Hard Times USA

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.

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. 

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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.

"It's like more competition for everything,"  a 43-year-old man who said his name was Jose—no last name, please—complained the other day. He was sweeping up trash by his camp, as he said he had promised a Department of Public Works employee.

Of course, the city is not alone. New York and Los Angeles have an exploding homeless population, and other large cities experiencing housing booms are in the same boat. But homelessness has been San Francisco's signature issue for 20 years at least. It has bedeviled mayors and caused the downfall of more than one. Its absence from the current gentrification debate is so striking that one city supervisor, Mark Farrell, publicly asked why last month. He also scheduled several hearings to discuss why homelessness remains intractable despite 50 different homeless programs costing $165 million a year. The first hearing, nearly three hours long, came and went, unnoticed by the public.

Tourists complain about homeless people all the time, as they have for years. Panhandlers, homeless or not, have long made the city's tourist hot-spots their hot-spots. The encampments of homeless people in the city's so-called mid-Market Street area, where companies like Twitter have set up headquarters in exchange for tax breaks and a commitment to invest in the community, have gotten City Hall's attention. Just not in the way advocates for the homeless would like.  

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee has been ordering the police department to increase patrols to crack down on drug-dealing and other illegal activities, including loitering, among people congregating on mid-Market. That has shifted more people to nearby neighborhoods, where merchants are complaining about people camped out on their stoops or storefronts. The San Francisco Public Library, which has been touted as a national model for how to humanely address the many homeless patrons in libraries, is also suffering repercussions from the crackdown. When the police started rousting people on Market Street, some moved over to the library, which is right nearby. After a rash of violent and bizarre incidents—a man smashing a glass table with a hammer, for one—the mayor ordered stepped-up security at the library and increased penalties for those who violate the library's code of conduct, which includes a ban on offensive body odor.

Other recent developments in the city have increased street camping. In November, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to close city parks overnight, where dozens of homeless people used to sleep. In December, a drop-in center in the Haight-Ashbury that provided showers, food, a place to sleep and other services for homeless youth lost its lease. Some of its clients, who used to sleep there or in Golden Gate Park, have ended up congregating at a Safeway parking lot. The supermarket recently installed sharp pointed iron railings around its decorative concrete planters to prevent people from sitting on them. 

St. Boniface, which first opened its doors for homeless people to sleep 10 years ago, is hosting more people than ever before—more than 100 each day—in part because the city swept a large encampment out of a regional commuter terminal, the Transbay Terminal, in order to renovate it. 

All this adds up to a lot of shuffling of the most downtrodden people in the city from here to there. 

Bevan Dufty, who directs City Hall's homeless programs, called the situation "frustrating." "It costs more to mitigate the effects of homelessness," he said, "than it does to house people."

But there are bright spots in the city's homeless picture, Dufty added. Homelessness among veterans is down 30 percent in two years, thanks in part to federal funding for housing vouchers. Dufty said the city has also just opened new housing for 40 young adults and is set to open two more facilities for young adults this year. 

If some of the city's deep-pocketed residents take notice, perhaps some real progress on homelessness could be made. As Dufty said, "Twitter has made a lot of millionaires."

Evelyn Nieves is a senior contributing writer and editor at AlterNet, living in San Francisco. She has been a reporter for both the New York Times and the Washington Post.