“(…)The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in January 2012 annual point-in-time count found that 633,782 people across America were homeless. (…) Because of turnover in the homeless population, the total number of people who experience homelessness for at least a few nights during the course of a year is thought to be considerably higher than point-in-time counts. A 2000 study estimated the number of such people to be between 2.3 million and 3.5 million. According to Amnesty International USA, vacant houses outnumber homeless people by five times.”
“Of all those who sought emergency shelter or transitional housing during 2009, the following characteristics were observed:
• 78 percent of all sheltered homeless persons are adults.
• 61 percent are male.
• 62 percent are members of a minority group.
• 64 percent are in one-person households.
• 38 percent have a disability.
• 23 percent are families with children—the fastest growing segment.”
Not knowing much about the city’s make up, I was unprepared walking into San Francisco’s notorious Mid-Market area around 6th Street. I took a walk by myself while David got some document at City Hall and I was followed by a crazy man from the get-go. In the end I had to flee into a shop where the clerks threw him out after he’d ignored several warnings.
Walking back into the street I felt uncomfortable, anticipating this dude or someone else to come by and harass me some more. It was terribly disappointing to find out that it was all going to be the same in these cities as it had been in the Latin-American ones, at least if we went into the poorer neighbourhoods. It was precisely what I’d been looking to avoid, leaving South-America. I want to be able to just walk down the streets again without feeling violated by some man who keeps trying to brush himself up against me. I didn’t know that the area around City Hall and 6th St. is known as ‘the troubled’ area but found out for myself. There are countless homeless people and drug addicts about and this is the centre of San Francisco! Hundreds of people are living like this…
Anyhow, all day long the poverty was evident. Coming from the Netherlands where there is a well-functioning social structure that keeps these people from crowding the streets, it has been upsetting to watch the multitude of homeless men and women sleeping in the parks and carrying around their belongings in a bag or shopping kart.
“In 2004 the United States Conference of Mayors… surveyed the mayors of major cities on the extent and causes of urban homelessness and most of the mayors named the lack of affordable housing as a cause of homelessness…. The next three causes identified by mayors, in rank order, were mental illness or the lack of needed services, substance abuse and lack of needed services, and low-paying jobs. The lowest ranking cause, cited by five mayors, was prisoner re-entry. Other causes cited were unemployment, domestic violence, and poverty.”
Incomplete Support System
After asking I learned that social benefits are distributed amongst this group, but nothing much is
demanded in return. So they can just keep living their lives the way they are, and smoke dope or drink beer if they are not driven to work for an income or live in a house. So I can empathize with the people I’ve met so far who complain about socialism and how it doesn’t work, because what they see is the family four doors down being paid to be a good-for-nothings and the parks are littered with unwashed, unshaven men surrounded by plastic bags. An eyesore for the neighbourhood and a threat to our safety.
These people at the bottom receive full blame for any discomfort experienced by the middle- and upper class.
They have a point in so much that these poor people are not asked to do anything in return for receiving benefits. I make hard efforts to get into sane conversations, suggesting that it is not the fault of any social group, but that the system to support the people need, is incomplete. For receiving benefits or housing you ought to enroll in a study- or working environment in the Netherlands. You will be given a health check-up and food and clothes and an opportunity to fully re-enter society. But you can’t opt out. If you choose not to stop drinking, drug using and don’t want to work, you have no right to those benefits. In that case you can find a place to sleep in the winter but nothing more.
David is noticing much higher numbers of these people than several years ago when he was here last. These people in the USA who are barely getting by (I watched one scooping up some raw Brussels sprouts from an old box) are facing full ignorance by the working class. One old skinny man with no teeth is playing his guitar and singing by the line of waiting tourists at the turn-around point of the famous old San Francisco cable car, next to him a black man with one bad eye and no legs in an old wheelchair, holding up a cardboard sign asking for help. These men don’t insult anyone. They don’t harass people and they are humble and seem to be truly hurting from their situation. Yet they are an eyesore to ‘us’ and we don’t want to see them.
They live like phantoms but suffer all our social anger, sitting in our handsome homes.
The next day we checked into a cheap motel in a town called Ukiah, voted the 9th most wonderful place to live in the United States in 2010. The old wing of the building was lived in. Single men but also families were leading their lives out of a cheap motel room. I had only seen this in television shows and films, but we drove past it watching out for playing children and gaping at laundry hung out to dry on the balconies. This is what it means to be close to the bottom but barely holding on, paying day-by-day because you couldn’t afford to sign a monthly rental agreement.
It saddens both of us to see the abuse these people suffer for a failing system. Sure there are exceptions where men just want to laze around and get high all day, but the majority seems truly to desire more than what they have. And they just can’t reach it because they got stuck at the bottom…
44% Report having worked in the past week and 13% have regular jobs, so they are trying to get back into society!
The contrast in California between the very poor and the preposterously wealthy is another thing I can’t get over. There are over 700,000 millionaires in this state against 136,826 persons without even a simple place to sleep. California has 22% of the country’s homeless population and also the highest percentage of unsheltered homeless people, compared to other states.
We are sincerely affected by what we are seeing.