On the Homeless Front

Providing comprehensive services for street people is morally uplifting -- and, as shown in New York, good policy

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.

In keeping with the fashion established by my peers at the Chron and the Ex, I've been examining the scene outside the window over my desk at SF Weekly. To the left, there's the Lefty O'Doul Bridge, where, on Oct. 17, 1997, Darlene James was bulldozed out of her home at 7 a.m., just before she was supposed to be admitted to a homeless-addict rehab program. Under the benefit of Zyprexa, an anti-psychotic drug, James had managed to refrain from using speed for a couple of days, as stipulated by the rehab program's admission rules. But she became stressed out upon seeing her belongings bulldozed into a pile. She did a couple of hits of methamphetamine; needless to say, she didn't get into rehab.

James and the three dozen other residents of the China Basin meth-addict encampment moved to the empty lots surrounding the Bladium, an indoor skate park framed by my desk window. But the speed freaks were run off long ago -- the Bladium was torn down last month to make way for an office development -- and they've spent the past two years navigating California's dysfunctional system for the disturbed, addicted, and homeless. They go to rehab centers, where they're told treatment is not available to the severely mentally disturbed. They proceed to a mental health center, which requires them to have stopped taking drugs. To collect their senses enough to shake drugs, they apply for a dry place to lay their head -- and given the lack of shelter for the indigent in S.F., often as not, they fail.

"The level of institutional barriers in the system was so high that I got kind of dizzy watching Darlene kind of bouncing off them," says Lonny Shavelson, author of the book Hooked, which follows James and other addicts through San Francisco's utterly disjointed system of drug treatment and mental health and homeless services.

As Shavelson describes it, the system is so poorly coordinated that it would require a collective act of will of New York proportions to make it function effectively.

We spend millions of dollars annually on the homeless, yet have only a few hundred of the permanent, "supportive housing" units that Markee describes as the best solution for helping mentally disabled people get off the street.

San Francisco rates better than many California cities in attempting to deal with the less fortunate. But lately our collective reaction to the increasing street population contains as much contempt as compassion. Many locals, with the mayor as cheerleader, complain that we've become a welfare magnet, and that increased indigent services do little more than produce more street people.

I tried this idea out on Dan Delaney, founder of Sacramento Loaves & Fishes, the Smithsonian Institution of California homeless facilities. This sprawling complex runs one of the state's largest food kitchens, has a school for homeless children, a shelter for homeless women, a drug and alcohol recovery unit, a medical clinic, an AIDS hospice, a mental health treatment center, and myriad other services.

Delaney doesn't think compassion is drawing people to the streets of Sacramento, San Francisco, or anywhere else; he thinks a housing shortage is pushing them there.

"California experiences growth of homelessness in certain areas, then it stops and grows in other areas. Right now, Sacramento is the growth leader, and Fresno is really growing now, too," Delaney says. "It used to be that the least responsible among the homeless could bounce around the crappy apartments we had around town. As the population grows larger than the supply in those crappy places, the owners fix them up, and they require references. So starting from the bottom up, those people are eased out into the street."

Perhaps if the term coined to describe people forced to live on the street had been "houseless," the connection would be easier to see: Thousands of people are living on the streets of San Francisco because San Francisco needs tens of thousands more apartments. For the past 20 years in California, 80,000 fewer homes have been built than needed, and builders have fallen 800,000 units behind. During the late '90s, San Francisco created seven new jobs for every unit of housing built; the housing deficit, already between 30,000 and 75,000 units, is expected to grow at 12,000 per year -- indefinitely.

In past columns I've criticized city laws that empowered anti-housing neighborhood groups, on the basis that such laws contribute to the homeless problem. As it happens, there's some good news and some bad news on that front. An awful anti-housing law passed last May -- a law that allows anyone to appeal conditional-use building permits already approved by the Planning Commission straight to the Board of Supervisors as long as he can obtain four supervisors' signatures -- will be allowed to expire, Supervisor Aaron Peskin tells me. In its place, renters will be allowed to sign affidavits stating they live in the same neighborhood as a disputed construction project. This will give them the right to request that building permits be reconsidered by the board. Previously, only property owners could file such appeals. By adding yet another layer of appeals, the law created another hurdle in the arduous process of getting apartments built in San Francisco. I'll be glad to see it go.

But on Monday came the bad news: The board considered a proposal that would usurp the mayor's ability to appoint members to the city's Planning Commission and the Board of Appeals. This move would represent a housing disaster, because the board, elected by district, is more susceptible to pressure from anti-housing neighborhood groups than the mayor, who must deal with citywide concerns -- such as housing and homelessness. Now, the mayor appoints all seven members to these panels. Under the new plan, the board would appoint three, and have veto power over the rest.

As never before, Americans are coming to realize that we all share the same lot in life. Perhaps it's time to take that idea to its logical conclusion: If members of our community are suffering on the street, it's time for dramatic action.

Rather than fleeing the craziness of our political class, as we did this last election, we must engage it: This latest bit of anti-housing folderol really should be derailed. More important, we need to engage the craziness on our streets. There was a time, years ago, when America dreamt of being a great society, and San Francisco thought itself a great city. Right now San Francisco and the rest of California are easing into a winter in which we will systematically denigrate the least fortunate among us.

A decade ago New York found itself in San Francisco's position and launched a moral call to arms. If we do the same, miracles might happen. Take the example of Darlene James, who with the help of friends recently found a place at the Windsor Hotel, a 94-unit Tenderloin facility leased by the city to provide addiction and mental health services to the homeless.

In the same way that street-life craziness begets more craziness, James is finding that having a safe place to stay has allowed her to collect herself. She's looking for a job: housecleaning, warehouse work, prep cook, anything. "I'm in a better place and moving on my life," she says. Still, she'd like to see the same opportunity offered to the rest of her friends from the China Basin meth-addict encampment.

"There's never enough housing; they say one thing, and they do total opposites. We can always use housing. That's the No. 1 issue in San Francisco," she says. "They say we need to pull together -- we should have been together from the get-go. Not just because these buildings fell."

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