Beyond Homelessness, There is "Homefulness"
House keys not handcuffs: Melodie, 57, has been living on the street since 2007. She keeps her belongings attached to her at all times. Photo by Ekevara Kitpowsong, whose solo exhibit, City People, is on view now through July 31 at Modern Times Bookstore Collective in San Francisco. Profits from the sale of the images will be donated to The Gubbio Project.
There are at present count over 6,000 people (and likely closer to 10,000) living outdoors, on the streets of San Francisco. They live in tent cities, in Golden Gate Park, in doorways on Market Street, in alleys in the Mission, on cardboard beds in the Haight, on patches of grass at Civic Center, in vehicles, and on benches at the beach. But the unhoused are under siege here as unaffordable housing, lack of services, and police violence continue to surge. The war against the homeless shows little sign of abating given the housing and eviction crisis: The murder of Luis Gongora by SFPD in April continues to shock and horrify with the recent revelations following his autopsy. And yet the city's technocrats and elites cleave to the idea that it's their freedoms which are being impinged upon; the sight of people living on the street is quite simply intolerable to them, though there may be a tiny crack of light in the darkness this week as Bay Area media launches an unprecedented barrage of coverage on all matters of homelessness.
The Beyond Homelessness Project began on Sunday and culminates today with over 70 Bay Area print, online, and radio outlets pledging to coordinate and intensify coverage of our beautiful and prosperous city's longstanding and growing unaffordability and its consequences. It's a baby step toward redirecting the narrative which so far, the organizer of the blitz, The San Francisco Chronicle, has either ignored or gotten terribly wrong. Failing to humanize our neighbors on the street, neglecting to report on a regular basis that around 70 percent of the people living homeless in San Francisco are displaced San Franciscans, and adhering to an editorial policy that reflects the opinions of, well, no one I know, the paper's editor-in-chief, Audrey Cooper, deigned it was time to begin more meaningful coverage on the subject of people living outdoors. Why? Because one day on her way to work she caught sight of a homeless couple having sex in their tent and it was simply too much for her to bear.
Though there has been a reporter charged with reporting on the homeless population, too often his pieces with intent to foster compassion end up doing the opposite, reinforcing ideas that longtime and new San Franciscans already hold. So when the reporter asks what may be a rhetorical question, like just when did San Francisco's streets become an "'open-air mental ward,'" I would argue the answer should be as sharp as the question. More than the result of budget cutting and law and order policies enacted in the Reagan era, the closing of mental health institutions and turning out people with no visible means of support much less the wherewithal to navigate the outside world, was the result of stone cold ticking off points on the far right's agenda. It needs to be said. And said again. So every potential voter gets the memorandum.
Here's a song Peter Case wrote 30 years about that period of time here and one San Franciscan impacted by poor federal, state, and local policy:
Over three and a half decades, San Francisco's mayors have struggled with a situation that veers from intractable to incomprehensible to potentially ripe for reform. Mayor Ed Lee's tepid assertions sound ridiculous on paper, though public outcry and pressure from the Board of Supervisors has resulted in the opening of homeless "navigation centers" and the promise of more. Meanwhile, he continues to order violent sweeps of encampments and tent cities, and police issue citations that the cited simply cannot pay, thereby criminalizing them. These so-called solutions rest uneasily side by side on the Bowery by the Bay.
Faith-based organizations carry a huge burden in caring for the downtrodden and dispossessed and yet they are increasingly marginalized and suspect themselves in secular society. Here in San Francisco the voices of religious leaders have been all but drown out and even their properties are being taken away from them. Nevertheless, the faithful continue to offer needed services like hot meals and shelter beds when the city falls short. This week the Rev. Cecil Williams, founder of Glide, one of the city's biggest providers of services wrote an editorial in which he declared homelessness a man-made disaster, a fault in the social contract. Glide is located in the Tenderloin where there is a longstanding tradition of non-violent street crime and social services, much like LA's Skid Row. The tech sector, though new to the neighborhood, believe its low-income neighbors have got to go, but there are those still working on the compassionate, innovative, and analog side of life, forging solutions that work there.
