I've been thinking about what you said all day, as I watch the equally caustic responses to your words stream through my news feed. Personally, I found your words more disturbing than offensive because I'm afraid that they reflect the uninformed views of so many more. I am curious about you. I wonder how long you've been in San Francisco, how long you've been watching the city evolve, and how wide your understanding is of homelessness. I'm a teacher by nature, and I would like to help you understand this issue a bit more so that you can help educate others.
During college, I did volunteer work as a Crisis Counselor with San Francisco Suicide Prevention. Part of our thorough training was a history of mental health care in California. Did you know that California used to have a vast, comprehensive public mental healthcare system? During his tenure as governor, Ronald Reagan gutted the system, leaving very little behind. People end up in public mental health care because they either have no family, or their families cannot afford the care they need. This may change with the ACA, but up until now mental health care has barely, if at all, been covered under insurance plans. Most plans will cover maybe 10 therapy visits, which doesn't even begin to appropriately care for someone who is severely ill.
The huge gaps in social support for persons with mental illness are an important factor in homelessness. Many of these people cannot "pick themselves up by their boot straps," get a job and lead a normal life. I used to regularly talk to a man on the hotline who thought that dollar bills were illegal, and that everyone but he and the people of Australia were robots. Without someone to take care of him, he would surely be raving in and living on the streets.
This is an example of someone who is severely mentally ill. But what about the more subtle disabilities? The majority of the people I spoke to on the hotline found themselves in the positions they were in as a result of being the recipients of abuse as children- in particular, physical and sexual. I hope that this was not a part of your upbringing, and that you have no personal understanding of what it does to a person to be abused in these ways. I will explain for you. Being abused encodes a deep sense of unworthiness into the minds and hearts of its recipients. If the child’s environment enforces or fails to correct the abuse, the child will grow up to believe that they are unworthy of the things most of us take for granted- happiness, love, safety, respect, consistency, healthy relationships, etc. If the abuse is severe and/or sustained long enough, it can be the cause of mental illness that otherwise may have never existed. Even if something more severe such as Dissociative Identity Disorder doesn't present itself, it is sadly common for the recipients of abuse to develop substance abuse problems very early, in addition to depression or anxiety, explosive anger, impulse control, self-abuse such as cutting or eating disorders and a multitude of other issues that can prove to be quite debilitating.
Further compounding the already complex issue of homelessness in San Francisco is a sneaky tactic used by other US cities to bus their homeless population to our city. Although no one will admit to this still being unofficial policy in their city governments, it was for a time. This is such a problem that San Francisco created a program called Homeward Bound, offering homeless people bus tickets back to wherever they came from. Without a solid public mental health care system and with the existing non-profits overwhelmed and at capacity, there are very few options for the vulnerable, often deeply wounded and mentally ill inhabitants of our city.
The area of Market Street that you described is, yes, in the heart of the city. It also happens to be the area of town that belongs to the “degenerates,” as you put it. The Tenderloin and the SOMA may now be on the gentrification chopping block, but they have been the home for low income families, artists, the mentally ill, pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers and others on the fringe for far longer than either of us have been alive. I lived in the Tenderloin for several years and in that time, while not enjoying the constant urine smell and occasional gun shots, met some truly lovely human beings. Most of them approached me not for money, but to make sure I wasn't lost because as a young, healthy white woman, I didn't appear to belong. I ended up moving out because the (young, friendly, white kid) next door was beating the hell out of his (young, friendly, white) girlfriend and I couldn't handle not being able to do anything about it. You know, I witnessed some intense, ridiculous, disturbing things in all my years in the neighborhood, but nothing comes close to the horror I heard that boy scream at that girl through the walls. Nothing.
If the most grotesque experience of your travels thus far is walking down Market Street, I have two thoughts for you: 1) Congratulations! It is rare to live so long and be spared more traumatic experiences, and 2) I don’t know where you've been travelling, but I’m guessing you’re not having much of an adventure. Which cities are you referring to when you say “cosmopolitan”? There are some beautiful, clean cosmopolitan cities in the world, like Vienna, but the rest of the cities I've ever visited are dirty and gritty, at least in part. I was once very aggressively accosted by a homeless man in a Paris McDonalds (I swear, going in that McDonalds was not my call). Paris is dirty, as are Rome and New York and Chicago. Have you ever been to Seattle? Their homeless population is way scarier and more aggressive than San Francisco’s. I digress.
What I hope you take away from all this is that the relative squalor that characterizes Mid Market is a complex problem, symptomatic of much deeper societal issues, which begs a very thoughtful discussion and a sophisticated understanding. If we have been fortunate enough to travel the world, to have access to a good education, to have been raised by mostly functional, loving families, then perhaps we’re in the position to help those who have not. Ask not what the crazy, toothless lady can do for you, but what you can do for the crazy, toothless lady. I’m not even asking you to part with any of your hard earned, American money, but simply to educate yourself about this topic. Rather than wallowing in your own discomfort and lashing out at those people who caused it, get curious. Ask questions. How did it happen that so many people could slip through the cracks? What are the multi-faceted factors and issues which contribute to this problem? What approaches can be taken to best address them?
There is a brokenness in the minds and hearts of these most vulnerable people which can only be healed with love. Our love. Allowing ourselves to love another in this way means opening our hearts to grief, pain, sadness. Harden not your heart, dear. Being able to love so deeply, through our own fears and discomforts, is an essential skill for a full, rich, wild human life. That is my wish for you, and my challenge to you. Open your heart very completely to those who frighten you. Then you’ll get to see what you’re so afraid of, and be that much freer.
Love, Respect, and Prayers for Greatness,