Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Homeless In SF

by Skald

SF's homeless problem weighs on my mind. There are so many people on the streets here.. and this week has been cold, windy, and rainy. Miserable weather for them. Two questions cross my mind. First, how might this problem be "solved"? Second, if I were in their shoes, how could I lessen the misery?

I addressed the first question in a previous post (build MadHouser huts!).

Now for the second. Is it possible to live a relatively healthy and comfortable life as a homeless person in SF? I think it is.

The first issue is, of course, shelter from rain, wind, and cold... especially for sleeping. During the day, the library offers warmth if no other options present themselves. Night is the true challenge.

Bare minimum, Id need some warm clothes and a warm sleeping bag.. perhaps a 3/4 bag that could be stuffed in a small pack. If this proved too expensive, a thick (but compact) fleece blanket might suffice. Clothes would need to be of insulating synthetics such as polypropylene (or wool)... including long underwear, pants, a long sleeve shirt, sox, a pullover fleece and a hat. A scarf would be nice too. Id need a pack to carry all this in.

For shelter, a plastic tarp would do the trick. This is what I use when I camp... a 6ft x 4ft sheet of plastic painters "dropcloth" plus some rope. In cold and windy weather, a tarp can be set up flush with the ground on three sides. Ive used this arrangement during intense storms, hiking the Appalachians, and it always kept me warm and dry. The plastic is very light and can be compressed very tightly for packing.

A few toiletries would enable me to stay clean-- toothbrush, hand towel (or camp towel), deodorant stone, liquid soap.

At first glance, this seems like an impossible list for many homeless. And for those already on the sidewalk.. completely broke.. it probably is. But for someone with a little money... soon to be, but not yet, homeless... its a doable list. In fact, I notice that many of the city's homeless already have most of these things. Some have even more.. and push their belongings around in shopping carts (an unwise strategy, in my view).

SF is well stocked with thrift shops. With persistence, most of the above clothes could be found for very little money. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the shops here. The one run by a SF AIDS foundation ("Out of the Closet") has a particularly good selection of clothes.. including synthetic fleece pullovers and other good-quality stuff. Most sell for $2-5 dollars. Ive seen sleeping bags, occasionally, as well. Of course, painters plastic costs almost nothing. Same with rope. Stakes can be scrounged from sticks.

Once supplied, the next issue is WHERE to camp. This is where most of the city's homeless, in my opinion, make a huge mistake. Most choose sidewalks downtown. Usually you seem them stretched out in doorways late at night and early in the morning. They look miserable. And no wonder. Concrete is a horrible surface.. sucks the warmth like a magnet. Also, a downtown sidewalk is perhaps the least safe place to sleep in the city. You are totally exposed to every drunk asshole or thug who walks by.

You're exposed to the weather too. An awning and doorway do little to protect from the wind and rain.

Id stay away from downtown at night. Instead.. Id head out to The Sunset &/or The Richmond. These are quiet residential areas that stretch all the way to oceanside beach. THAT's where Id camp... behind the dunes on the beach. Id ride the streetcar to the end of the line.. walk to the beach.. then head north or south for about 30 minutes or more to find good cover and solitude. Here, Id set up my tarp for protection from wind and rain. I would use grass, leaves, or cardboard under the sleeping bag.. to prevent heat loss to the ground.

In the mornings, Id pack everything and walk back to the MUNI streetcar. I would ride for free... back into town. The drivers never check for tickets. Ive heard that officials occasionally get on and check for tickets... but even if fined, how in the hell can they collect from a homeless person living on the beach? Most likely, with a bit of pleading ("be kind man, Im homeless") you could get out of a ticket anyway.

Id try to keep myself clean. When van living, I sometimes sponge-bathed in public bathrooms (always careful to clean them thoroughly after use). Another option would be to bathe in the ocean... then sponge off with a bit of fresh water and a hand towel. I probably wouldnt bother with shaving, but would use a small set of scissors to keep my beard trim/neat. Id wash clothes in the sink of public bathrooms... stuff them in a plastic bag.. dry them at night on the beach.

Finally, there is the issue of food. The simplest solution: foodstamps. Foodstamps provide about $160 dollars a month. Thats not a lot. But, through careful shopping.. buying only generics and on-sale items.. its possible to eat off that. A bit of part-time work (legal or "grey") could supplement this meager amount.

During the day, Id spend lots of time at the library: reading books, blogging, watching movies, emailing. Id try to keep fit through walking... and yoga on the beach in the AM.

It would not, necessarily, be fun. But it would be far more healthy, far more enjoyable, far more humane, than the way most SF homeless people live.


Chris Rasch said...

Check out this Malcolm Gladwell article on homelessness:

And NPR interview:

Basic thesis: most homeless people are homeless for only a short period of time. Only a small fraction of homeless people are chronically homeless. This small fraction sucks up large sums of money in subsidized emergency medical care. It might be cheaper just to rent them an apartment with a full-time minder.

AJ said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
skaldhareksson said...

Chronic Homeless

Chris.. absolutely agree. But forget the minder. Just give them a safe/warm Madhousers hut and foodstamps... and maybe a bit of advice on how to live healthier. Then leave them alone. No need for armies of social workers. No need for ultra expensive housing projects. No need for the very expensive (and pointless) process of trying to coerce them into a "normal lifestyle" (this will usually fail).

Not that I think job training, transitional housing, and the like are all bad. But make them available on a voluntary basis.. without the heavy-handed coercion. Provide these to those who actually want them. For those who dont... a little help with basic needs is all thats required. They end up with a better (safer, healthier, more autonomous) life.... and local governments end up spending less money.

Chris said...

Oh, I completely agree with you with regard to the madhousers huts. I'm ambivalent about the minders. On the one hand, if they're not bothering anyone else, I think that they should be free to drink themselves to death if they want. On the other hand, hospitals can't refuse them treatment. It seems wasteful to spend millions of dollars on them for emergency healthcare. Personally, I would prefer to spend those dollars on something other than temporarily patching up a few drunks.

Ryan Garou said...

A lot of this post sounds extremely familiar for some reason.....

(One note about sleeping behind the dunes - Ocean Beach gets cold, cold, COLD after dark with the stiff winds coming off the ocean - even during indian summer. However, there is a stretch of beach between two particular streets, I forget which ones now, where it's legal to build beach fires with driftwood and have them going all night without hassle. Just something to consider.)

Ryan Garou said...

Hmm, one more point to make...

Most of SF's homeless, from what I've observed, sleep on the streets in the Tenderloin simply because that's where all the services (St. Anthony's, the welfare office, Glide and the other churches that give out free meals) are clustered....and it's also where all the dealers are. One ugly truth we really have to face about homelessness, at least out here, is that a good portion of it is caused by addiction. An addict doesn't care about living a "hobopoet" type lifestyle - they just want the quickest path to whatever their poison is, and the basic services they need to survive. You got to keep in mind, amongst the general homeless population, people like us are an *extreme* rarity. Most people hardcore on the streets are hooked on H, meth, crack, booze or some combination thereof. The basics for survival are already available to them, and they're not stupid - anyone with a few days familiarity with SF would figure out the same strategies you just outlined. They have deeper problems that require much greater social support, and there just isn't enough of that support in place.