Homelessness in San Francisco, 20 October 2013 (Weekly Writing Challenge: Living History)


Good Evening:

Disclaimer/Warning 1: Not one of my usual posts, and definitely not one of my cheerful ones. Disclaimer/Warning 2: this post will demonstrate my lack of qualifications as a journalist.

So last weekend, as I embarked upon a Saturday of chores and photography, I opened the front door to my apartment building–and nearly tripped over the homeless man, Caucasian, 40s-50s, sleeping on the doorstep. Fortunately I managed to avoid stepping on, kicking, hurting or even touching him, but then I might have done something foolish; I asked him to move on. I walked down to my bus stop, and two minutes later this same man reeled up to me, still reeling from the amount of alcohol he had drunk the night before.

“Hey, man, gotta quarter?”


He did not move on.

“Hey, man, are you gay?”

This was not an insult, nor was it an accusation. From his tone, I judged (and remain convinced) that he hoped that I was gay so that he could offer to trade sex for money.

“Sorry, no.”

He did not move on.

“Hey, man, you the a****** who woke me up?”

He approached me in a threatening manner, not knowing that I had a weapon in my hand. For that matter, I didn’t know I had a weapon in my hand until I used it.

Believe it or not, my camera:

DSCN8809 DSCN8808

He turned away. When I demanded that he look at me, he chose instead to stagger across the street, in the middle of traffic. But he did not get hit, and I haven’t seen him since.

I’ve used that old Nikon S9100 for crime prevention before, see here.

Thanks to my use of The 30 Shot technique, I have been able to chronicle all aspects of city life without discovery; I present some of my pictures of the city’s homeless individuals, all taken with a point-and-shoot camera, ideal for this purpose as it is so inconspicuous. I’ve chosen not to edit them for the time being, preferring instead the sheer rawness of the situations portrayed.

Harassing a Woman Who Didn't Give Him Money

Harassing a Woman Who Didn’t Give Him Money

Thursday night, after a meeting of one of my theater groups: I stand at the intersection of 5th & Market waiting for my bus home. However, the Muni buses seemed behind schedule, so I used my phone to surf the web and find out when the next bus would arrive. Another homeless person, African-American, 20s-30s, about five foot nine, very muscular build, walked to within four feet in front of me, swaying left and right, backward and forward, eyes rolling about in their sockets. I didn’t like how he looked at me, so I stepped back two steps and looked him in the eye. He took two steps toward me. I tightened my grip on my phone and kept staring him in the eye.

He tried to snatch my phone anyway.

Passed on Haight Street at the Entrance to Golden Gate Park

Passed Out on Haight Street at the Entrance to Golden Gate Park

I don’t think drug addicts realize how debilitating their addictions can become. I snatched away my hand with ease before he could even see what had happened. He stared at the space where my hand and phone used to be.


I used my booming theatrically trained voice to bellow louder than most people can for two reasons: first, any nearby police would be alerted and come arrest the guy; second, the would-be thief would flee. Unfortunately, no police happened to be near. Unfortunately, the addict’s drugs had rendered him incapable of thinking and he just stood there.


No police, and he kept standing there. After a few seconds, he put up his fists.


His fists dropped to his sides, and he said, “Got any spare change?”

Still no police, and he still would not leave.


He walked into the middle of Market Street. He had no idea where he stood, that he would soon get hit by traffic. Now I had to think of something to keep him from getting hurt.


That did the trick. Somehow he made to safety across the street and got out of my life.

Chewing on an Unwrapped Candy Bar, Powell Street and Ellis, 19 October 2013

Chewing on an Unwrapped Candy Bar, Powell Street and Ellis, 19 October 2013

While the above represents a straightforward description of recent events without embellishment, what follows now is journalism, something I do badly, so take care before accepting the rest of this as fact.

I moved to San Francisco during the big recession of the early 80s, when Paul Volcker chose some pretty drastic measures to rid the United States of the “stagflation” that had affected us during the Seventies. A lot of people at the bottom of the economic ladder lost everything and homelessness increased in San Francisco. I noticed the same phenomenon again in the early Nineties during the recession that marred and perhaps ended the administration of President George H. W. Bush. And again during the two recessions that have occurred so far during this millennium.

Now San Francisco seems to be experiencing another increase in the homeless population, and based upon what I have seen and experienced, the hostility level seems to have increased.

Which proves nothing except that I don’t know a thing about real journalism. A real journalist would have the ability to look up facts and figures to see the actual numbers from year to year since 1982. A real journalist might examine the actual numbers and say something like, “Vonn Scott Bair knows nothing of which he speaks. The facts are that there has been no correlation between recessions and increases in the percentage of homeless in San Francisco during the years he mentions.” Or whatever the actual truth might be–my point is that I might have only noticed homelessness at some periods during my life and been completely oblivious to the phenomenon at others. I strive not to conflate my personal experience for universal truth (sadly, my favorite mistake) and encourage you not to accept my word as gospel.

But as a thought experiment, let us pretend that for once my personal experience does represent universal truth. In that (unlikely) case, something different has happened during San Francisco’s current increase in our homeless population.

For the first time, it has occurred during one of our economic booms.

If this has happened before I have failed to notice it.

Two reasons (at minimum) explain this strange turn of events. First, the District Attorney’s Office has found proof that a local urban legend called “Greyhound Therapy” is in fact a reality; other states use Greyhound buses to ship their mentally ill homeless to California in general and San Francisco in particular. Specifically, we’ve caught Nevada in the act and suspect other states as well. Our DA has begun legal action to force the state of Nevada to reimburse San Francisco for the expenses we’ve incurred caring for the patients they have shipped to us.

(Optional reading: San Francisco will also ship the mentally ill homeless to other cities and states, if and only if a) they want to go there; b) they know people there; c) those people knows they’re coming; and d) those people are willing to receive them. Well, that’s what we tell ourselves. I don’t know which is worse; the fact that comparatively speaking San Franciscans consider themselves comparatively enlightened, or the fact that comparatively speaking San Franciscans might actually be comparatively enlightened.)

The other reason for the increased homelessness is the boom itself. The latest big mass eviction in San Francisco’s Mid-Market district consists of every resident in a “live-work” apartment building that failed to meet code. Too many units have no windows, which means that too many units have no fire escapes, which means that too many units would become lethal traps if a fire broke out. The city pretty much has no choice; it’s a matter of saving lives. But it does mean that over 50 people who paid rents one-fourth to one-fifth the going rate in San Francisco will have no place to go. They will have to leave the city (and probably the entire Bay Area) to find affordable housing.

If they can’t do that, I don’t know what will become of them.

And all because the city is booming one of its historically biggest housing booms. If the perceived hostility is in fact a reality, perhaps the housing boom explains why; all these thousands of new units, and yet people are forced onto the street because they can’t afford them.

But this represents pure speculation; technically, I don’t know what I’m writing about.

It feels as if San Francisco has gone swimming in a river with an unknown waterfall ahead (I’m borrowing a metaphor Faulkner sometimes used). We don’t know it, but we can maybe just maybe sense a little stronger pull, and that maybe just maybe it’s not yet time to worry, but we feel a bit more alert to something happening but we don’t know what it is.

Vonn Scott Bair

Weekly Writing Challenge: Living History


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