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In the Nation's Boomtown, Homeless People are More Visible and Invisible Than Ever

Wealthy San Francisco is where elderly homeless women sit at bus stops all day waiting for shelter beds.
 
 
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The sanctuary at Saint Boniface Church looks like a Red Cross center after an earthquake. People are sleeping two to a pew, spread out on blankets on the ceramic floor in the back of the church, or slumped, chins on their chests, on chairs by the old confessionals. 

It's noon, but that's like midnight in the upside-down world of the people who wait awake all night in alleys, under bridges, in doorways and, more and more, on the sidewalks, for somewhere they can sleep in peace. At 6am, when Saint Boniface opens its massive oak doors, a few dozen people are already waiting to get inside. They keep straggling in all morning, claiming their spot on hard benches designed to keep people awake. Some take a break late morning and get on the block-long lunch line across the street at the St. Anthony Foundation, which feeds 2,600 people a day. Others sleep the sleep of the dead until 3pm, when everyone has to leave to survive another day and night on the streets. 

Yes, this is San Francisco, booming techtropolis of new brew pubs, fusion cuisines and $2,000-a-month studio apartments. It's also a city where elderly homeless women sit at bus stops all day waiting for shelter beds; where an encampment of 10 homeless men and women kicked out of a patch of dirt next to an overpass now live under that overpass; and where pup tents are popping up on leafy, tree-lined streets. 

The city has been getting lots of attention since the Brookings Institution announced last month that San Francisco is the nation's capital of growing income inequality, with more haves next to more have-nots than anywhere else in the country, even New York. The culture war in neighborhoods like the Mission District, the heart of the heart of the high-tech bubble, has gotten fierce. Resentment over the big white buses that pick up and drop off workers from Apple, Google, Facebook and other Silicon Valley companies to the Mission, is so pervasive, it’s almost a cliche. Reporters hoping to document the divide keep dropping by, from all over. The other day, a Japanese news crew and a French freelance videographer jostled for position at a busy corner on Mission Street. Both wanted to film workers getting off a Google bus and an elderly couple peddling Mexican pastries on the corner at the same time. Haves, have-nots, bingo.

Lost in all the anguished discussions over the artists, working-class families and senior citizens getting forced out by landlords raising rents or startup millionaires buying buildings and evicting tenants is this glaring reality: thousands of people are living on the streets of San Francisco, the most in a decade.

Officially, the most current numbers of homeless people in San Francisco are between 6,436 and 7,350. (The city did two homeless counts, one of homeless adults, for the first figure, and a separate one, of homeless youth, which counted 914 teens and young adults on their own. City officials say some in the first count may have been counted in the second.) About half of the homeless people counted were in shelters, hospitals and jails. 

Advocates for the homeless say the numbers may be much higher than the official count, since so many homeless people find temporary quarters, on friends' couches, in cheap hotels for a night or week, or doubled up with relatives. No matter the numbers, to anyone who has lived in the city for even five years, it is obvious that there are more people walking the streets carrying all they own than there used to be. People who are homeless say so, too. In talks with about a dozen people living in an encampment under a freeway ramp in the Mission, everyone said they are running into more people at the recycling center, sleeping in spots they thought no one else knew about and vying for the same odd jobs—like sweeping a gas station—for food money.

 
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