One of striking things that seems to attach itself to San Francisco is the Homeless. It is present in alot of American cities, but has always been talked about in regard to San Francisco, and with the effects of the world recession in 2008 still continuing at present and likely into the future, travellers are confronted with their presence at every street corner. Central San Francisco is compact and it appears that the homeless concentrate themselves in or near the centre, with their density diminishing towards the outer sections of the city.
A distinction perhaps needs to be made between beggars in third world countries, and the homeless in first world countries. My observations at least, would say that beggars are the direct result of a society of high population, little employment and few opportunities. Often whole families and communities are born into a life of hopelessness where the chance to rise out of the mire takes a miracle. To the traveller, this can be overwhelming and whether you like it or not you have to steel yourself and ignore it. A handout in India will see you besieged by another fifty of so desperate individuals that know that there may be a chance of some money. To give in, is to hand over all your money, and be faced with the same tomorrow. But this is not the homeless in San Francisco.
It’s easy to try to attribute the reasons for the homeless, but further observations provide anomalies, some of which are picked up on by people who rationalize their presence. In general, Americans appear comfortable with both the concept of the down and out, and the ever present loitering and shadowy life that lives around them. Throughout American literature, music, and film there are the vagabonds who travel the freight trains of the Midwest, and those living in an urban subsistence environment. Much is made of those who by their sheer will and determination obtain success from such plight, and much is made of the ‘American Dream’. Even today rising from such situations is glorified in movies.
It is clear that a good number of the homeless come from nothing and have never been able to rise above that. However, it doesn’t take many walks about the city, observing chess tournaments, others listening to blues and jazz music, and still others reading classic literature to realize that it just isn’t that simple. There are also those that have had a good education, that have had respectable and perhaps highly paid jobs and have fallen on ‚Äúbad luck‚Äù. You here talk of the gambit of upper society, lawyers, bankers who have made bad investments, or have been faced with personal tragedy, who end up on the scrape heap of society by choice or otherwise. Everyone seems to know of someone who has fallen on bad times and are one of the homeless.
Another stark realization, is that the number of homeless that have come to their present situation because they have fallen through the cracks of social welfare system, and have mental illness issues. This is not a criticism, just an observation. Whether the issues were present before they became homeless or whether it has been caused by prolonged use of cheap ( but dangerous) alcohol or drugs since is unknown, but it is clear that a number of homeless are only able to live at a very basic level as a result.
For travellers, the homeless are present in a number of ways. Sleeping along the street is common, along with public parks and public squares such as the quieter parts of union square. Often, when travellers are up and about walking around the city early in the morning, the homeless are seemingly able to be sound asleep despite the busy and noisy commuter traffic. It’s not until later in the day that the homeless become active, and that’s when you see chess playing with much enthusiasm, reading and quite a lot of discussion amongst some.
Travellers do need to take care however, as as I was intrigued by a long series of tables on the pavement, where many games of chess were taking place. A great or sad photo opportunity, was going through my mind, but at the moment one or two suddenly raised their jackets over their heads, obviously not wanting to be photographed. Menacing looks had me scuttling away constantly looking behind me in case I was been followed. It is also clear that a certain criminal element is present amongst the general homeless populous.
For the most part they keep to themselves, some sit and beg, others travel around the city with their supermarket trolleys, full of all their possessions, clothes, makeshift housing and sleeping, and the collection of bottles that they strounge out of rubbish bins, along with scrapes of food and drink. And I suppose that’s why the centre city, as it’s likely to be the Mecca of office workers and tourists who eat and drink on the run, leaving a gold mine in goodies left in rubbish bins. Still others who are fringing on the homeless world, rather than being engrained within it have joined the various markets and sell odds and bods to get by.
Another side is the few army vets who have either been neglected by the system, or who are perhaps bitter and do not want anything further from the system. Most notable are those in wheelchairs, located in strategic positions, and clear for anyone to see. One which comes to mind is a vet in a wheelchair who had got himself on a barriered median strip at a set of lights on a busy six lane highway. This put him right at window height to the closest stopped car, who he would either shame or gain sympathy from using a number of well rehearsed ploys, and consistently collect money.
Being intimidated by the homeless is not really something that comes to mind. There are places and times that you would be wise to avoid, and certain parks and plazas are places that become social centres, and the homeless congregate, near dusk, to get together and drink cheap liquor. Obviously, not a great place to be. As always, nighttime is a time any any city not to take risks, stay on well trodden and known paths, and be aware of your surroundings. If a place doesn’t feel good then you you basically don’t need to be there.
San Franciscians, appear tolerant of the homeless, and move about as though they are just a part of the streets ape. Even police mostly stroll around with little interest, and only become involved if there is a dispute or fight. For their part, certainly during the day, the homeless go about there own lives oblivious of the rest of the world around them. To visitors the experience is somewhat surreal, as it is an environment to which a lot of us have never been exposed to. I suppose we are left wondering, if this is what the future holds for all of our major cities in the world.
By Greg Watt avid traveller and author of travel websites and blogs. You can keep up to date and share travel insights with Greg at traveller-info’s Facebook Page, or with Greg himself on his Google+ Page.