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San Francisco, Hostage to the Homeless

Published: October 10, 2019
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veryone’s on drugs here . . . and stealing,” an ex-felon named Shaku explains as he rips open a blue Popsicle wrapper with his teeth. Shaku is standing in an encampment of tents, trash, and bicycles, across from San Francisco’s Glide Memorial Church. Another encampment-dweller lights a green crack pipe and passes it around. A few paces down the street, a gaunt man swipes a credit card through a series of parking meters to see if it has been reported stolen yet.

For the last three decades, San Francisco has conducted a real-life experiment in what happens when a society stops enforcing bourgeois norms of behavior. The city has done so in the name of compassion toward the homeless. The results have been the opposite: street squalor and misery have increased, even as government expenditures have ballooned. Yet the principles that have guided the city’s homelessness policy remain inviolate: homelessness is a housing problem; it is involuntary; and its persistence is the result of inadequate public spending. These propositions are readily disproved by talking to people living on the streets.

Shaku’s assessment of drug use among the homeless is widely shared. Asked if she does drugs, a formerly homeless woman, just placed in a city-subsidized single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotel, responds incredulously: “Is that a trick question?” A 33-year-old woman from Alabama, who now lives in a tent in an industrial area outside downtown, says: “Everyone out here has done something—drugs, you name it.” On Sutter Avenue, a wizened 50-year-old named Jeff slumps over his coffee cup at 7:30 AM, one hand holding a sweet roll, the other playing with his beard. A half-eaten muffin sits next to him on a filthy blanket. “I use drugs, alcohol, all of it,” he tells me, his eyes closed, as a pair of smiling German tourists deposit a peach on his blanket. Last night it was speed, he says, which has left him just a “little bit high” this morning. “The whole Tenderloin is for drugs,” Jeff observes, before nodding off again.

An inadequate supply of affordable housing is not the first thing that comes to mind when conversing with San Francisco’s street denizens. Their behavioral problems—above all, addiction and mental illness—are too obvious. Forty-two percent of respondents in the city’s 2019 street poll of the homeless reported chronic drug or alcohol use; the actual percentage is likely higher. The city relentlessly sends the message that drug use is not only acceptable but fully expected. Users dig for veins in plain view on the sidewalk; health authorities distribute more than 4.5 million syringes a year, along with Vitamin C to dissolve heroin and crack, alcohol swabs, and instructions on how to best tie one’s arm for a “hit.” Needle disposal boxes have been erected outside the city’s public toilets, signaling to children that drug use is a normal part of adult life. Only 60 percent of the city’s free needles get returned; many of the rest litter the sidewalks and streets or are flushed down toilets.

The city dispenses free needles to addicts, who often dispose of them, still filled with heroin and blood, on the streets. (ERIC RISBERG/AP PHOTO)
The city dispenses free needles to addicts, who often dispose of them, still filled with heroin and blood, on the streets. (ERIC RISBERG/AP PHOTO)

Drug sellers are as shameless as drug users. Hondurans have dominated the drug trade in the Tenderloin and around Civic Center Plaza and Union Square since the 1990s. They congregate up to a dozen a corner, openly counting and recounting large wads of cash, completing transactions with no attempt at concealment. Most of the dealers are illegal aliens. One might think that city leaders would be only too happy to hand them off to federal immigration authorities, but the political imperative to safeguard illegal aliens against deportation takes precedence over public order. Local law enforcement greets any announced federal crackdown on criminal aliens with alarm.

Curious to test the Hondurans’ threshold of suspicion, I made repeated inquiries along Hyde Street about the going rate for a dose of fentanyl, the city’s up-and-coming drug of choice. To get a quote, I would have to show the money, I was told. I offered $8, not wanting to overpay, and was directed down the block. At the corner of Hyde and Golden Gate, steps away from the UC Hastings law school, I struck a deal at $16. The seller took the cash halfway up the block and exchanged it with a skinny, bare-chested man covered with tattoos, who handed him a small Ziploc bag containing a crumbly white pellet. “Hey, baby, remember me!” my seller crooned as he handed me the packet.

