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On the Homeless Front 

Providing comprehensive services for street people is morally uplifting -- and, as shown in New York, good policy

Wednesday, Nov 14 2001
Sexagenarian pamphleteer Bruce B. Brugmann is around 6 1/2 feet tall and carries the weight of a generous side of beef. His fists are only slightly smaller than cabbages. For reach, think Sonny Liston. On Nov. 7, not long after the late-night death knells began sounding for the public power initiative that had been Brugmann's life work, he lost his composure. Brugmann flailed his right arm like a berserk oil rig, bellowing so loudly City Hall seemed to shake.

Across the City Hall atrium, where reporters, candidates, government officials, and hangers-on awaited the vote tally, more craziness ensued. Joe O'Donoghue, a small-time fixer who had opposed Brugmann's dream, kibitzed in his usual way: talking endlessly in an urgent tone, but with an automaton's dead eyes. Not far away Jim Reid was suffering his third straight political loss in as many years. In 1999 he polled 0.8 percent in the 1999 mayoral race; in 2000 he led a completely ignored campaign to impeach Mayor Willie Brown. Tuesday he lost a bid to be a director of Brugmann's failed utility district -- yet he wore the indelible mad smile of a boy on his wedding day.

City Hall was a frightening place that night, and not because of anthrax scares. There's no horror like being confronted with how fragile sanity is, how real the possibility that, with a four-foot leap in mental state, we could also go flying over the edge. On Nov. 7 the public must have sensed this horror. In San Francisco, home of America's most active political culture, only 28.5 percent of registered voters cast ballots.

Or perhaps they merely didn't know the election existed. Campaign coverage in the city's major daily, the San Francisco Chronicle, consisted largely of stories insisting that nobody was paying attention to the election the paper wasn't covering.

Instead, the paper filled pages with features such as "Squalor in the Streets," a five-part Sunday series that examined the pressing issue of how to deal with street people who have become too visible near the Chronicle building at Fifth and Mission streets. (The Chronicle's stories followed the San Francisco Examiner's "Mess on Market Street," an occasional series that alerted the public to the existence of unsightly homeless people in front of the Examiner's offices.)

The limited coverage was the Chronicle's loss, because the paper missed a crazy campaign in which issues were shaped by unstable zealots, and voters were given the backward-world opportunity to vote utility district director candidates into offices that might have existed, but never will. It's over now, and soon we must get down to real, serious business again, such as homelessness.

In the same dysfunctional way that a fear of chaos and insanity within the political classes may have kept ordinary people from their polling places last week, the dark phobias that homeless people inspire in their fellow citizens have kept this city and state from seriously engaging the problem.

Many of the homeless are mentally unstable; a lot are on drugs or suffer from other destructive personal habits. For some, life fell apart following a family crisis -- a divorce, or the children were institutionalized, or an irreplaceable loved one died. Others simply couldn't pay rent anymore.

In other words, the homeless are like any of us would be, if not for happenstance. This prospect is horrifying, so we avoid including the severely unfortunate in our conception of ourselves; we become a population of homeless-phobes.

To help us understand that the homeless didn't always inspire horror and loathing, it's useful to head to 220 Golden Gate Ave. and recall a time of national devastation. "During the Great Depression, the Central YMCA Relief Program provided free lodging, meals, medicine, clothing, haircuts, and baths to over 14,000 men and boys who found themselves on the streets of San Francisco," a historical time-line on the west wall of the Y's lobby shows. That's about the number of people homeless advocates say live on San Francisco streets today. The Depression was a distinct era, to be sure; a quarter of the economy had disappeared, almost overnight. But it seems we may have possessed the capacity, then, to see the destitute as belonging to the community we inhabit.

The Sunday series said "a Chronicle investigation suggests the city may be misspending its money, investing in long-term programs aimed at "breaking the cycle of homelessness' instead of getting people off the streets and into shelters." That article compared San Francisco unfavorably to New York, which offers shelter space to anyone who asks.

I spoke with Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless, the group whose 1979 "right to shelter" lawsuit spurred the court order that forced New York City to create enough emergency shelters to house all its homeless. But Markee says the most important strides to improve New York's homeless problem came in 1990, when the city and state banded together to launch long-term, "breaking the cycle of homelessness" programs on a massive scale.

I lived in New York at that time and recall negotiating a gauntlet of panhandlers everywhere I went. That year, on a typical night, around 10,000 people stayed in huge armories -- hideous, dangerous places that were often riskier than the streets.

But then, Gov. Mario Cuomo and Mayor David Dinkins signed an agreement that had the government build nearly 5,000 units of housing for the mentally ill and homeless. Four years later, with the permanent units in place, the homeless population was down to 6,100. An overhaul of the emergency shelter system created smaller, more humane housing, scattered throughout the city. Now, New York is cited as a model of humanity toward the homeless -- a shocking notion given my memories of its homelessness heyday.

According to Markee, San Francisco is about where New York was 10 years ago: Thousands of people sleep on the streets, the citizenry is alarmed, and nobody seems to know what to do.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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