated defense budget to social programs is either willfully ignorant or just doesn’t care. It’s not just about housing; it’s about income inequality. As long as billionaires continue to avoid their fair share of taxes and so-called moderates are in power at City Hall, poor people will be living and dying on the streets of San Francisco and across the country.

The homeless problem is bigger than San Francisco. If you want to know what to do right now, take $100 billion from the trillion dollar Defense budget and put it into funding affordable (below market-rate) housing and implement progressive tax reforms,“ Already, more than 50,000 people have signed on as grassroots co-sponsors of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s Ultra-Millionaire Tax Act―new legislation that would apply a 2% tax on the wealth of households and trusts worth between $50 million and $1 billion and a 3% tax on fortunes exceeding $1 billion. The bill would bring in at least $3 trillion in revenue over 10 years without raising taxes on the 99.95% of households with net worth under $50 million. That’s $3 trillion we could use to invest in public services for working families―paid for by ensuring the ultra-wealthy are paying their fair share of taxes.” - americansfortaxfairness.org, March 30th, 2024

Unfortunately, for the already severely damaged individuals that I talked about at the beginning, housing and fair taxation won’t help. They have no ability to live independently and no income. Who is going to help them?

David Romano is an environmental activist living near Ocean Beach

March 2024

David Romano.
David Romano

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