One often hears the observation that many of the poorest residents of San Francisco have mental health issues. Funny then that the city government itself appears to be suffering from split personality disorder in its dealings with the poor. And in this, it must be said, it is doing no more than mirroring the equally schizophrenic attitudes of many residents.
It's been pretty tough lately for anyone living in San Francisco to avoid the issue of housing. On which subject there is much to be said from a libertarian perspective, but I'll let most of it wait for another essay. Suffice it to say that many of us -- not to mention those who want to move to SF and whose wishes the media tacitly tells us do not matter because they cannot vote here -- are very concerned. The facts at the heart of these concerns are these: It is very expensive in San Francisco, and growing increasingly more so. Surveys report the “housing crisis” as the #1 political concern people have about The City right now. Those who are concerned about this crisis (and I count myself among them) bemoan the fact that so many folks who lack high incomes or lots of money are having a hard time remaining in San Francisco.
Local politicians hear this concern, and have duly made the housing issue a major focus of their public remarks and political agendas. Not because they are compassionate, but because doing so is "good politics". They perceive paying attention to the issue as being good for their political careers -- or to be more precise, they think it will help them get reelected or attain higher office.
How can I be so cynical? How do I know they aren't motivated by compassion for the poor? Well, read on.
Mayor Ed Lee has made a widely reported promise to build 30,000 new housing units. It's a rather dishonest number, given that it reportedly includes many already existing units that people are living in now which city government simply plans to spend money to renovate. But given the range of ideas we usually get from these mainstream politicians, I suppose we should be grateful if the mayor's proposed solution at least correctly identifies the situation as being one that requires more housing, rather than more laws.
I just find it ironic when Mayor Lee and many other comparatively well-off San Franciscans talk as if having poor people living among them (well, maybe in a different part of town) is extremely important and desirable. As if having only wealthy people living here would be a tragedy of unmitigated proportions. Yet they simultaneously support or turn a blind eye to policies designed to make the lives of the poorest of San Francisco's poor even more uncomfortable, difficult, and full of hassles than they already are.
I'm talking of course about the roughly 6,000 people (according to the last official count) who don't have housing at all, and who don't respond to this situation by simply giving up and going somewhere else.
Naturally, all the San Franciscans concerned by gentrification and displacement, including the politicians, applaud the spirit and determination of these individuals. Those who complain about poor people being driven out of town are outspoken in honoring and cherishing the several thousand poor residents who love the city so much, or at least evidently esteem living here so highly, that they continue to do so despite lacking roofs over their heads. City officials often honor these proud, stubborn "survivors" of the "housing crisis" in their speeches and official pronouncements.
This is what one might logically *think* attitudes might be. Well-informed readers, however, will have noticed that the picture I painted in the sarcastic paragraph above is almost entirely false. The reality is much closer to the reverse.
At one point in time not long ago, the city government was spending taxpayer money to literally ship very poor residents out of town. They only stopped doing this when the media caught them at it and officials in other cities started complaining.
Nothing says, “We don’t value people like you, and want to get you as far out of our lives as possible” quite like giving somebody a one-way bus ticket out of town. ______ of homeless individuals in San Francisco who (like a great number of us) originally hailed from other parts were given such tickets under the administration of _________________, Ed Lee’s predecessor in Room 200.
Nor was this policy some isolated fluke. ____ years ago, voters passed Proposition L, a cruel and unconstitutional measure which its proponents admitted was designed to be selectively enforced. More recently, District 8 Supervisor Scott Weiner -- a “pragmatic”, bring-home-the-bacon/finger-on-the-pulse-of-his-constituents kind of politician at heart, despite the moral crusades that he likes to wage from time to time – sponsored and got the Board to pass a measure criminalizing people for being in city parks after 10pm at night, which the mayor subsequently signed. The targets in both cases, of course, were the very poor people living on San Francisco’s streets (and in its parks).
Other official anti-homeless policies are widely greeted with disinterest, or even applause. Who cares if panhandlers’ free speech is restricted? Who cares if homeless individuals are hassled and given citations for attempting to earn a living by selling stuff on the street instead of begging? Who cares if homeless people have their possessions arbitrarily confiscated because they look unsightly? Who cares if DPW officials deliberately turn on their hoses to roust homeless people sleeping in an area? Who cares if public benches and the like are deliberately replaced and redesigned to make the people who sleep on them less comfortable? Who cares if homeless people are made to feel unwelcome in the library by policies the ACLU described as ______? As far as the media seem to be concerned, pretty much only Jennifer Friedenbach.
Yet perhaps there is a kind of compassion at work here that I’ve been missing. Maybe city officials are just trying to keep feeling the love. When they tell poor residents, “We care about you and don’t want you to lose your homes,” maybe what they really mean is, “We don’t want you to lose your homes because then we’d have to hate you.”