San Fran, Hostage to the Homeless

Try walking from your $60 a day parking space (first hour $30) to attend to business at one of the Market Street high rise office building.  You will trip over the homeless, skip over human feces, and try not to step on dirty needles.  San Fran is a toilet.  Why try to be polite—the truth is disgusting.  This is a town that is working hard to be the number one Third World city.

“Everyone’s on drugs here . . . and stealing,” an ex-felon named Shaku explains as he rips open a blue Popsicle wrapper with his teeth. Shaku is standing in an encampment of tents, trash, and bicycles, across from San Francisco’s Glide Memorial Church. Another encampment-dweller lights a green crack pipe and passes it around. A few paces down the street, a gaunt man swipes a credit card through a series of parking meters to see if it has been reported stolen yet.

For the last three decades, San Francisco has conducted a real-life experiment in what happens when a society stops enforcing bourgeois norms of behavior. The city has done so in the name of compassion toward the homeless. The results have been the opposite: street squalor and misery have increased, even as government expenditures have ballooned. Yet the principles that have guided the city’s homelessness policy remain inviolate: homelessness is a housing problem; it is involuntary; and its persistence is the result of inadequate public spending. These propositions are readily disproved by talking to people living on the streets.”

Billions spent on government and bureaucrats, while the problem gets worse.  San Fran is what the Democrat Presidential candidates want the U.S. to look like.  Ready to leave the country?

San Francisco, Hostage to the Homeless

Failure to enforce basic standards of public behavior has made one of America’s great cities increasingly unlivable.

Heather Mac Donald, City Journal, Autumn 2019  

Everyone’s on drugs here . . . and stealing,” an ex-felon named Shaku explains as he rips open a blue Popsicle wrapper with his teeth. Shaku is standing in an encampment of tents, trash, and bicycles, across from San Francisco’s Glide Memorial Church. Another encampment-dweller lights a green crack pipe and passes it around. A few paces down the street, a gaunt man swipes a credit card through a series of parking meters to see if it has been reported stolen yet.

For the last three decades, San Francisco has conducted a real-life experiment in what happens when a society stops enforcing bourgeois norms of behavior. The city has done so in the name of compassion toward the homeless. The results have been the opposite: street squalor and misery have increased, even as government expenditures have ballooned. Yet the principles that have guided the city’s homelessness policy remain inviolate: homelessness is a housing problem; it is involuntary; and its persistence is the result of inadequate public spending. These propositions are readily disproved by talking to people living on the streets.

Shaku’s assessment of drug use among the homeless is widely shared. Asked if she does drugs, a formerly homeless woman, just placed in a city-subsidized single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotel, responds incredulously: “Is that a trick question?” A 33-year-old woman from Alabama, who now lives in a tent in an industrial area outside downtown, says: “Everyone out here has done something—drugs, you name it.” On Sutter Avenue, a wizened 50-year-old named Jeff slumps over his coffee cup at 7:30 AM, one hand holding a sweet roll, the other playing with his beard. A half-eaten muffin sits next to him on a filthy blanket. “I use drugs, alcohol, all of it,” he tells me, his eyes closed, as a pair of smiling German tourists deposit a peach on his blanket. Last night it was speed, he says, which has left him just a “little bit high” this morning. “The whole Tenderloin is for drugs,” Jeff observes, before nodding off again.

An inadequate supply of affordable housing is not the first thing that comes to mind when conversing with San Francisco’s street denizens. Their behavioral problems—above all, addiction and mental illness—are too obvious. Forty-two percent of respondents in the city’s 2019 street poll of the homeless reported chronic drug or alcohol use; the actual percentage is likely higher. The city relentlessly sends the message that drug use is not only acceptable but fully expected. Users dig for veins in plain view on the sidewalk; health authorities distribute more than 4.5 million syringes a year, along with Vitamin C to dissolve heroin and crack, alcohol swabs, and instructions on how to best tie one’s arm for a “hit.” Needle disposal boxes have been erected outside the city’s public toilets, signaling to children that drug use is a normal part of adult life. Only 60 percent of the city’s free needles get returned; many of the rest litter the sidewalks and streets or are flushed down toilets.

Drug sellers are as shameless as drug users. Hondurans have dominated the drug trade in the Tenderloin and around Civic Center Plaza and Union Square since the 1990s. They congregate up to a dozen a corner, openly counting and recounting large wads of cash, completing transactions with no attempt at concealment. Most of the dealers are illegal aliens. One might think that city leaders would be only too happy to hand them off to federal immigration authorities, but the political imperative to safeguard illegal aliens against deportation takes precedence over public order. Local law enforcement greets any announced federal crackdown on criminal aliens with alarm.

