On Homelessness in the Haight: Listening to My Mother
by Steve Heilig, November 3, 2010
When my mother died late on a recent night, I knew I would not be getting any sleep anytime soon, and so went out to walk in the dark. In my semi-shocked state, the next eight hours turned into an unintended experiment of sorts.
I've lived in San Francisco's "Upper Haight" for decades, and so gravitated towards nearby Golden Gate Park. The park is officially closed late at night but I was in no mood for petty unenforceable laws. I know the park well but was reminded how dark it can be out there late at night. My large dog Shuggie, who is usually near-rabid about chasing the resident squirrels, seemed reluctant to venture into the dark trails. But in we went.
Having camped out on five continents, in wilderness and urban centers, in all sorts of inclement weather, I've never felt threatened at night, at least not by humans. San Francisco's homeless population has long been widespread in the park, and of late has been getting bad press regarding aggressive behavior, mean dogs, and so forth. Especially in the Haight; a corpse was found this summer right near the Park police station. Mostly, there has been much lamenting about "aggressive" street people in the area. Some of this must have been in the back of my mind, for little creaks of branches made me jump a bit, and Shuggie growled as well. But we kept walking.
In fact, we walked too far, almost to the beach, and it got too late, and I was too tired and, probably, disoriented by the grief I was trying to keep at bay. So I decided to attempt sleep, in the park, as dawn was only a few hours away. It wasn't too hard to find a soft spot under a tree, away from any trail. It was foggy but not too cold, and I lay on my side, my arm for a pillow. Shuggie laid down next to me, again seemingly against his will. But real sleep eluded us both; exhausted, I did drift in and out a bit, but remained somewhat on alert, as did Shuggie, who more than once sat erect and growled at something I could not see. The next few hours were long and I did get cold, once my blood slowed down and dawn approached.
It could have been miserable, but of course I was just playing at homelessness. I was likely the most affluent, healthiest sleeper in the park that night, being a homeowner, landlord, fully-insured and often over-employed person. I recalled when, as a teen, I would hitchhike around the country, with only a few dollars in my pocket but an American Express card in my shoe and phone numbers that could get me out of almost any trouble. So even if I was feeling some discomfort and even despair, it was not, could not, be what a truly homeless and impoverished person might endure in our city. Addiction issues are one of my specialties and I know all too much about the derailing effects of alcohol and drugs. In my career I have also seen too many times what those without health insurance can go through; lying on the ground in the dark, I tried to imagine what it might feel like to be ill there, and alert to real or imagined threats. I'm as wary as most about scary pit bulls, even if I know their aggression usually comes from no fault of their own, but I realized why homeless people might wish to have an intimidating dog to sleep with.
Some residents of my neighborhood - and some wealthy interests from outside it - are pushing for a "sit/lie" law to help clear the streets of undesirables; some of the same folks are trying to close a local recycling center they see as a nuisance which draws, or at least supports, homeless people. There is a proposal to more strictly close the park at night. Some of these efforts might have some merit, or at least be well-intended. But they are likely also doomed to be ineffectual at dealing with homelessness. They will simply move people around, make it harder for them to survive, perhaps push some further towards desperation and the very behavior we upstanding, housed, insured citizens don't like. They won't touch the underlying reasons we have so many homeless people.
I asked a longtime local beat cop how he thought the sit/lie proposal might help things and he just guffawed and said, "Don't make me laugh." But another younger officer thought it would be a big help. I have merchant friends on both sides of the issue too. So it seems to be a matter of perspective. But all agree it is a small minority of people who cause any problems, and there is an old legal maxim that "bad cases make for bad laws."
In broader context, even a misguided crackdown on the homeless comes at a harsh time. Poverty is now at its worst level in decades. New American Media's "Misery Index," which counts poverty-related numbers such as those receiving food stamps, unemployed, on MediCal, evictions, auto repossessions, emergency room visits, and so on, is significantly up across the board. A recent Chronicle story detailed how a simple deletion of the cheapest meal at McDonald's adds to local hunger. It's long been a dynamic that when times get tough, we often blame and even persecute the least fortunate. But I've always expected better of my neighborhood.
So I have to differ with local neighborhood associations and others who push such policies. Of course assaults should not be tolerated, and should be prosecuted. But having lived in the Haight for over a quarter of century, I have seen such controversies come and go. Walking the Haight day and night all that time - until recently, without a dog - I have never had any serious problems with anybody. The street people, some of whom are undeniably playing at homelessness like I did, come and go. The recycling center, clinics and other humanitarian programs that have also been opposed by some homeowners were present before many of the complainers. If past years are any precedent, most of the street toughs will leave town or at least find a place to stay once it really starts raining. "Sit/lie", even if enacted, is likely to have little if any impact.
We made it out of the park safely that morning, of course, and were waiting at a local café at opening time - and hot coffee and breakfast never tasted better. Sitting there, I thought about my mom. A veteran nurse, she had worked with some tough customers in an alcohol rehab clinic. She only visited our city a few times, mainly to attend her beloved opera, but also walked my neighborhood with me. She was tiny in stature but not cowed by the Haight's craziness; she loved the "colorful" street scene. A religious person all her life, she only told me a couple credos, such as the Golden Rule and "before you judge anybody, take a walk in their shoes." She loved the classic film Gandhi and agreed with his answer, when asked what made him saddest in life: "The hard heart of the world's most educated."
I think our local anti-homeless crusaders might do well to listen to such perspectives. If I may be so presumptuous, maybe they should think and feel more like my late mother did. Once, after I found her chatting with a tall scruffy Haight panhandler, the bemused street tough turned to me as I steered her gently away and said "Hey man, your mom is cool."
I agreed. She was. So, thanks, mom. I owe you much, and this one's for you.