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The Mask of Indifference

Homeless Industries in San Francisco

by BINOY KAMPMARK

It is a condition that the United States has given a particular meaning to.  From being the light on the hill for liberty, the American vision has become a case of survival on the streets.  Homeownership, even renting, is a privilege.  Welfare is set for the chop.  Food stamp recipients have been branded creatures of indulgent ill-fare.  The homeless are being rounded upon.

Even such havens of well-tempered affluence such as San Francisco are marked not merely by the sizeable population of homelessness (6,436 by one count) but the increasing numbers who are joining their ranks.  Rent prices are on the rise.  Eviction notices in San Francisco have hit a 12-year high.

What stands out in the problem of homelessness is that its solutions have themselves become part of the industrial complex that many of its activists decry. Governments and the non-profit system are bound by a system that has become the context of its own existence.  San Francisco demonstrates this to a tee.

Bevan Dufty of the city’s department of Housing, Opportunity, Partnership and Engagement has been less than enthusiastic about whether the shelter system will be expanded.  This is despite his admission that shelter beds have been lost.  With a bureaucrat’s awareness, Dufty’s response has been one of management speak: one has to “have a toolbox to respond in different ways.”

In response to the recent removal of a homeless encampment under the Interstate 280 highway, Dufty claimed that “we’re trying something new, and its about getting the people on the right path.”

Jennifer Friedenbach of the Coalition on Homelessness has observed that the shelter waitlist system is “archaic” as it is.  “People spend 17 hours a day trying to get a bed at night.”  Suggestions have been made as to how to open up the system.  Homelessness Czar Dufty has not been responsive.

The city budget in San Francisco, awaiting approval by the Board of Supervisors, does include funding for families and individuals facing homelessness.  Last Thursday, some $2.4 million was slated as “add-backs” to services for the homeless, along with the $2.3 million pledged by Major Ed Lee to stem the increasing number of families and individuals facing homelessness (SF Bay Guardian, Jul 2).  This is far from enough, though the problem as ever is not necessarily how much is put into the programs but how it is spent.

The critics of the system also see homelessness as an opportunity for the morally insipid, or at the very least, the disingenuous.  Ethnographic work such as Teresa Gowan’s Hobos, Hustlers, and Backsliders:hoboshomeless Homeless in San Francisco (2010) shows how the entire approach to the homeless in San Francisco can be centred around such themes as “authoritarian medicalisation” and gradual criminalisation of various practices.  The Matrix program, to take one sterling example, fined people for panhandling, public urination, sleeping in doorways and blocking sidewalks.

Tactics have been implemented to keep the “sightless” presence of the homeless away from wealthier residents. The Silicon Valley complex is as much a curse, creating deep pockets at one end while emptying those at the other.  What can’t be seen can’t hurt you.

Recent attention has also been drawn to the increased number of gay homeless individuals in San Francisco.  As Ian Burrell writing for The Independent (Jul 1) observed, “It’s built a reputation as the most gay-friendly on earth. But the mask is slipping.”  The Human Services Agency of San Francisco (SF-HSA) recently revealed that 29 percent of the city’s homeless population stem from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.  Even being in a shelter is no consolation from being free from violence.

Where there is a problem, there is bound to be an industry rather than a solution.  It is inherent in any such response that no solutions shall ever be found.  One needs the other.  As with any industry, some are well meaning, others indifferent, and many ruthlessly ambitious.  Social working clans have proliferated. Programs are not solutions.

As Gowan has explained, each institution has its own taxonomy, its own range of terms to identify the problematic homeless specimen.  “Doctors diagnose them as depressive, social workers treat them as chaotic addicts, and police officers treat them as impediments to the quality of life of other San Franciscans.”

Seemingly everything has been proposed, from creating “wet houses” to pay the homeless to take care of rescue dogs, to Homeless soccer, a curious panacea that emphasises healthy living.  The geniuses of the homeless industry will have to do better than that, but the incentives to cure it are vanishing.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com