Monday, July 04, 2016


If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, as I do, it's hard to ignore the homeless population, whether they are rolled up in an old sleeping bag in the doorway of the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium or pitching a collection of tents under a freeway overpass in West Oakland. There they are, and what are we going to do?  I started this post after reading and hearing a full week of coverage of press and radio coverage of the situation, assembled by 70 local Bay Area news organizations and organized by the San Francisco Chronicle.

I've written before about the housing issues caused by gentrification in this area (Gentrification) - rich people are bidding up the price of housing (both bought and rented) to the point that families who have lived here for generations have to move out of town.  This does, of course, affect the size of the homeless population, especially for renters:  a rise in your rent can mean you either have to move to Antioch (a 90 minute commute each way) or move into your car.  Or the nearest tent city.  Loss of a job can do the same thing.

The homeless population appears to range from people who are merely unfortunate (laid off because a business closes, say), to people who are ill in some way (anything from addiction to hepatitis to raging schizophrenia to Alzheimer's), to people who are actual criminals and prefer the anonymity of the street.  But the collective popular response to the homeless seems to be, "Ewww, them," mainly because homelessness makes it very hard for you to wash, or relieve yourself indoors.  

Many people feel that the homeless population is "not us."  We couldn't be like that.  This is self-deception; we could be them.  There was a time in my life when I could have been them.  When I was not quite 30, I decided that my 5 year old marriage wasn't working; I went alone to visit my parents and suddenly realized I couldn't go back.  At this point, luck kicked in and saved me - my parents took me in, fed me and put me up until I could find another job, which took several months.  

Here's the situation I was in:  my now ex was a spendthrift, so my bank account, which had held $500 when we married, was now down to $300 (a lot more money than you think, this was 1975).  I'd been working in a family business, so I didn't qualify for unemployment (and what a kick in the pants that was).  And because it was 1975, the credit cards were all in his name - married women at that time were just becoming able to get cards in their own names!  (The Equal Credit Opportunity Act was passed in 1974.)  

My parents were 68 and 63, and healthy, with solid pensions, living in a house they had owned outright since 1952; but if any of that had been different, I could have found myself on the street, and I knew it.  In fact, I've always known it, and I wrote my feelings up in 2008, shortly after I retired (The Bag Lady).

We are the homeless, and they are us; they're just unluckier than we are. There but for the grace of God go I.  And what do we do about that?  Some people talk about the U.S. as a "Christian nation," but as long as we leave the less fortunate sleeping on street corners, we aren't following any Christian precepts that I ever learned.  There is really only one good solution - as I said in Gentrification, we need to build more and more and more housing, mostly in tall buildings to make use of limited land. We need to build enough housing to drive down the price.  I explained this in some detail in Gentrification, so go read it there, and then think about what your beautiful views and tidy low-rise neighborhoods are doing to the people who are sleeping under the bridges.


  1. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Great piece, Karen. I know just how lucky I've been. Born white, I never doubted that all would be okay. Although my parents never went to high school, they always made sure I knew I could succeed if I worked hard. College cost $600/semester, I could live rent- free at home, and part-time jobs were easy to come by. All my life, I was never out of work; jobs were plentiful.
    Now, I shudder when I think of how it could have been - leaving college with a degree, a crushing debt burden, few job prospects, and little hope of a life better than their parents had. How has it come to this in America?

  3. Thank you, Jim. Will I sound like a conspiracy theorist if I say it's happened because the student loan industry has bought enough congresscritters (as Jim Hightower calls them) to make sure that whatever happens to the students, they can pile up the cash? I can't think of any other explanation for the absurdly high interest rates and the inability to discharge the damn loans in bankruptcy.

  4. You're addressing a complex of issues here, with sympathy and concern.

    I think we grew up in a place, and a time, in which homelessness was at some kind of historic low. I don't think I ever saw a "homeless" person in all my childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, until I began working in the city (San Francisco) in the early 1970's. People begging on the street, people sleeping in sleeping-bags on the street, etc. It was a new experience. The federal bureaucracy I worked at had some clients who were living on the edge, occasionally homeless. Many of these were people whom Ronald Reagan and exiled to Neverland, by closing the state mental institutions (and we could argue about the advisability of that for a long while). Many of these folks ended up on welfare, lived in "welfare" hotels, and lived at the bottom.

    As inflation rose and wages sagged, the income gap widened, so it became harder and harder to stay afloat economically. The economic decline in America began in the 1960's, and has been progressing every decade. Sending jobs overseas, off-shoring taxable income, wage stagnation, the continuing concentration of capital by the top 5%. Uncontrolled immigration hasn't helped. We now have an "underclass" and an official "poverty" line that supposedly applies to the bottom 30% or so of our whole population.

    Many of the homeless are people who qualify for help or benefits, but simply won't cooperate with the regulations.

    I don't think the answer is to keep "meeting demand" by expanding our safety net. The root problems are macro-economic. About numbers, and policies that favor corporations and the rich. Providing more and more money for poor people (many of whom are illegal immigrants) won't solve the causes of the problem. We're only addressing the symptoms. A prosperous nation doesn't have homeless. The first priority is to note that we're becoming bottom heavy, and the capital is all flowing upward, not downward.

    We need to prevent companies from leaving, sending jobs away. We need to close the loop-holes for escaping taxation through off-shoring capital. We need to hold the line on immigration; we don't need more people, or more workers; we have enough already. We need to reexamine the "growth" paradigm model, which always puts expansion ahead of all other choices. Bigger isn't better. Making our cities and suburbs more crowded isn't the answer. Addressing poverty and homelessness as if they were inevitable and had no etiology is dumb. Why do we have homeless, how did it happen? How can we treat the disease where it begins and spreads? Go to Detroit, or Cleveland. It's all there. We don't need sociological studies to tell us what went wrong. We know what happened. Do we have the sense and courage to meet that challenge?