The Gubbio Project holds space for "sacred sleep" at St. Boniface church during daytime hours, allowing for the kind of rest that can prevent the psychosis-like symptoms caused by just one night of sleep deprivation. The Street Sheet published by the Coalition on Homelessness since 1989 and still publishing, provides news, information, and income to the people who sell it. Lave Mae is a mobile shower and toilet service with regular weekday stops. Based on the food truck model of doing business on wheels, the program is working.
And just to prove technology is not entirely at the root of all evil, there is at least one female-led company using its resources-- venture capital money and technological know how-- to actually do good for those we used to call street people. HandUp is an app that enables non-profits to raise money through online donations which support people in need directly. I learned about the service through one of their clients, a woman I pass with some regularity on the street. We speak from time to time, and eventually I asked if I could quote her for the purpose of this story. She asked me how she could tell if I was going to exploit her and I told her I guess she would just have to trust me on that. We both had a good laugh at my claim as I was making it, then talked further about our mutual missing teeth and left it at that (when I went back to follow-up with her, she had moved on). HandUp is working for her and until somebody tells me reason to believe otherwise, it sounds like it's a good stop gap while programs and services to fully care for the unhoused continue to develop and the digital divide closes. Personally, I liked finding out that the start-up's co-founder had a background that included working with Food Not Bombs, a meal program fairly active and supported by my friends and organizers during the punk rock-era and still holding strong (not coincidentally, the present storm of local media coverage has concerned a number of former punk musicians now in their 50s and 60s who are struggling on the street or who have perished, like Miss Kay from Polkacide did).
And just so you don't think I'm completely hardened to the ways of humankind, there are evermore good people working to make change in whatever ways they can: Earlier this year a public works employee refused to take part in a violent tear down of a make-shift abode. I don't know what happened to the worker, but I hope she retained her job. Sure it was one person, or in the case of HandUp, a few helping other people. But as far as I can tell, this is how functioning society is supposed to work, in lieu of its leaders or institutions doing anything about anything.
I work for a community-minded bookstore located in a neighborhood at the crossroads of gentrification and hard-hit. There is a men's shelter at the end of the block and sometimes the weary take a load off in our establishment. While it's true that the presence of mentally unstable, intoxicated, and unwashed San Franciscans may detract from the store's business, we choose to consciously engage (and disengage when necessary) with our neighbors. It takes time, effort, and admittedly we've had some difficulties but as you might imagine, people treated humanely respond in kind. The store has historically hired and served the activists and artists at the center of the movement for housing, economic and racial justice, many of them authors themselves: We are constantly learning from them how to better work for justice in an unjust town.
Among the city's most tireless advocates for decriminalizing poverty is the writer and spoken word performer Lisa Gray-Garcia, better known as Tiny. The activist, educator, and author combines street protest, poetry, and ancient ritual into a vision that suggests we transform the way we see, hear, and speak of our fellows. Divestment from the language of the oppressor is a tool that's been used by marginalized communities throughout history, and Tiny knows well how to work with words. Her terms like gentrifuckation put a fine point on exactly what's happening here. Her vision employs a complete overhaul of business as usual, the kind of change that moves from the bottom up and the inside out, the kind of work that begins at home. Gray-Garcia, her co-workers, and collaborators have either experienced living unhoused or know someone who has. They've confronted the grind of street survival and police brutality firsthand, and lived to tell the tales, and to help others along the way. Instead of homeless, they see people as "unhoused" but working toward "homefulness."
Though it's nice the Chronicle is finally getting up to speed on the idea that all of us who call San Francisco home are San Franciscans, it won't be until the unhoused become homeful and we can see and hear what those who have been there really have to say that the rest of us can truly say we that we too have moved beyond homelessness.
Denise Sullivan is the author of Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop. She writes from San Francisco on gentrification and the arts.