San Francisco homeless sweeps an international embarrassment FWD

Tom Boland (
Sat, 13 Feb 1999 17:58:25 -0800 (PST)

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FWD  Sydney Morning Herald - 10 Feb 1999



As the Olympics approach, there are lessons to be learnt from Sydney's
sister city about handling the homeless. JOHN HUXLEY reports.

IN JOHN Grisham's latest thriller, Testament, a homeless man gets himself a
gun, straps dynamite around his waist and takes nine lawyers hostage in
their firm's plush boardroom. After several hours' stand-off the man is
shot dead by police marksmen.

The blood-splattered hostage standing next to him survives, but his life is
changed irrevocably. He quits his high-paid job to become an impoverished
"street lawyer", fighting his old firm on behalf of the homeless.

It's a grim story that has touched ordinary Americans in cities right
across the United States, where despite booming stockmarkets, unemployment
of barely 4 per cent and the promise of huge increases in social security
spending, hundreds of thousands of people are sleeping rough.

And not just in the big cities traditionally associated with social
dislocation, such as New York, Detroit and Washington, the scene of
Grisham's novel.

Nowhere is the problem of homelessness more pressing, more divisive, more
bad-tempered than in Sydney's sister city of San Francisco, which rejoices
in its cool, clean, tolerant image.

Attracted by its equitable climate and, hardliners say, its generosity,
homeless people have always been a feature of the city. "But they were like
the famous 'dead elephant in the drawing room'," says the social
commentator Cyra McFadden. That is, they were discreetly avoided, skirted,
ignored. Except to newcomers, they quickly became invisible.

No longer. Now the homeless appear everywhere. Not just in rundown areas
such as the Tenderloin, but at all the tourist hot spots: Union Square,
Fisherman's Wharf, the cable car stops on Powell Street. Indeed, anywhere
panhandlers (read beggars) can count on strong pedestrian traffic.

They cannot be ignored. As one angry correspondent to the local Chronicle
newspaper complained last week, so overrun is the city by beggars that the
self-styled "Paris of the West Coast" now looks more like Calcutta.

Some panhandlers show considerable imagination. One man, standing at the
freeway entrance, holds up a sign saying "residentially challenged".
Another, scruffier fellow claims to be "a male model, fallen on hard
times". Some are aggressive. Or crazy. Or both.

Most, though, are like the hundreds who turn up daily seeking one of only
80 places in the shelter, opposite my apartment, on the corner of Geary and
Polk streets: cold, wet, dirty, demoralised people, many of them pushing
their belongings about in battered supermarket trolleys.

Social studies suggest they comprise three broad, overlapping groups: those
who have temporarily "slipped off the ladder": the alcoholics and drug
addicts, and the mentally ill.

San Francisco's mayor, Willie Brown, puts their total at about 4,000. The
local Coalition on Homelessness says the real number may be five times
that. On one thing, both sides agree: something must be done. But, what?

First, the city introduced what was known as the Matrix Program, part of a
series of moves that allowed police to issue citations to the homeless for
sleeping in public places, obstructing the sidewalks and littering the
streets, and to confiscate their supermarket trolleys. That provoked a
backlash among religious, community and civil rights groups, who complained
- just as Grisham's
street lawyer does - that this merely "criminalised homelessness". The city
backed off. As the incoming mayor, Brown promised cash to create new jobs
and low-cost homes as part of a new, "tough love" campaign.

Today, the city lovingly spends about $US60 million ($92 million) a year on
services for the homeless, including 20 emergency shelters, mobile teams of
social workers and addiction agencies. But in recent weeks it has also got

In a series of sweeps, police have cleared disorderly drunks, campers and
panhandlers from several of the city's parks and plazas, including
Hallidie, United Nations and Civic Centre.

The crackdown has been welcomed by many residents sick of the squalor.
Typical is Anna Maria Contreras, who complains: "It's not fair that I work
while they drink, sleep and mooch [bludge] off me during the day."

The coalition and its allies, however, are outraged at what they say is
another unwarranted, unconstitutional, heartless attack on the civil rights
of the homeless. Next week, they will begin a 21-day food fast and
demonstration outside City Hall, calling for the sweeps to be halted and
more homes to be provided.

Meanwhile, ordinary, well-intentioned San Franciscans shake their heads in
frustration. Most, one suspects, share McFadden's view on "solving" the
problem of homelessness: "Whatever it takes, whatever it costs. Do it."

Sydney's homelessness "problem" may be far less serious than San
Francisco's, but lessons may still be learnt from the experiences of its
sister city. Traditionally, Olympic cities have had to cope with a large
influx of poor, jobless, often homeless people, attracted by the prospect
of excitement and easy pickings during the Games.

In 1996, Atlanta solved the "problem" by ruthlessly sweeping such people
away from the crowded downtown areas rather than risk international
embarrassment. Surely, Sydney can find a more humane solution?


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