Feeling Helpless about Homelessness

[After discovering a homeless person sleeping in our front yard this morning (the 3rd time this week), and having to call the police while rousing him, and having to clean up the mess he left behind, I decided to write an impassioned letter to San Francisco’s Mayor, Ed Lee, my district’s supervisor, Scott Weiner, and the Director of Housing Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement (HOPE), Bevan Dufty, expressing my frustrations and feelings of helplessness. Posting it here (with minor typographic corrections) for posterity.]

Dear Mayor Lee, Supervisor Weiner, and Director Dufty,

I’ve been a little frustrated to find a homeless person sleeping in my front yard 3 times this week. Not only do I worry about safety (there’s an 8 year old girl living in the unit below mine), but also the nuisance factor of cleaning up the cardboard, food scraps, washing away the urine and other stains, and occasionally disposing of feces.

In the rare instances when I find the person still there (and not just their remains), I immediately call the SF Police non-emergency line while trying to rouse them to get them to move. But my doing so feels like a futile and self-serving reaction to the symptoms of the larger problem of homelessness. Also given the propensity for transient individuals to use the sidewalk in front of Mission Dolores as a bed and Chula Lane as an open sewer (half a block away from Abbey Street, where I live), I don’t expect that to change any time soon.

But besides the aesthetic frustrations, it also frustrates me on a moral level, that we as a society (or at least we as a city) so openly tolerate the mere existence of homelessness. The sheer volume of homeless people I pass between home and work on any given day in San Francisco is shameful. The quantity of human feces is outrageous. We recently had friends visit from France (after a long road trip visiting several cities around the US), and they were aghast at the number and overall decrepitude of the homeless they saw in San Francisco—they felt it was worse here than any other place they visited, and it was particularly acute in the tourist areas. Like all things, I’m sure it’s simply a case of budgetary constraints, but it’s hard to believe that such a [currently] prosperous city does not have the resources or political will to provide safe shelter to everyone in need of it.

That said, I feel like services are always going to be ineffective and ill-distributed without well-informed citizens (both the homeless and the non-) and enforcement. I feel like the police should take an more active role in getting people off the street and into shelters. I feel like we should arm citizens with tools (an app, a phone number) to report the homeless in their neighborhoods as a way to alert the police about problem areas (like 16th and Chula). I feel like there should be a less costly alternative to the police that’s responsible for picking up the homeless where ever they are and bringing them to an appropriate shelter. And to be quite honest, I feel grossly uninformed about what I personally can or should do to help eradicate homelessness in SF—thus I also think we should be doing a better job at informing (marketing to) the non-homeless in San Francisco about they can and should do.

I am certain I am one in a long line of individuals who’ve expressed similar, un-nuanced views, that if I understood the root causes of homelessness (on an academic-level), or had more personal interactions with the homeless, I might feel differently, perhaps more compassionate to their plight. But I’m guessing that my attitudes are representative of most people who live and work in San Francisco. This email to you, this moral unease about our seeming acceptance of homelessness is an expression of my compassion. There has to be a way to harness more San Franciscans’ collective revulsion of homelessness in order to bring about constructive and sustainable change.

In short, help. What can I do? What can we do to get more people like me to make an effective difference?

Justin Watt

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