Pin It

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


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment


  • Nevada City and the South Yuba River: A gold country getaway

    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

    Downtown Nevada City
    The welcoming, walkable downtown of Nevada City is laid back, yet full of life. Start your day at the cozy South Pine Cafe (110 S Pine St.) with a lobster benedict or a spicy Jamaican tofu scramble. Then stroll the streets and stop into the shop Kitkitdizzi (423 Broad St.) for handcrafted goods unique to the region, vintage wears and local art “all with California gold rush swagger,” as stated by owners Carrie Hawthorne and Kira Westly. Surrounded by Gold Rush history, modern gold jewelry is made from locally found nuggets and is found at Utopian Stone Custom Jewelers (301 Broad St.). For a coffee shop with Victorian charm try The Curly Wolf (217 Broad St.), an espresso house and music venue with German pastries and light fare. A perfect way to cool down during the hot summer months can be found at Treats (110 York St.) , an artisan ice cream shop with flavors like pear ginger sorbet or vegan chai coconut. Nightlife is aplenty with music halls, alehouses or dive bars like the Mine Shaft Saloon (222 Broad St.).

    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
    A 16-room motel a short walk from downtown, each room features a unique décor, such as the Paddlers’ Suite or the Wildflower Room. A friendly staff and an office full of information about local trails, swimming and biking gets you started on your outdoor exploration. Amenities include an outdoor shower, a summer swimming pool and picnic tables and barbeques. Don’t miss the free vegetable cart just outside the motel in the mornings.

    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

  • Arcade Fire at Shoreline
    Arcade Fire opened their US tour at Shoreline Amphitheater to a full house who was there in support of their album "Reflector," which was released last fall. Dan Deacon opened the show to a happily surprised early audience and got the crowd actively dancing and warmed up. DEVO was originally on the bill to support Arcade Fire but a kayak accident last week had sidelined lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh and the duration of the west coast leg of the tour. Win Butler did a homage to DEVO by performing Uncontrollable Urge.

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed
  1. Most Popular