Curious to test the Hondurans’ threshold of suspicion, I made repeated inquiries along Hyde Street about the going rate for a dose of fentanyl, the city’s up-and-coming drug of choice. To get a quote, I would have to show the money, I was told. I offered $8, not wanting to overpay, and was directed down the block. At the corner of Hyde and Golden Gate, steps away from the UC Hastings law school, I struck a deal at $16. The seller took the cash halfway up the block and exchanged it with a skinny, bare-chested man covered with tattoos, who handed him a small Ziploc bag containing a crumbly white pellet. “Hey, baby, remember me!” my seller crooned as he handed me the packet.

Further down Hyde, a 36-year-old man in a plaid shirt, with sandy hair and blue eyes, sat on the sidewalk slouched against a car as he searched unsuccessfully for a vein in his right wrist. Switching to his left hand, he managed to draw blood into the syringe, marking a vein. I asked him to verify that I was indeed sold fentanyl. Was I a cop? he asked, accepting my response at face value. He would have to taste my purchase to confirm its authenticity, he said, honorably breaking off just a few grains rather than popping the whole pill in his mouth. (His forbearance was wise: at two grams, the pellet could have been lethal if ingested all at once, depending on its purity.) “Can I ask you how much you paid?” the addict asked groggily. “Motherfucker!” he burst out when told. “You’d ordinarily get much less than that for 20 fucking dollars. It’s because you’re new.” The junkie, originally from Seattle, begged for my stash so he could sell it to his own customers or take it himself. “If I was sober, I wouldn’t want you to give it to me,” he said, “but my problem now is that I only have five fucking dollars and I want to go to Big 5 [a sporting-goods store] because someone stole my backpack.”

The brazenness of the narcotics scene has worsened since the passage of Proposition 47, another milestone in the ongoing effort to decriminalize attacks on civilized order. The 2014 state ballot initiative downgraded a host of drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. (See “The Decriminalization Delusion,” Autumn 2015.) Local prosecutors and judges, already disinclined to penalize the drug trade so as to avoid contributing to “mass incarceration,” are even less willing to initiate a case or see it through when it is presented as a misdemeanor rather than a felony. San Francisco officers complain that drug dealers are getting neither jail time nor probation. Drug courts have closed in some California cities, reports the Washington Post, because police have lost the threat of prison time to induce addicted sellers like the Seattle man into treatment. The number of clients in San Francisco drug court dropped from 296 in 2014 to 185 in 2018, a decline of over 37 percent.

“Assault seems to have been normalized in San Francisco, at least when committed by the homeless.”

Mental illness is the other obvious condition afflicting the homeless that makes the question of affordable housing secondary. Thirty-nine percent of the homeless polled in the 2019 street survey said that they suffered from psychiatric conditions; the actual percentage is probably higher. Outside the Red Coach Motor Hotel on Eddy Street, a small, dusty man in a white T-shirt is waving his arms in the middle of the street, his pants hanging down, smartphone in hand. He yells at passersby: “I’m too fucking polite, fuck you, you take my kindness for weakness. I don’t know why you’re laughing at me. I don’t feel that way about women, but I’m the bitch!” After lunging toward me, he wheels around and continues up Polk Street, screaming and gesticulating. Two male tourists from Greece, who landed in San Francisco just hours before, observe: “We don’t have so many problems in Greece.”

Mental illness is not always so overt. A man in a Stanford University sweatshirt is lying on a grimy apricot-colored blanket on Van Ness Avenue, eyes closed, mechanically putting pieces of muffin into his mouth. Realizing that he is being observed, he sits up, centers his sunglasses on his head, and reaches for a pack of Pall Malls. Timothy, 47, says he served time in a Texas hospital for the criminally insane, following a domestic violence incident. He has been banned for life from banking with Wells Fargo after getting into a “disagreement” with a teller; Bank of America is also off limits, after he got into a “disagreement” with a manager who insulted him in Hebrew, he says. He is barred from a local shelter for getting into yet another “disagreement,” this one with someone who stole his diver’s watch. He is on probation for attacking a health worker in the San Francisco Veterans Administration hospital. He was recently in jail for brandishing a loaded BB gun in a Red Lobster restaurant. At present, however, he is affable and well-spoken. Asked why he doesn’t move to a cheaper housing market, where his $1,100 monthly VA benefits and eligibility for a large VA home loan would go far, he responds: “Because I love this place! San Francisco is an international, tolerant, peace-loving community that is often imitated but never duplicated.” He appreciates the leeway given him for his lifestyle. “If I lay down like this in Fremont?” he asks rhetorically, referring to a city across the East Bay. It is questionable whether Timothy’s presence on the streets is conducive to public safety.

