Photo Credit: Mark Grime (https://www.instagram.com/mark.grime/)

Homeless Persons — the Collective “Other” in Society

In San Francisco, we see each other and we see the other. Usually perceived as neither villainous, nor harmful, the other are a physical embodiment of the antithesis of the status we strive for in society: unemployed, without shelter, and the recipient of minimal familial and communal support. Our judgement of their perceived lack of employment, shelter, and support reflects our unwillingness to fully appreciate their unique experiences and, perhaps more tragically, our unchallenged acceptance of our established elements of normalcy. It is almost as if our existence is a light that casts a shadow over theirs. And, in San Francisco, the light grows brighter; the shadow much longer.

In San Francisco, we seem to use the law as a conduit for enhancing our light. A 2015 study written by two researchers from UC-Berkeley’s Human Rights Center found that San Francisco has enacted more anti-homeless laws than any other California city and it has “enforce[d] these laws vigorously and, since 2011, increasingly.” Like the value of our work, cost of our homes, and the sacrifices of those supporting us, our enforcement of them also has a price. One report found that criminalizing homeless persons cost the City of San Francisco $9,847,027 over only a four-year period. However, the cost to them dwarfs our cost. The consequences of their arrest and subsequent incarceration inestimably deflates their dignity, restricts their eligibility for public benefits, and limits their opportunity for employment.

Still, for some of us, the perceived benefits of criminalizing homeless persons outweigh these costs. In fact, in light of recent efforts by some of us, the price of our enforcement of them appears to fall well below the perceived benefits among some of us. Recently, the New York Times disclosed that San Francisco’s “Chamber of Commerce and the tourist board are calling for harsher measures to improve what is euphemistically called the ‘condition of the streets,’ a term that encompasses the intractable homeless problem, public intravenous drug use, the large population of mentally ill people on the streets and aggressive panhandling.” Granted, some of us do not emphasize ‘harsher measures.’ Instead, some of us single out public officials in columns and open letters and call on their support or action, respectively, for resolving the problem of the other. The action typically entails money — hundreds of millions of dollars.

In the upcoming fiscal year, The Chronicle reported that the City of San Francisco will allocate “a record $241 million… on homeless services, $84 million more than when Mayor Ed Lee took office in January 2011.” Some of us will think this enough. Some of us will believe that since money can ameliorate our problems, it can surely improve the other’s circumstances. However, this thread of thought is frayed. If time has taught any of us anything about the other, money is but one element of our required action.

Not long ago, The Chronicle reviewed the previous decade of homelessness in San Francisco. There, Heather Knight reported that after spending “roughly $1.5 billion” over a decade, the City has “succeeded in moving 19,500 homeless people off its streets,” even though the “homeless population hasn’t budged, showing that as one homeless person is helped, another takes his [or her] place.”

Perhaps, for some of us, a partially effective solution salves our conscience. Maybe the systematic flaw underpinning the other in our society is an acceptable byproduct of our well-being. But, given the rising cost of our enforcement of them and investment in them since 2011, we have to ask ourselves: when will we develop a solution with more dimensions than that of carrot-and-stick policies?

Contrary to some of our beliefs, the other comprises 7,539 homeless individuals who, like us, each have a unique set of circumstances. We cannot reasonably expect to address their needs through general policies. We need to tailor our approach to each of them. We need to appreciate their idiosyncratic set of circumstances. We need to see the other in the same way we see each other.