"The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members" Ghandi
The end of a beautiful blustery San Francisco day and as the sun leaves the sky the clatter of shopping carts on the sidewalk can be heard on streets across the city, particularly those emanating from the Civic Center... This is the hour the homeless people seek their sheltered nook, doorway, quiet corner, to rest-up for the night. A clattering bunch of gaunt worn out dirty figures, sharing a quest for some semblance of comfort, for some respite from the swirling gusts of Pacific cool air that can chill the bones.
As one eloquent vagabond said on the 'F' train as I rode it back from the Civic Center Farmer's Market on Wednesday - "The weather here is clement, everyday I need only ask myself, should I have the zipper on my coat open or closed? I wouldn't want to try living on the streets of Chicago, where I grew up." and a passenger sitting next to him laughed and said, "Yeah! I don't miss Detroit weather either!"
The mild San Francisco weather, with an average low of 45 degrees at night and high of 66 degrees during the day, throughout the year, with low rainfall and seasons that seem to merge - albeit for the cold fog, that gets sucked in from the ocean by the blistering temperatures in the Central Valley, and sits over the city for days and weeks at a time in August - this climate is moderate, considerate to the homeless man, the barefoot amongst us.
There are so many homeless people in San Francisco and so many reasons I have heard, including the weather, as to why the city is a magnet for this wandering underclass. The amount of services the city provides for the destitute, in comparison to other US cities, is oft cited as a main draw. So many of these people have mental health problems, despite the many services the city offers it is overwhelmed by the sheer numbers and complex needs. It is painful to see the most vulnerable amongst us so vulnerable.
I mostly make myself look and acknowledge these folk, they are souls in human form just like the rest of us. But my heart hardens a bit each time, some part of my humanity is eaten away, is compromised when I ignore their plea for food or money and turn my head and walk away.
And these impoverished beings take up temporary residence on the sidewalks all round where we live, and hunker down for another night. A reminder that we are so far from creating a compassionate, fair world.
Further thoughts and links:
To keep up with the latest on Homelessness in San Francisco, San Francisco Chronicle Reporter Kevin Fagin, and photographer Brant Ward, have been covering the scene since 2003. (the San Francisco city budget is $167million, or $34 per homeless person per day (SF Gate, April 21 2014))
Another viewpoint in Medium - Homelessness in San Francisco - January 2014
By it's very nature, homelessness is difficult to measure. Oftentimes it is a transitory state as people enter crisis, the more able amongst them then work their way out of it, sometimes with the support of family and friends, sometimes with the support of welfare services, sometimes both. On average 26% of the homeless population in the United States are considered mentally ill, 13% physically disabled, 19% are victims of domestic violence, 13% veterans (US Conference of Mayors, 2008).
The National Coalition for the Homeless currently states that the "United States generates homelessness at a much higher rate than previously thought". As well as personal crises, there are many forces at work; the ongoing effect of the subprime crisis leading to foreclosures on homes leading to evictions, the economic crisis in general has contributed to the growing homeless population (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty), unusual storming weather patterns - the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 resulted in over 50,000 people made homeless (NCH Factsheet August 2007) - there are many San Francisco stories of New Orleans folk finding there way here in the hope that a long lost friend or relative would put them up.
The less able, (read complex needs - mentally ill and physically disabled, abused and a veteran) the 'hard core' remain untethered, they have moved beyond the web of human relationships that keep us all safe and sane into another post apocalyptic realm. They have fallen through the gaps into an anti-social post-traumatic wasteland, populating our nightmares, keeping us focused on our own survival - after all we could end up like them.