This city has been conducting a three-decade experiment in what happens when society stops enforcing bourgeois norms of behavior. It has done so in the name of compassion for the homeless. The result: Street squalor and misery have increased, while government expenditures have ballooned. Yet the principles guiding city policy remain inviolate: Homelessness is a housing problem, it is involuntary, and it persists because of inadequate public spending. These propositions are readily disproved by talking to people living on the streets.
“Everyone’s on drugs here . . . and stealing,” an ex-convict named Shaku explains from an encampment of tents, trash and bicycles across from Glide Memorial Church in the heart of the Tenderloin district. A formerly homeless woman living in a city-subsidized hotel, asked if she does drugs, replies: “Is that a trick question?” Jeff, 50, slumps over his coffee cup at 7:30 a.m. A half-eaten muffin sits next to him on a filthy blanket. “I use drugs, alcohol, all of it,” he tells me, his eyes closed. “The whole Tenderloin is for drugs.”
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The stories the homeless tell about their lives reveal that something far more complex than a housing shortage is at work. The tales veer from one confused and improbable situation to the next, against a backdrop of drug use, petty crime and chaotic child rearing. There are few policy levers to change this crisis of meaning in American culture. What is certain is that the continuing crusade to normalize drug use, along with the absence of any public encouragement of temperance, will further handicap this unmoored population.
Carving out a zone of immunity from the law and bourgeois norms for a perceived victim class destroys the quality of life in a city. As important, that immunity consigns its alleged beneficiaries to lives of self-abasement and marginality. Tolerating street vagrancy is a choice that cities make. For the public good, in San Francisco and elsewhere, that choice should be unmade.
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The entire city, whose last Republican mayor left office at the beginning of 1964, is a monument to the Fox Butterfield effect, which the SF Weekly publication stumbled into a decade ago: “Despite its spending more money per capita on homelessness than any comparable city, [San Francisco’s] homeless problem is worse than any comparable city’s.”