The San Francisco Chronicle has put together a pretty deep look at San Francisco’s homeless crisis. The concept is to look at the story over the course of one long day, June 18th, from the perspective of 36 different journalists covering different aspects of it from several different vantage points. So we get the story of wheelchair-bound Alex Pierson aka “Shorty” who has lived on the streets for years and survives by panhandling with the help of his homeless friends:
Shorty is hurting. Like every day about this time, he needs his first hit of meth. He hasn’t eaten anything since the afternoon before, but his guts are so tight from the need for that hit, his nerves so jumpy, that he can’t eat. He sits with his homeless friends in his wheelchair under a palm tree across from the Ferry Building and fidgets.
“Hey, Zito, I need you to take care of me,” he tells 45-year-old James Zito.
Zito pulls out a little box of dope, rolls up a dollar bill, taps a line of speed onto a lottery ticket and takes a snort. Then he lays out a new line on the ticket and hands it to Shorty…
There’s little danger of cops busting him. In San Francisco, they focus on the big dealers, not the users.
The grin fades in moments. Shorty rolls a few feet away and lights up a pipe bowl of pot.
“The drugs, the addiction, are a damper on my life,” he says quietly, and Zito nods, overhearing. “You think we want to depend on this stuff? No. Deep down, we really want normal lives.”
But some of the stories are surprising. For instance, Jimmie Wu is a veteran living in an Econoline van by choice. He’s getting money every month and is attending college but figures it’s crazy to pay rent in a city like San Francisco. By living in his van, he’s managed to save tens of thousands of dollars for his future.
Some of the vignettes in the piece are presented in the form of animated cartoons. Some are audio files. And there are some videos like the one of a police officer trying to wake a man sleeping in a hammock slung in a tree 15 feet off the ground. There’s also a video of one man who says he doesn’t like it that women find him scary or that people cross the street to avoid him. But looking at him, I wouldn’t blame any woman who did so. People on drugs are unpredictable.
One aspect of the story touched on several times is the city’s public transit. This is where homeless people with nowhere else to go eventually wind up.
Methodically walking through each railcar, BART police Sgt. Nick Mavrakis and Officer Youn Seraypheap remind everyone aboard that this will be the end of the line — literally. The train is headed to San Francisco International Airport from Powell Street, with no train returning to the city.
The officers are looking for homeless people. They find one in DeShawn Evans, who is sprawled across the seats.
“You gotta get up, sir,” Mavrakis says. “You can’t take up two seats. Sit up, please.”
Evans, 24, slowly rises. When the cops leave, he slumps back down.
Not all of the end-of-night encounters end as easily. When a bus driver was unable to get a homeless man sleeping in the back to leave her bus at the end of the night, she wound up having to call the police:
“The bus driver asked you to get off,” one says, “so it’s time to get off.”
Evans sits up petulantly, stomps off the bus and walks a half block up Fremont Street, where he curls up in a doorway next to a parking garage for the Salesforce West building. Less than 10 minutes later, a flashlight is pointed his way.
Evans jabs his leg at the private security guard’s shin.
“Don’t you kick me!” the guard says, and calls the cops. Fifteen minutes later, two officers show up.
“Sir, it’s the Police Department. Wake up.” Nothing. “Sir, if you don’t sit up on your own we’re going to grab you.”
Suddenly, Evans begins demanding they call an ambulance. “Call the f— ambulance, what the f—?” he says.
He stands up, cursing the cops and spitting at them. He moves off toward Powell Street BART Station. He’ll wait for it to open at 5 a.m. so he can get on a train and go back to sleep.
The whole story is worth a look. It’s amazing to think that you could repeat this journalistic exercise every day with completely different homeless people and it would take many months before you’d need to go back to the same people. The overall impression is that despite all the money the city is spending on cleaning and keeping people from settling in one place, they aren’t anywhere close to tackling this problem.
Clearly, drugs and addiction (and mental health) are behind a lot of the chronic homelessness depicted in the story but facing that head-on is not really something San Francisco seems prepared to do. There’s a brief discussion of forcing people to get help for their addictions but it’s just one small paragraph which seems equivalent to throwing one’s arms in the air in surrender:
Forcing mentally ill people in need of help into treatment is a decades-old hot-button issue with no end in sight. New city and state laws to make conservatorship easier don’t come close to answering the problem, or the debate: Is it more humane to lock people into facilities, or wait for them to come to treatment voluntarily?
And that’s it. I was left with the impression San Francisco will continue to be at the mercy of this crisis until the discussion above gets more than a passing thought. In any case, good work by the Chronicle putting together this excellent piece looking with some detail and clarity at what is really happening on the streets.
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