The Homeless Scam

It’s 5:45 in the a.m. and I’m rolling the Castro of San Francisco, in Citizen’s Cab 2976, my eyes peeled for flags the likes of late night stragglers, and early morning Mexicans headed across town to their dish washing jobs.

Mid-block before Market, I spy, out of my periphery, something to my left on the sidewalk which I sense is fixed upon me.

I turn to look…

No, it’s not a fare.

It’s some young white dude with short cropped, if not disheveled, blonde hair, dirt covered in blue scrub pants, and wearing no shirt or shoes. He’s shouting, loudly, at no one… before he suddenly DARTS for my passing cab!

But Renfield stops short in the middle of the street, before dramatically cocking his arm back, and VIOLENTLY throwing a balled up article of clothing, presumably his shirt, directly at 2976 as screaming unintelligibly!

And your driver just witnesses, stunned, as the ball unfurls, falling several feet short of the cab and into the street.

I roll a few feet more up the block and come to a stop, for a red at Market.

Hmm… I should probably lock my doors, eh?

But nah… Somehow, I fear the locking sound will exacerbate the situation. If there even still IS a situation. It’s behind me now, I think??

I do not turn my head, but again check my peripheral, with perked ears.


Here comes Renfield!!

He RUNS up to my driver’s side window! Then, Renfield clenches his hands together… and prostrates himself??

I roll down my window, half way.

“Please, sir, do you have a dollar? For coffee??” Renfield begs, in the most sweet and humble, lilting plea.

Your driver, stunned by the manic switch, starts for the wad of cash in the left pocket of his cargo shorts. But then, your driver remembers… Damn. There is no “wad” of cash. I only had $20 for bank when I left for the cab lot this morning. And there were only five ones in that bank! I was already sweating about making change today!

“Uhh… Sorry, man. I REALLY can’t afford it. But have a beautiful day!”

The light turns and I ZOOM it out of there, leaving Renfield behind in the street, all dejected in the rear view.

Now, it’s up the Castro hill and on towards the Haight! But, I immediately get to nervous second guessing. Was this a test? Was Renfield sent by God? Have I just incurred bad karma for the day??

Suddenly, the Cabulous taxi-hailing app on my dash-mounted smartphone comes chiming to life.

“Cha-ching! — 1 Loma Vista. SFO. Bob. iPhone.”

SWEET!! Bad karma be damned! Airport!!


I ‘Accept’ the order.

Your driver was just a few blocks away and quickly rolls up on this quaint cluster of large, old, brown brick homes, all with a view, nestled up here in well-to-do Corona Heights.

I hit ‘Arrived’ on my Cabulous phone and wait out front for Bob, as I meditate, mesmerized under a sun just rising over the manicured lawns, as it throws shadows across an ornate brass fountain housed in the front yard of another historic home just across the street from Bob’s, as morning birds chirp pleasantly for the well-off mansioned in these parts.

After a few minutes, a flamboyantly gay Bob pops out of his large wooden front door, with luggage. YES!! And your driver pops the trunk and pops out popping to help load Bob’s bags in my, um, trunk.

Bob, “Good morning. SFO. Virgin, please.”

Driver, “Good morning! SFO — Virgin, it is!”

And we drive…

Bob and I immediately get to talking. My caffeine has kicked in, with the help of Renfield. And Bob is, well… Bob.

Bob, out of left field, “What do you think of the homeless issue in San Francisco, driver?”

Driver, “Ha! Funny you should ask! I write. And I’m supposed to meet a writer’s agent, with an altruistic sense, for coffee tomorrow. For a year or so, I was courting him to work with me. That was before I found out that he’s actually a ‘retired’ writer’s agent. (Welcome to my world.) Anyway, the whole purpose of the meeting is to discuss, and solve, just this issue!”

Bob, “Well, what DO you think of the homeless?”