When the mentally ill abuse drugs, their risk of violence increases. But assault seems to have been normalized in San Francisco, at least when committed by the homeless. Wallace Lee is part of a neighborhood coalition trying to stop the placement of a shelter on the Embarcadero, the city’s tourist-friendly waterfront. “Anyone who has lived in San Francisco for five years has either been attacked by a homeless person or has a friend who has been attacked,” he says. Members of his protest group have stopped mentioning such assaults in public hearings, however, since doing so brings on accusations that they are “criminalizing homelessness.”

In October 2015, three gutter punks—youth who roam up and down the West Coast colonizing the sidewalks and panhandling—robbed and shot to death a 23-year-old Canadian woman in Golden Gate Park and killed a 67-year-old man a few days later after stealing his car. They were high on meth. The incident appears to have produced no perturbations in San Francisco’s thinking or policy. In August 2019, a 25-year-old homeless addict viciously attacked a woman entering her Embarcadero apartment, after demanding that she let him inside so that he could kill the “robot”—a female concierge—at the reception desk. The presiding judge initially refused repeated requests to hold the suspect in pretrial detention. The San Francisco supervisors may be unwilling to back policies that would help prevent such violence, but they have found time to ban city agencies from stigmatizing the perpetrators of such violence by using words like “felon” or “offender.” Under language guidelines passed in August 2019, criminals and ex-cons will henceforth be known as “justice-involved” persons or “returning residents.”

The elderly poor, in particular, suffer from the city’s surrender to street lawlessness. Crescent Manor is a beautifully restored Beaux-Arts SRO for seniors and the mentally disabled; murals of bathing beauties, flying ducks, and fish grace its lobby. The residence lies across from the headquarters of the Coalition on Homelessness, San Francisco’s most fearsome advocacy group. Say this for the Coalition: it lives by its principles. Outside its red door is a rancid encampment of umbrellas, lawn chairs, tarps, and backpacks. An obese woman sits on an overturned bucket, her bare buttocks hanging over the side; other women lean against the building’s wall, nodding off; a man walks by with his pants falling off. Someone spits on the sidewalk. The Crescent Manor day clerk gestures toward the throng. “See these dudes out here shooting up without a care in world? Our elderly are scared to go out. They don’t know what kind of drugs these people are on. They don’t like people leaning up against our building. Our seniors pay rent. It doesn’t matter how much they pay—they pay rent.” But elderly tenants apparently have less clout than street vagrants in San Francisco. (In August 2019, the Coalition announced that it had lost its lease and would be moving a few blocks down Turk Street, where it will undoubtedly attract another encampment.)

The city enables the entire homeless lifestyle, not just drug use. Free food is everywhere. Outreach workers roam the city, handing out beef jerky, crackers, and other snacks. At the encampment across from Glide Memorial Church, a wiry man in a blue denim jacket announces that day’s lunch selection at the church’s feeding line, to general approbation: fried chicken. He triumphantly brandishes a half-eaten leg before tossing it into the street. Susan, a 57-year-old Canadian who lives in an encampment on Willow Alley, itemizes the available bounty while rolling a cigarette: free dinners and movies; the microwave ovens at Whole Foods; free water at Starbucks. The homeless position themselves outside coffee shops in the morning for handouts of pastries and java. If those handouts don’t materialize, there’s always theft. A barista at the Bush and Van Ness Starbucks says that someone steals food and coffee at least every other day. “We are not allowed to do anything about it,” she says. “The policy is we can’t chase them.”

The city’s biannual homeless survey claims that “food insecurity” is a pressing problem, but the homeless don’t act like food-deprived people. Uneaten comestibles litter the sidewalks and gutters. A typical deposit of detritus outside an office building on Turk and Market includes an unopened one-pound bag of California walnuts, a box of uneaten pastries, an empty brandy bottle, a huge black lace bra, a dirty yellow teddy bear, one high-heeled red suede boot, and a brown suede jacket. A dapper man named Ralph has appointed himself the unofficial cleaner of the block where Glide Memorial Church sits. He has never seen anyone throw something in the trash, rather than toss it on the ground. “They’re not interested in doing anything for themselves,” he says.

The homeless are also wired. Most vagrants have smartphones, which they use to barter goods. They use free Wi-Fi or steal passcodes. In the entrance to San Francisco’s central library on Civic Center Plaza, a bent man with a bike repeatedly tries to plug his phone into an outlet while muttering incoherently. A sign announces that the outlet is not working. Two patrol guards politely try to direct him inside the library, but he wanders off, still muttering. “I offered to have him use an outlet inside; his time could have been better spent finding one that works,” one of the guards sighs.

