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    Down and Out on the Streets of San Francisco

    Rafael Mandelman

    Rafael Mandelman

    San Franciscans hate homelessness. Some of us blame the homeless themselves for their circumstances. Others see, in the disorder in our BART stations and on our sidewalks, the obscene consequences of the increasing economic inequality and fraying of our social safety net that have been accelerating since the eighties. Whatever the explanation, it’s the rare individual who manages to spend any significant time in our City without at least a twinge of unease that so many among us lack a safe warm place to sleep each night. And I think for most of us housed folks, it’s more than a twinge; it’s a recurrent revulsion at how many very sick people are being left to rot and die on our streets.

    Of course we become inured to it over time, but every so often something happens to make the human tragedy playing out just outside our doors a little more real. I had one such shock a few years when, volunteering at a Sunday morning breakfast for poor and homeless people, I found myself looking into the eyes of a guy I had gone on a few dates with a decade before. The last time I had seen him, he was a UC Berkeley grad with a good job and on the way up. Since then, I learned he had spiraled out, developed a meth habit, seroconverted, lost his job and his home, and now there he was, living outdoors, waiting in line at a church for a free meal.

    Just this last month I received a chain of worried emails about an old college friend, so sweet and charming then, now bipolar and likely using drugs, who had found his way from our happy times at Yale twenty years before to the streets of San Francisco today. This friend has plainly gone completely bonkers, and yet those who have tried to intervene and get him help have found there is nothing that they could do. He’s been repeatedly talked to, and occasionally picked up by the police, but unless he poses an imminent threat to himself or others, the police say, there is no help for him. And besides, they tell us, there aren’t enough psychiatric beds even for those people who are an imminent threat. Our friend is on his own.

    Coincidentally, I recently happened upon an article about City cuts to the services provided by the Homeless Outreach Team. As reported by Randy Shaw in Beyond Chron (“SF Cuts Homeless Outreach,” August 28, 2014), through the end of November, the Team will, among other reductions, discontinue transport and outreach services on Saturdays and Sundays, and not accept any new case management clients until further notice. The Team will remain staffed 24 hours a day Monday through Friday; however, reads the Department of Public Health Advisory, “expect delays.”

    Now there may be a perfectly reasonable explanation for these cuts. And indeed, given the reality of limited and insufficient public dollars, it may be more appropriate to spend those resources on the beds and services themselves rather than on outreach to homeless people for whom no beds or services are available.

    Yet I still wonder, how this can possibly be? Here we are a decade after Angela Alioto and Gavin Newsom gave us their Ten Year Plan To End Chronic Homelessness, after a series of opportunistic ballot measures promoted by politicians pandering to San Franciscans’ outrage over the colonization of our public spaces by people who have nowhere else to be, living in one of the wealthiest cities and regions on earth. But the painfully obvious truth is we have no real plan to end chronic homelessness; we haven’t even tried to figure out what that would look like or how much it would cost.  Although we are creatively and continuously converting our City into an ever more efficient platform for the generation of private wealth, we have not shown similar creativity in tapping that wealth to solve our most pressing public problems.

    As Newsom used to like to say, “If you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’ll get what you got.” What we got is thousands of sick homeless people drifting alone among us, getting sicker and sicker, with little dignity and less hope. San Franciscans are right to be outraged; the fact is we may not be outraged enough.

    Rafael Mandelman was elected to the San Francisco Community College Board of Trustees in 2012. He is a partner at Burke, Williams & Sorensen, LLP.