Homelessness, Inc.

To the editor:
This dismal public condition [Heather Mac Donald, “The Sidewalks of San Francisco,” Autumn 2010] had its beginnings in the federal legislation known as the Community Mental Health Centers Act of 1963. Its title and date are telling. This law compelled the exodus of the mentally ill out of federally funded hospitals to federally funded “mental health centers” in various “communities.” Unfortunately, for both the sane and insane, the Vietnam War claimed these funds before the well-intended mental health centers were built. By 1965, the ominous date mentioned at the beginning of this excellent article, the mental hospitals had been emptied out just in time for the Summer of Love and provided the necessary catalyst for the 1960s drug culture. The crazy needed self-medication, and there were those willing to supply their needs. The sixties had begun.

What began with good intent ended in the tragic subject of this article with the mentally ill shifting for themselves on the street and charlatans cynically exploiting both the homeless mentally ill and sympathetic taxpayers for a steady government paycheck. It’s enough to make one crazy.

Charles Norris
Torrance, CA

To the editor:
My daughter attended University of California at Santa Cruz a few years ago. When I visited her in San Francisco during one of her spring breaks, we were accosted by a homeless woman who was crazy and violent. Luckily, a police officer was nearby and assisted us. My heart goes out to the police officers. Their job is more likened to orderlies in an insane asylum than policing in the regular sense. San Francisco has become a dirty, scary place.

Terresa Clint
Santa Fe, NM

To the editor:
When San Franciscans tire of the stench of urine, they go to Manhattan for some fresh air.

Iska Waran

To the editor:
It’s very telling that San Francisco supervisor Chris Daly moved his wife and children to Fairfield, California, a bedroom community, to protect them from the damage of his own policies.


To the editor:
State, local, and federal infrastructure programs require long-term forecasts about the economic health, and thus attractiveness, of cities and neighborhoods. What can you tell us about indicators that would help forecast the long-term (30 to 50 years) viability of a San Francisco? One theory is that letting a neighborhood go to the dogs may be necessary to lower the real-estate values to the point where the land assembly for large-scale redevelopment becomes possible, or where gentrification can take hold. The utter collapse of the Haight or Tenderloin may be a necessary condition for their long-term redevelopment or gentrification. By your account, the relatively mild sit-lie law may only postpone the desirable. Neighborhoods in great cities need the urban-decay equivalent of maggots. Have not North Beach, Fisherman’s Wharf, and other great San Francisco neighborhoods gone through such collapse and rebirth?

Washington Insider

To the editor:
This is America, and public space belongs to all of us (whether you like “us” or not).


To the editor:
All snide cynicism aside, homelessness is not an industry. And those who try to help are homeless advocates, not “homelessness” advocates. Housing is too expensive for many people, particularly in San Francisco. Millions of homes are currently being foreclosed, and the number of homeless will only grow. By choosing to focus on a few “bad seeds” in the Haight, you have lumped all the homeless into one category of lazy troublemakers. This is dangerous. Those homeless people who break the law, harass others, or have vicious dogs should be arrested. The other homeless have a God-given right to travel the world and live in the streets if they so choose. This is America, not Singapore.

Samuel Russell
Paris, France

To the editor:
Social services make it too easy to be homeless, therefore subsidizing and increasing homelessness. But it’s far from a real problem for working people or tourists. There is no correlation between homeless problems or spending on the homeless in San Francisco and tourist spending. If San Francisco is such a bad place to live, why do people pay more to live there than almost anywhere else? Isn’t that the free market deciding that life is better in San Francisco than in other cities? San Francisco is probably far better off and provides a higher quality of life than most major cities. Look at some of the Midwestern “moral values” places if you want to see somewhere unlivable.


To the editor:
I am a liberal and a native San Franciscan who believes that people should live how they want. People should have access to social services to help them get better, but San Francisco has put up with the homeless problem for too long.

I do not understand the need to fight continually for homeless people’s rights to harass other people on the street and scare them from neighborhoods. I deal with this on a daily basis, and I’m sick of it. It doesn’t matter if it’s the young kids in the Haight or the drunk guy in the Tenderloin. Why should my tax dollars go to someone who couldn’t care less about what I’m attempting to give him through these social programs, which are clearly not working?

The homeless may be a small population in the city, but they are the loudest, most violent, disgusting, polluting people in the city, and they seem to place themselves in the most populated areas.

This is about civility, not about hating these people for their lifestyle or taking away social services. This is about cleaning up our streets!


Heather Mac Donald replies:
Mitchell seems to think that his statement “public space belongs to all of us” is a rebuttal to my article. To the contrary, his motto perfectly sums up the position of those San Franciscans who successfully advocated for the sit-lie law this year. The only issue in Haight-Ashbury was: Does a small subset of the population have the right to colonize city sidewalks to the exclusion of the “rest of us,” as Mitchell might put it? This November, San Franciscans answered no to that question by a whopping 10-point margin. With any luck, that vote signals the weakened power of San Francisco’s homelessness industry over the city’s politics.

And yes, there is a homelessness industry: it fought to convert the battle in the Haight over behavior and civility to an indictment of San Francisco’s allegedly inadequate spending on housing and social services (“inadequate” at over $3 billion a year). Such a strategy, if successful, guarantees the continuing flow of government money into the industry’s capacious pockets. The Haight gutter punks, however, are not seeking housing in San Francisco or anywhere else. They want to occupy a maximally visible stretch of public space for partying and mooching off the working public for their next high.

What the homelessness industry everywhere defines as “homelessness” is, in significant part, a result of society’s failure to enforce norms of public behavior; it is not a housing issue.


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