Further down Hyde, a 36-year-old man in a plaid shirt, with sandy hair and blue eyes, sat on the sidewalk slouched against a car as he searched unsuccessfully for a vein in his right wrist. Switching to his left hand, he managed to draw blood into the syringe, marking a vein. I asked him to verify that I was indeed sold fentanyl. Was I a cop? he asked, accepting my response at face value. He would have to taste my purchase to confirm its authenticity, he said, honorably breaking off just a few grains rather than popping the whole pill in his mouth. (His forbearance was wise: at two grams, the pellet could have been lethal if ingested all at once, depending on its purity.) “Can I ask you how much you paid?” the addict asked groggily. “Motherfucker!” he burst out when told. “You’d ordinarily get much less than that for 20 fucking dollars. It’s because you’re new.” The junkie, originally from Seattle, begged for my stash so he could sell it to his own customers or take it himself. “If I was sober, I wouldn’t want you to give it to me,” he said, “but my problem now is that I only have five fucking dollars and I want to go to Big 5 [a sporting-goods store] because someone stole my backpack.”

The brazenness of the narcotics scene has worsened since the passage of Proposition 47, another milestone in the ongoing effort to decriminalize attacks on civilized order. The 2014 state ballot initiative downgraded a host of drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. (See “The Decriminalization Delusion,” Autumn 2015.) Local prosecutors and judges, already disinclined to penalize the drug trade so as to avoid contributing to “mass incarceration,” are even less willing to initiate a case or see it through when it is presented as a misdemeanor rather than a felony. San Francisco officers complain that drug dealers are getting neither jail time nor probation. Drug courts have closed in some California cities, reports the Washington Post, because police have lost the threat of prison time to induce addicted sellers like the Seattle man into treatment. The number of clients in San Francisco drug court dropped from 296 in 2014 to 185 in 2018, a decline of over 37 percent.

“Assault seems to have been normalized in San Francisco, at least when committed by the homeless.”

Mental illness is the other obvious condition afflicting the homeless that makes the question of affordable housing secondary. Thirty-nine percent of the homeless polled in the 2019 street survey said that they suffered from psychiatric conditions; the actual percentage is probably higher. Outside the Red Coach Motor Hotel on Eddy Street, a small, dusty man in a white T-shirt is waving his arms in the middle of the street, his pants hanging down, smartphone in hand. He yells at passersby: “I’m too fucking polite, fuck you, you take my kindness for weakness. I don’t know why you’re laughing at me. I don’t feel that way about women, but I’m the bitch!” After lunging toward me, he wheels around and continues up Polk Street, screaming and gesticulating. Two male tourists from Greece, who landed in San Francisco just hours before, observe: “We don’t have so many problems in Greece.”

Mental illness is not always so overt. A man in a Stanford University sweatshirt is lying on a grimy apricot-colored blanket on Van Ness Avenue, eyes closed, mechanically putting pieces of muffin into his mouth. Realizing that he is being observed, he sits up, centers his sunglasses on his head, and reaches for a pack of Pall Malls. Timothy, 47, says he served time in a Texas hospital for the criminally insane, following a domestic violence incident. He has been banned for life from banking with Wells Fargo after getting into a “disagreement” with a teller; Bank of America is also off limits, after he got into a “disagreement” with a manager who insulted him in Hebrew, he says. He is barred from a local shelter for getting into yet another “disagreement,” this one with someone who stole his diver’s watch. He is on probation for attacking a health worker in the San Francisco Veterans Administration hospital. He was recently in jail for brandishing a loaded BB gun in a Red Lobster restaurant. At present, however, he is affable and well-spoken. Asked why he doesn’t move to a cheaper housing market, where his $1,100 monthly VA benefits and eligibility for a large VA home loan would go far, he responds: “Because I love this place! San Francisco is an international, tolerant, peace-loving community that is often imitated but never duplicated.” He appreciates the leeway given him for his lifestyle. “If I lay down like this in Fremont?” he asks rhetorically, referring to a city across the East Bay. It is questionable whether Timothy’s presence on the streets is conducive to public safety.


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