The combination of maximal tolerance for antisocial behavior, on the one hand, and free services and food, on the other, acts as a magnet. “San Francisco is the place to go if you live on the streets,” observes Jeff, the 50-year-old wino and drug addict. “There are more resources—showers, yeah, and housing.” A 31-year-old named Rose arrived in San Francisco from Martinez, northeast of the city, four years ago, trailing a long criminal record. She came for the benefits, including Vivitrol to dull the effect of opiates, she says woozily, standing outside a huge green tent and pink bike at Golden Gate and Hyde, surrounded by the Hondurans.

Suggesting that some of the homeless are making a choice is heresy in official circles. Longtime San Francisco pol Bevan Dufty, formerly director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing Opportunities, Partnerships and Engagement, now president of the BART board of directors, says that it is “B.S.” to call people service-resistant. “The lies that people tell are disgusting—‘people don’t want services,’ ‘they come here to be homeless.’ These lies are to make you blame the victim.”

Actually, it’s the homeless themselves who suggest that their condition has a large voluntary component. Jeff has been offered housing by numerous outreach workers and could come off the streets if he wanted to, he says. A man standing outside the city’s latest shelter prototype, known as a Navigation Center, says that he was offered housing four times but always turned it down. “I don’t know if I didn’t want to give up drugs, but I could’ve went in way before now.” Vanessa, a heavily mascaraed trans woman, came from Denver a year ago at the invitation of a friend because “everyone comes here,” she says. Though she has been attacked and her tents burned, she still lives at the Willow Alley encampment rather than accepting housing. Her fellow camper Susan explains: “Teams come to talk to us, but they can only do so much.” Susan has been taken to a Navigation Center, but it felt like a jail, she says: “I’m claustrophobic.” In fact, the Navigation Centers are designed to be maximally accommodating. Residents can come and go as they please, order meals at any time of the day, and bring their pets, partners, and possessions (known in shelter parlance as the Three Ps).

A bike patrol officer in Union Square confirms the challenge of persuading people to get off the streets. Belying the advocates’ characterization of the police as oppressors, he approaches an encampment on Powell Street as a supplicant. “Good morning, ma’am. It’s 8:45 AM. Rise and shine! Y’all need any resources from me?” Doris, a short 51-year-old with greasy gray hair, a leather jacket, and white sneakers, asks in blurred syllables for a few more minutes to sleep, which the officer grants. “You try to help, but the majority of time, people refuse,” he says. As Doris stuffs dirty comforters, cell-phone chargers, and cookies into a stolen trash bin, she observes: “I’m going to be honest: some of us are so addicted, we are so into our addictions, that we end up being comfortable being homeless.” Doris estimates that she spends $40 a day on crack, vodka, and other substances. She adds penitently: “But we need to start respecting our neighbors and stop littering.”

The advocates’ fallback position to their “service resistance is a lie” conceit is that services have to be “relevant to where people are,” which means that services should come with no rules or restrictions. It is not for the people destroying the social compact, however, to decide whether they will deign to accept the help that taxpayers are offering, when refusing that help destroys everyone else’s quality of life. Up and down the West Coast, Third World diseases associated with lack of sanitation—including typhoid, typhus, and hepatitis A—are breaking out in and around encampments. In 2018, San Francisco officials received more than 80 calls a day reporting human feces on sidewalks and thoroughfares. The city’s encampments generate up to six tons of trash daily, including needles still loaded with heroin and blood. The stench of the streets lingers in the nostrils for hours.

Elevating the alleged rights of the homeless over those of the working public has cost billions in government outlays, with nothing to show for it. Mayors have come and gone; agencies have been renamed, task forces convened, ten-year plans rolled out, and section chiefs, liaison officers, and operations-support teams added to existing bureaucracies and seeded into new ones, while the “unsheltered” count continues to rise—up 17 percent from 2017 to 2019 alone, to 8,011. San Francisco continues to puzzle over the reason. Is it lack of city-created affordable housing, as the advocates and politicians maintain? No other American city has built as much affordable housing per capita, according to the Bay Area Council Economic Institute. From 2004 to 2014, the city spent $2 billion on nearly 3,000 new units of permanent supportive housing, which comes with drug counseling and social workers. More have been constructed since then, and thousands more are in the works, along with more shelter beds.

About Stephen Frank

Stephen Frank is the publisher and editor of California Political News and Views. He speaks all over California and appears as a guest on several radio shows each week. He has also served as a guest host on radio talk shows. He is a fulltime political consultant.