Mean Sweeps in Love City: Homeless in San Francisco, CA, USA FWD

Tom Boland (
Sat, 27 Feb 1999 12:14:16 -0800 (PST)

Folks participating in the "fast against homelessness" in San Francisco:
Please post updates for me to send to Homeless People's Network.

Fast for justice.  Live simply that others may simply live.
-- Tom Boland of HPN <>

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FWD  Reuters - Saturday, February 27, 1999


[Photo by Andy Kuno/Reuters] Nicholas Deruyg (R) cracks a smile after
receiving a clean pair of underwear from the Street Outreach Services van
at San Francisco's Castro District.

By Yukari Iwatani

SAN FRANCISCO  - Sometimes it seems the homeless are everywhere in the city
that proclaims itself America's favorite, putting San Francisco's famed
"live and let live" liberalism to its severest test in years.

Wrapped in dirty blankets, pushing battered shopping carts, haranguing
tourists or slumped in downtown doorways, homeless men and women have
become as much a part of San Francisco's urban landscape as the Golden Gate

Social workers have coped with San Francisco's homeless for years, reaching
out to hippies, migrant workers and runaways who were drawn by the city's
liberal traditions and generally mild weather and then fell through the
economic cracks.

Now, however, politicians declare the time has come for the city to get
tough on the homeless, saying it can no longer tolerate armies of wayward
waifs and belligerent panhandlers roaming its streets.

"It is not a crime to be homeless, it is not a crime to be on the public
streets. It is, however, a crime to be drunk, to urinate and defecate (in
public places)," Mayor Willie Brown's spokeswoman Kandace Bender said.

"This is a city that needs to accommodate all of its people, not some at
the expense of others. It's reached the point where a little tough love is

Glitzy City, Rising Rents

The blame for San Francisco's homeless crisis lies in part with the city's
success. Riding high on California's economic resurgence, and lifted even
higher by the high-tech profits pouring out of nearby Silicon Valley, San
Francisco has become one of the most expensive places in the country to

With vacancy rates at less than 1% average rent for a small two-bedroom
apartment is $1,800 and a monthly welfare check barely buys three weeks in
a shabby residential hotel.

City officials estimate at least 4,500 people are living on the streets
and, if filled to capacity, city homeless shelters could accommodate only
half of them. Add those in "insufficient housing" such as residential
hotels, treatment centers and hospitals and the total number of homeless
rises to 14,000.

"I've been hanging out in a shelter because I haven't been able to afford
rent," said one neatly dressed homeless man in front of Golden Gate
Lutheran Church in the tidy Dolores Heights neighborhood, where snacks and
coffee are offered to the homeless for a few hours every afternoon.

Saying he went as far north as Petaluma, a two-hour bus ride, to look for
cheaper housing and came back discouraged, he asked: "Where do you go?"

As more people hit the streets, well-heeled San Franciscans and the
hard-pressed middle class have found themselves face to face with the
homeless in ways that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Police
efforts to clear encampments from parks have pushed homeless people into
residential neighborhoods, tourist spots and the city's button-down
financial district.

"They can push these people around but there's no place for them to go, so
they just go one block away," said a friendly military veteran who
identified himself as Nicholas, who came to a mobile medical van looking
for clean underwear.

Brown, already struggling with waves of negative publicity over the
beleaguered public transit system, now faces rising public anger over
homelessness as he plans his reelection bid this year. The result has been
a "tough love" blitz to clear homeless people out of public plazas and
crack down on overnight campers and public alcohol consumption and drug use
-- sweeps that have left homeless advocates gasping with rage and accusing
the city of violating civil liberties.

Streets Of San Francisco Pretty Mean

Despite its lenient image, the National Law Center on Homelessness and
Poverty had already tagged San Francisco as one of five U.S. cities with
the "meanest streets" for the homeless. Homeless rights advocates say the
new laws and police sweeps are not the way to deal with a problem that
refuses to be pushed under the rug.

"You can pass all the laws you want ... but you are not going to eliminate
the fact that homeless people exist," Paul Boden, head of the Coalition on
Homelessness, said.

Abby Lehrman, who has been running a mobile medical service in the city for
15 years, agreed, saying efforts to portray the homeless as society's
voluntary dropouts were wrong. "This idea that people want to live like
this I find untrue," she said.

San Francisco's homeless have found a tireless advocate in Sister Bernie
Galvin, a Catholic nun who founded the interfaith group Religious Witness
for Homeless People.

Galvin, a slender, feisty woman first awakened to the social injustices
against the disadvantaged in Louisiana's sugar cane fields more than two
decades ago, said the city should take a fresh look at other options for
affordable housing and decent shelters.

"Slow justice is no justice. ... We want Mayor Brown to take to this issue
right now the same energy, the same personal involvement that he takes to
other issues," Galvin said.

She is pushing the radical idea of using empty housing in the Presidio, a
former military base now transformed into a park, to help alleviate

A Complex Problem

But city officials say the problem is not that simple. While some homeless
have been helped by the $70 million that San Francisco spent last year on
affordable housing, shelters and treatment centers, others remain

"As with any population, there isn't just one type of person," said Maggie
Donahue, director of housing and homeless programs in the Department of
Human Services. "The majority of folks who are in the shelter have chronic
alcoholic problems, substance abuse problems and mental health issues."

While the frightened, the unstable and the unhinged tend to avoid city
shelters, Donahue and other officials say more homeless continue to arrive
in San Francisco to take advantage of its services and benefits, which, at
$345 a month for single adults, are seen as better than surrounding cities.

Tony Gardner, assistant director of HomeBase, a public policy center on
homelessness, pins his hopes on a 4-year-old task force of representatives
from three cities, nine counties, the federal government, foundations and
the homeless.

The group has already organized a regional employment program and a
homeless youth collaborative in the hopes of easing the pressure on San
Francisco and other key cities. It is also working to coordinate an
affordable housing program.

"I wouldn't say its San Francisco's fault. There is a need for the federal,
state and city governments to work together," Gardner said. "The reality is
that homelessness can be solved but it's a question of the scale of


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