[Hpn] A boxy new look in San Francisco

coh coh@sfo.com
Thu, 05 Jul 2001 17:58:00 -0700

A boxy new look in San Francisco

Gabrielle Banks
Thursday, July 5, 2001
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle


THERE'S A new housing development going up in South of Market. I spotted it
the other day walking to work: another hastily built, boxy eyesore.

Only this one had, literally, materialized overnight.

It was cardboard box that came up to about my shoulder. The label on the
front had a photograph of one of those gorgeous lounge chairs they sell in
garden stores -- the ones made of thick slats of natural wood -- that make
me question why I'm still living such a feeble, possession-poor existence.

I go from imagining I could afford the chair to wishing I had a garden, to
fantasizing I owned a home that would give me legal access to that garden.
"Teak Steamer Deck Chair," the label called it.

Now, one of the 14,000 San Franciscans who live on the streets had made the
Steamer Deck Chair box his home. Boxes just like it -- along with tents,
tarps and broken-down vans -- are sprouting up all over the place. Division
Street is reminiscent of an 1930s hobo camp -- a transitory fellowship of
the forgotten. 

The San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness says that people have moved to
the SoMa because residents in most other neighborhoods complain. Now, with
SoMa loft-living in vogue, even havens like Division Street are being
patrolled for illegal loitering.

Every day, San Francisco police conduct citywide sweeps and give what are
called "quality of life" citations for sleeping in doorways and blocking

Following suit, the Department of Public Works makes its rounds with a trash
truck, scraping up unseemly heaps of clothes and bottles that belong to
homeless people. They also dispose of medications, blankets and family

One man reportedly lost his mother's ashes in a recent sweep on Division
Street. Dozens have filed lawsuits, and some have won claims against the
city for trashing their belongings.

Public spaces, especially those near tourist sites, such as the cable-car
turntable at Powell Street, the Civic Center, and the Market Street
corridor, have been systematically stripped of benches that might entice

After the shelter beds fill each night, the remaining 80 to 90 percent of
homeless people squat in less residential neighborhoods where few people
complain to the police.

In my Upper Market Street neighborhood, I pass homeless people sleeping and
panhandling daily, and my head fills with half-baked rationalizations each
time I scoot past them or avoid eye contact.

Despite the downturn in the economy, rents in San Francisco continue to
soar, evictions become increasingly frequent and the energy crisis is
impacting people of all socioeconomic levels.

Many good-hearted San Franciscans share my ambivalence. Will a token gesture
on my part really make a difference? Do I really care what it says in "The
Street Sheet?" Whose responsibility is it to do something about it?

A few years ago, Mayor Willie Brown tried to implement heat-seeking, Border-
Patrol-style helicopter surveillance to catch people sleeping in Golden Gate

Then, in a bungled campaign effort, he proposed the confiscation of stolen
shopping carts from homeless people.

Over the next few months, the Brown administration has said it would fence
off the grassy areas and install a series of "light cannons" to discourage
night-time loitering in U.N. Plaza.

It's no wonder the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty
consistently ranks San Francisco among the five U.S. cities with the
"meanest streets." 

Criminalizing poor people and shuffling them out of sight offers a quick
cosmetic fix. It also, ultimately, perpetuates poverty and alienation of
already marginalized citizens.

A forward-thinking, unified approach might have a more lasting impact. If we
created more living-wage jobs, and cleared the waiting lists for medical and
mental health care, rehabilitation, and child care, we might wake up to the
hammering of low-income housing construction instead of another row of fancy
boxes along the sidewalk.

Gabrielle Banks is a freelance writer in San Francisco.

©2001 San Francisco Chronicle   Page A - 21

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