Thursday, August 13, 2009

It's a living, right?

There's a woman near my office who I see every morning on the way in and every evening on the way out, standing on the sidewalk, selling Street Sheets and doing her best to look pitiful, I guess, which is kind of tough because she is always clean, wearing nice clothes, and generally looks to me like she could have just stepped out of a minivan.

[Ed. note - in case you're not familiar, Street Sheet is a newspaper thing that anyone can go pick up for free and then sell on the street. It's designed, I think, to minimize the weirdness on both sides that can happen when you hand someone money, because if you're buying a Street Sheet it's a business transaction instead of simply giving money to someone.]

Now, I'm not saying that you have to be dirty and scabbed over to be a legit panhandler, but it does make one go "Huh" when you see the same person every day in the same spot, but wearing different clothes every day and generally looking not all that different from the person behind you in line at Out the Door.

So I wonder, what's up here? How did this become her best option? She's not there in the middle of the day, only during commute times, so I wonder what she does all day. Some kind of addict, maybe? She never appears to be intoxicated. She doesn't look mentally ill, either, and appears to be having pleasant and normal conversation with the people who stop and give her money. Hey, maybe it's just the job she's picked.

There are around 6400 homeless in San Francisco (according to a 2007 count, the most recent I could find after 35 seconds of Googling) and we spend, as a city, 190 million fucking dollars on the homeless every year, or almost 30 grand per homeless person. Something is seriously fucked up here, because it sure doesn't seem like we're getting our money's worth. I bet it costs a lot less than $30 K to put someone up in an SRO for a year. I know that a lot of the homeless are mentally ill, and a lot are addicts of one kind or another, but it seems like we could be doing something to address those problems instead of just throwing money at them.

Look, if I knew how to fix the homeless problem, I'd be elected mayor or maybe even Emperor Norton II. And what the woman on my way to work is doing is perfectly legal. I just can't figure out why people keep giving her money.


idrumgood said...

Maybe she's able to afford decent clothing and stay clean because people keep giving her money. Maybe a year or two ago, she was dirty and scabbed over, but she's been working her way up. Maybe the next step is to try getting a job at McDonalds.

But then again, selling Street Sheet has no overhead costs and is tax free... So maybe it really is her best option.

Or maybe she sells Street Sheet plus a little baggy if you say a key word. Ever think of that?

periqueblend said...

Well gee TK, what are they supposed to do? you won't let them earn a living by recycling cans and bottles, and now they can't even sell Street Sheets - or at least look good while doing it?

Didn't you watch Will Smith!?! San Francisco is filled with unreasonably attractive homeless men who just need a rubik's cube and five seconds with the Man to get back on their feet!

TK said...

@Whirlwind -

I don't know what they're supposed to do. I didn't say they couldn't sell Street Sheets. I said I couldn't understand why people are giving this particular woman money for Street Sheets.

Yes, of course there's no standard of dirtiness and/or poverty you have to meet to be allowed to panhandle on SF streets. It just seems odd to me that people will hand money to someone for no apparent reason other than the fact she's asking for it.

J. Beaman said...

Ok, a couple things.

1. Mental Illness. It's expensive, it's insidious and more than 50% of homeless folks suffer from it. I know she "doesn't look mentally ill" but many people don't.

2. "minimize the weirdness on both sides" I don't even know what this means. It's pretty mean spirited. From the Coalition on Homelessness website - "STREET SHEET is a monthly tabloid written primarily by homeless and formerly homeless people that provides its readers with a perspective on homelessness that mainstream media simply cannot match. It provides a unique opportunity to its vendors as well: a dignified alternative to panhandling." People aren't giving her money. They're buying a Street Sheet.

3. And on the numbers. I'm not sure but it only makes sense that on any given day there may be 6400 homeless in the city but given the transitory nature of the homeless I imagine that there are many many more over the course of a year. And it's not just about putting a schizophrenic or a junkie up in an SRO. Treatment is expensive. And valuable. I, for one, am willing to help foot the bill.

4. San Francisco is, and always will be, a mecca for homeless, crazy and freaky people. I love it. It's part of what make this city great. I feel like that if you don't like it, well, there are other cities that handle the homeless very differently. Including Berkeley -

Doing my best to look pitiful,

J. Beaman

TK said...

@J. Beaman -

I'm more than willing to help foot the bill for the treatment of the mentally ill too, but it's not happening. It's extremely hard in California to force someone into treatment against their will.

I also love the fact that SF attracts a certain kind of people. That's why I moved here almost 20 years ago. I don't want it to turn into any other city (not like there's any danger of that). By the same token, do you like being harassed for money or people shitting on your doorstep? I don't. There's got to be some middle ground, right?

Satchmo: Greatness said...

I live near 6th and Mission, and I see homelessness every day, it's unavoidable where I live (within a stones throw of maybe 2-3 shelters).

It's not the dirt, the panhandling, asking for cigarettes, etc, etc, etc that bothers me about the situation. It's the fact that there is such a high level of hardcore drug use, violence, and crime in these areas.

I have no issues knowing tax money is going to help these people, I hope I can be compassionate enough to want better for them.

I also understand, to an extent, the extreme difficulties of mental illness, drug addiction, and other social problems that trap people into a life no one wishes for.

I may be biased, given my location, but I just feel like so little is being done to curb violence and extreme drugs in areas populated with homeless that there is a culture and environment that reinforces itself.

periqueblend said...

@Satchmo Greatness, I have a small quibble with your post. I spent 10 years living on Natoma @ 6th, and reports of crime there are wildly exaggerated. That neighborhood is sketchy, and dirty, and downright gross, but aside from the occasional property crime and yes the rampant drug use/sales that you allude to, it is not very dangerous at all. Not compared to a place that has teenagers. Junkies aren't that dangerous.

Having said that, on balance I agree with your point. This city has a contain and isolate strategy when dealing with this population in particular, and crime in general. Certain neighborhoods are allowed to be disproportionately plagued by crime, shooting galleries, prostitution etc, while in other neighborhoods it, um, stays white out later.

DrFeelgood said...

Hi TK,
You have treaded into some interesting ground here.
Why do we respond in the ways we do regarding people's appearances and our expectations? Why not strike up a conversation with her sometime and let us know how it goes? I used to do it and it's actually kinda fun. I'd love to know her story.