Homeless in San Francisco

7 Aug

For all the blue skies, beautiful bridges and bays, San Francisco also has a dark side. You don’t have to walk for hours or seek it out- it’s on every street corner, down every alley and probably following you across the park. I’m not talking about drugs, although sometimes they go hand in hand. I’m talking about people who lack the most basic of life’s necessities, homeless people. They are everywhere.

According to the San Francisco city statistics, 6000 homeless people ‘live’ in the area. With no fixed address or regular reporting, these figures are widely considered to be much higher. Just based on what the locals have told me, their prevalence is due to a number of factors. Firstly California provides more financial support for homeless people than other states, so they have flocked here from around the country to cash in on the ‘generosity’ of the government.

Secondly, and probably more influential is the easy access to marijuana in California. Legalised for ‘medicinal’ purposes, all you need is a script from a doctor and bingo, you’re able to buy grass over the counter. Walking down the street the constant waft of weed washes over you when you pass a group of people smoking or a ‘lounge’ where people go socially to smoke. The police don’t seem to care.

California is also famous for the cheap and easy illegal access to amphetamines, with dealers hanging out in every neighbourhood. I’ve only been in town for 4 days, but already I’ve seen six people use crack pipes, in public, without a care for who is around or watching- namely me.

One of the side effects of the sheer amount of homeless people is that it scares the tourists off. Speaking solely from experience, it seems like they congregate around the public areas like parks, fountains and hotels because of the ample seating, public toilets and said tourists that are easy to pester for money. The hotel strip is also a good place for them to hang out, again preying easily on the tourists and not having any long term residents to come up against mean they are able to stay in the area longer. San Fran simply doesn’t have enough beds in homeless shelters or church run refuges to house them all.

Some would argue it gives the city ‘character’, others would say it makes it look dirty, unsafe and changes the messages travellers tell their friends. My message will be, ‘amazing city, cool bars and restaurants, world class museums but a whole heap of homeless people.’

As a solo female traveller, I’ve always had the principle that I won’t be scared to walk somewhere just because I’m a girl and alone. I’ve questioned this principle more than a couple of times in the last few days, jumping into cabs when I don’t feel safe. Don’t get me wrong; mostly, the homeless are friendly enough, they might say hello, tell you you’re beautiful or ask for some money for a ‘bus’- but naturally some are really persistent in getting you to give them money.

Simply saying you don’t have any change on you isn’t a good enough excuse for some, they’ll follow you for a couple of blocks pleading how they’re hungry, cold, and have a child/dog/cat to feed too. Objecting to giving them money I know they’ll just spend on drugs, I’ve started carrying a couple of bananas in my handbag to give to the really persistent ones. This seems to be an alright compromise in their eyes, even though I don’t really owe them anything in the first place.

I guess I’ve been overwhelmed by the stark contrast of such a financially wealthy district, with luxury stores like Louis Vuitton and Chanel lining the streets with homeless people sleeping in their doorways after closing. Undoubtedly every country and city has its problems with homeless people, but I can’t help feeling that the ‘super-powered’ America should be able to do better, because no one should have to sleep like this.

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