San Francisco Is Failing Its Residents

My homeless neighbors are dying on the streets

Handmade signs bear the names of some of the over 240 San Franciscans who died on the streets in 2018. All photos by Pax Ahimsa Gethen, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Winter Solstice, 2018. I am attending gathering in a housing center in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, where four years ago I performed in a Pride concert with the Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco. I’m here today to sing again, with vocal activist Melanie DeMore, who was the special guest artist at our concert last month. But the occasion for these tunes will be very different.

Two days before, I’d read Melanie’s Facebook post inviting folks to join her and the Skywatchers for a processional in memory of those who had died on the streets this year. Volunteers had painstakingly and lovingly created handmade “In Memory Of” signs, each bearing the name of one of 240 people. Each of these individuals — and doubtlessly, more that we don’t know about — died on the streets of San Francisco, the city I’ve lived in for over 15 years.

I’ve been happy to make San Francisco my home for many reasons: It’s queer-friendly, trans-friendly, immigrant-friendly, vegan-friendly, and has a mild year-round climate. But in this city of great tolerance and tremendous wealth, hundreds of my neighbors are living and dying out on the streets. I am ashamed.

Many people have attempted to address the issue of homelessness in San Francisco. Our November election had a ballot measure (which ultimately passed), proposing a tax on businesses with very high gross annual receipts to provide additional services to this population. This proposed tax brought on a public spat between Jack Dorsey and Mark Benioff, the CEOs of Twitter and Salesforce, respectively. Dorsey opposed the tax, siding with recently-elected Mayor London Breed, who many progressives see as continuing Mayor Willie Brown’s legacy of Democrats favoring business interests.

As I pointed out in my previous essay, the plight of our homeless population in so dire that the United Nations has characterized it as a human rights violation. This is in a city that has been led by Democrats for decades. We simply cannot blame Republicans for this problem.

We have a glut of tech companies in San Francisco, coupled with soaring residential rent and real estate prices that make living here virtually unaffordable for all but the rich and those lucky enough (like myself) to have rent-controlled apartments. Perhaps I am complicit, in that I use the services of many San Francisco-based tech companies myself. I write blog entries on Medium, solicit funds for my photography expenses on Patreon, and post links to my work on Twitter. But suggesting that one cannot complain about the excesses or policies of social media companies without boycotting them entirely is kind of like saying that one can’t be critical of technology if they use a cell phone or laptop. I believe that we should hold all companies accountable to do better, and share the wealth.

Gathered in a circle, we learn from Melanie the songs that we’ll be singing during the processional. Many are familiar to me, from our recent concert and past events: “One Foot in Front of the Other”, “This Little Light of Mine”, “Shine On Me”.

Marchers carry signs bearing the names of those who died on the streets.

We leave the housing center and march, singing, to City Hall, where we sing on the steps as the sun sets. We then walk on to United Nations Plaza, where we join an interfaith vigil. Local religious leaders, homeless people, and others take turns reading each of the names aloud.

Melanie DeMore leads marchers in song at United Nations Plaza.

There was a time when I tried to help the homeless and other struggling residents more directly. For years I volunteered with local food justice organizations, including Food Not Bombs and The Free Farm Stand. I helped grow, harvest, prepare, and distribute food to the needy. But gender dysphoria and mental health issues eventually made sustained contact with the general public very difficult for me, and I turned to other kinds of volunteer work that I could do from home instead.

Regardless, though I applaud and encourage everyone who helps out in this way, the root problems of what causes people in this city of great riches to be homeless or hungry in the first place must be addressed. I feel that a redistribution of wealth is necessary to provide a reasonable standard of living for all of our residents, but such socialist/communist leanings do not go over well with those who are comfortable with the riches capitalism have brought them.

Even our wealthy residents are uncomfortable with our homeless “problem”, though some might see it as more an issue of optics and personal safety — for themselves. Some say that the homeless have it easier or find it more appealing to live here than in other cities because of our mild weather and other factors, or that they are all mentally ill or homeless by choice. I see this attitude as lacking of compassion for our vulnerable neighbors.

Even just looking at the climate argument, though we do not have the temperature extremes of many other cities, we do have weather, including heavy rains in the winter and occasional triple-digit heat waves in the fall. We also had smoke from wildfires both this year and last that was classified as hazardous for anyone who was outside without a good-quality respirator mask. Few, if any, people would choose willingly to live outdoors permanently under such conditions, not to mention enduring the lack of sanitation and the risks of violence, theft (including confiscation of possessions by police officers), and sexual assault.

Reading the 240 names, along with their ages where known, takes a considerable amount of time. I listen for and finally hear the name that is on the sign I’m carrying: Charlotte Jordan, age 66.

In memory of Charlotte Jordan.

I know nothing about Charlotte other than her name and age. But I know that whatever her life’s circumstances, she should not have died on the street. Nor should any of my other fellow San Franciscans, US-Americans, or, indeed, humans. I don’t have simple answers on how to address homelessness, but I do know that we can, and must, do better.