The appalling situation on the sidewalks of San Francisco has always bothered me, but never more so than now when I am no longer a resident of the city. In my current incarnation in a prosperous, clean, safe, and far-outlying East Bay suburb, I am struck more than ever by the sheer magnitude of San Francisco’s street vagrancy problem. My thrice-weekly commutes into the city require me to walk only half a block to reach my school—but that trivial distance is typically accompanied by disgraceful offensiveness.
My inward trip: drive from Brentwood to Pittsburg/Bay Point BART, then a one-hour ride to Embarcadero Station in San Francisco. From there I switch to the Muni Metro system. (For non-San Francisco folks: the Metro is the in-town subway/streetcar system. It shares the downtown stations with BART, so you exit one system and enter the other all within the same underground space.) I take any outbound car on the Metro to Van Ness Station. An escalator wafts me up to the corner of Market and Van Ness. The return trip is similar, except that I take the inbound Metro only to the next stop at Civic Center—the closest Muni/BART portmanteau station. (That strategy increases my chances of a seat on the BART train, since the higher-traffic Powell, Montgomery, and Embarcadero stations are still to come.)
In sum, my engagement with outdoor, surface-level San Francisco is limited to a mere half-block walk. You’d think that would be uneventful. Consider the situation of the past few weeks:
Yesterday (Monday) morning I emerged at Van Ness and Market on the escalator. Made my usual U-turn so as to reach the corner, whence I turn left twice in quick succession to reach my school. I hadn’t gone fifteen paces before I had to endure the screaming profanities and angry posturing of a whack job who was howling at cars and passers-by. (This at 6:45 AM, mind you.) On the way home, a different but equally scary man was standing right next to the entrance of the Van Ness station; you had no choice but to endure passing right past him to get to the stairs going down.
Last week: On Wednesday afternoon I had a few hours off and, recognizing that I needed a few minor items such as toothpaste and Kleenex for my office, I decided to walk over to Walgreens on Gough and Hayes, about two blocks distant. I hadn’t made it ten steps out of the school’s front door before a dangerously out-of-control vagrant came careening down Oak Street, screaming imprecations and threats. I stood absolutely still and looked carefully away. He went staggering on.
Earlier that week I had crossed Market Street at Van Ness to go to a nearby sandwich shop. Over the course of that brief round trip, I was panhandled at least three times that I remember.
And yet Market and Van Ness isn’t some grisly, scummy neighborhood. It’s not Pacific Heights, mind you. Nevertheless, it’s the gateway to Civic Center. City Hall, the Asian Art Museum, main branch of the library, Bill Graham Auditorium, Davis Symphony Hall, Opera House, War Memorial, SF Jazz, Nourse Auditorium, SF Conservatory of Music, not to mention major governmental buildings such as the central Courthouse, Federal Building, and State Building—all within a few blocks. And yet it’s crawling and overrun not necessarily with just “homeless” (to use the politically-correct term) but dangerous, whacked-out druggies and feral street people. Nor is the carnage limited to that one neighborhood. Such obnoxiousness has spread throughout the city. The ultra-well-heeled residents of Presidio Terrace and the like keep the riffraff out, no doubt, but ordinary middle- to upper-middle-class people can do little, if anything, about it in their less exalted but still perfectly fine neighborhoods.
I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said ad infinitum already. Everybody is aware of the seriousness of San Francisco’s street vagrancy problem. But these days I’m seeing it through the eyes of a non-resident, re-sensitized to the pervasive offensiveness. Increasingly my reactions are those of an out-of-towner, a tourist, utterly appalled by the catastrophic condition of quotidian San Francisco. Was it really that bad when I lived there? I endured similar behavior every day, so I suppose it was. I had become adept at shoving each unpleasant encounter out of my mind, ignoring it with whatever mental fortitude I could muster. I was only too aware that it was everywhere and 24/7—meaning right outside my front door, even on my charming little street lined with picture-book Victorians.
Can it be fixed? I have no idea. But it cannot continue unchecked. Throwing money at it isn’t going to do a damn thing, that’s for sure. If anything the extra funds just make it worse. San Francisco is gradually morphing into a third-world city in which the affluent hover high above in their skyscraper aeries or behind the gates of their walled communities, while a writhing mass of addicts, criminals, and derelicts seethes below and around them. Cool Grey City of Love—finis.