A couple of evenings ago, something struck me hard while walking through my ostensibly upscale neighborhood in San Francisco — and I’m lucky it wasn’t a blunt object. Here, I should belabor the obvious and remind the reader that this city is currently an urban mecca/condo community for the young, well-moneyed tech pashas of Northern California. And with that change in the local social order, my stroll from a movie theater at Van Ness and O’Farrell to my rent-controlled apartment on Russian Hill reinforced the disparity between the classes in San Francisco and the economic challenges facing middle-class and working-class citizens still trying to live within the comparatively intimate 7×7 miles of the city limits. The blight is in effect.
Every block along my route boasted at least one sketchy, unsavory type lurking in a doorway or on a corner. I was quite obviously being assessed as I passed at least two of these glowering wraiths. As if that weren’t enough, a benign-looking suburban dad type stood at the corner of Geary and Van Ness with a baby in a carriage. But he was not waiting for the light to change. As I approached, he asked if I could spare a dollar … or five. Did I feel a pang of guilt, despite my own debts? Maybe. Maybe not. I kept moving.
The coup de grâce hit at a three-story commercial space one street away from my place. It’s a door down from a Chinese restaurant, and right next to the first of a string of residential buildings that continue all the way north to Bay Street. With one last intersection to cross before getting home, I heard a scratchy, accusatory woman’s voice ask, “What are you staring at?” I turned to see a three-sided cardboard wall in the corner of the recessed entryway. Atop the cardboard hutch, an open umbrella served as a makeshift roof. The disembodied voice barked, “Get away!” I kept moving.
Late the next morning, on the way to my local cafe, I noticed the elevated space that just hours before had been occupied by homeless. It was now clear of detritus and in use as the entry to a weight-loss clinic. At the cafe, regulars were discussing a laptop computer snatch-and-grab theft that had occurred recently — one of at least three in recent memory, two of which were in broad daylight. The conversation veered into a rather unpleasant recitation of statistics about car break-ins that had been on the upswing in the area.
That night, I saw that the cardboard shelter was back, albeit in a different configuration and sans bumbershoot. The woman’s invective was replaced by a hissing sound. As on the night before, the march of the downtrodden, the desperate, and the needy into a relatively safe district where I’ve lived for years would continue unabated. That their numbers appear to grow on a daily basis is not surprising anymore. On the other hand, the sheer presence of these impoverished souls and the marked increase in begging inspired a usually tolerant acquaintance to reference the streets of Mumbai
… with trepidation.
It could be the compression of space ensured by San Francisco’s comparative intimacy that has made the problem appear so all-pervasive. In any event, complaints about the increasing number of street people — especially those who engage in aggressive panhandling or seem … um … unhinged — are common on the part of longtime residents. It’s enough to reinforce my satisfaction at all the time I spend in Los Angeles, where the number of homeless and disenfranchised people doesn’t seem so extreme when spread out amid the sprawl of the Los Angeles metroplex. Of course, that’s a little misleading.
About eight years ago, I was in downtown Los Angeles on a movie shoot. Base camp was set up at a vacant parking lot in then-seedy environs that have since undergone massive renovation, reclamation, and gentrification. Before the art galleries, spruced-up hotels, high-end bars and restaurants, and condominium conversions of the past decade, it was downright desolate by day.
The filming kept up at a ramshackle edifice passing for a New York skyscraper until we lost the light. As the sun went down, the crew returned to base camp — and something else happened. Battered, unkempt, discarded people emerged from wherever they had been in the daytime, shambling in groups like zombies, and making entreaties for spare change as they passed among us. As darkness fell, the streets were theirs. I’d make a joke about “The Walking Dead” if the memory of the situation weren’t so sad.
Over the years that followed, downtown Los Angeles became a go-to destination for the well-heeled and the in-crowders — some having moved in, others just there for a good time. The area even has its own acronym: DTLA. But on Art Walk nights when the sidewalks are jammed with patrons and scene-makers, zombies still walk among them. They’re just not so easy to spot with all the revelry going on.
You won’t find them on Rodeo Drive, which is spotless, because the authorities in Beverly Hills won’t allow them. They’re not ambling by the well-manicured lawns of Bel-Air, Brentwood, and Hancock Park, because security is on the job. But the costumed character performers in front of the landmark Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard share the space with them as do the tourists and taxpayers stepping over the stars embedded into the pavement.
Itinerant types have long populated the streets of funky, arty Venice, and now, the beaches of tony Pacific Palisades are seeing the homeless sunbathe at noon and huddle together at twilight.
So the problem won’t go away — in San Francisco or Los Angeles or countless other locations across the continent and around the globe. In my two cities, it appears as if social services are underfunded and understaffed. The disparity between the haves and the have-nots gets wider and wider. Fear creeps in on both sides. Something has to be done, and I’m at a loss to know what it is. Any ideas? Anybody?