Driver, “Well, I know I’m just a cab driver, but that actually situates me pretty well to have some knowledge in this area, what with all of the NPR I listen to, watching firsthand the evolution of the homeless on the streets over these last six years, and having even driven a homeless case worker a few times to his job! Actually, I even have a friend of thirteen years who is homeless! His name is Derek. He’s an old black hippie who grew up in San Francisco. Derek had his first acid trip back in ’67 when he was just thirteen, up at Hippie Hill! He says Janis Joplin ordered him laid while he was tripping! That’s how he lost his virginity! Crazy. He also says Jimmie Hendrix stole his skateboard; something about while chastising him for being an Oreo. Derek’s a real sweet guy. Anyway, I let him sleep on the floor of my kitchen from time to time. And we play music together.”

I guess I’m getting long-winded, as Bob, now antsy, asks again.

“Well, what DO you think!”

Driver, “Oh! Well, everyone goes off about the lack of supply of housing in San Francisco. But NOBODY ever addresses the demand! Three years ago, Reuters news had the number of techies going south on the buses at 45,000! And the Castro’s Supervisor Weiner said recently on NPR that the city’s population has increased by 100,000 in the last few years! So, I figure the number of people who moved to San Francisco JUST so they can work an hour south of the city is likely now around 90,000, or so. That’s 10% of the population! Look what they’ve done to the cost of living in SF! And look at the unprecedented numbers of evictions of rent control tenants, so some techie, new to the city, making six figures fresh out of school can turn it condo, which thereby removes all those rent controlled units from the market!

Now, if you stopped all the tech buses from picking up in the MUNI bus stops, and in the city in general, the techies would all be stuck with a longer commute driving THEMSELVES in increasingly bad traffic down 101 and 280 each day, and not able to be so productive on their laptops while riding undistracted on some cushy wi-fi enabled bus. Google, et al would surely NOT have that! They would totally make sure there was housing, in which they would insist that they live, down south!

There’s that! AND we should rescind the Mid-Market tax breaks that the mayor gave to Uber and Twitter, and the like, to keep them from leaving the city. I mean, why are we incentivizing techies to move to SF when there is a crisis of housing?? Those dilapidated buildings they took over on Mid-Market could have been turned into low income housing. I mean, San Francisco had a tax base before tech! As it is, tech is only the fourth largest source of tax income for the city, after hospitality, health care, and finance.”

Your driver is just getting warmed up, passengers, and well short of the punch line when Bob interjects.
 (I guess I AM being too long-winded.)

Bob, “I was scammed by homeless people. They were organized. It was a conspiracy!”

Ah, NOW it comes to light. Bob’s original question about the homeless was just a precursor. No WONDER he’s been so antsy!

It’s cabbie therapy time…

Cabbie Therapist, “Oh? Do tell…”

Bob, “Well, my friend was dating this guy. And while we were out drinking one night, he told me he needed a room to stay in for just a few days while he looked for an apartment. He said he had a new job and everything. Of course, the few days turned into weeks, and then months! I asked him to leave, but then he threatened to sue me! After a month of living in my spare room, he had tenant rights! I didn’t know what to do! So, ultimately, I paid him $500 to leave. I just needed peace of mind!”

Cabbie Therapist, “Wow! That sucks! I guess if you have it, though, it’s worth the money.”

Bob, “But it didn’t stop there! Next, a contractor, who I THOUGHT was dating ANOTHER friend, offered to do some work I needed around the house. At first, he would come by and do GREAT work. And good contractors are HARD to find. But then, he started pushing me into letting HIM stay in the spare bedroom. I eventually relented. And THAT’s when he started coming on to me! I kept resisting, but he kept coming at me with sexual demands. I told him, ‘You’re dating Richard!’ But he said they were just fuck buddies. Well, I was coming out of a divorce and pretty vulnerable at the time, so I relented, and we slept together. But after the sex, the claws came out! He tried to extort money out of me! He said he would sue me for having sex with my employee and ruin my name! He even threatened my life! I told my friends, but no one would believe me, because he was so sweet and likeable around everyone else. They didn’t know what evil lurked beneath! I later came to realize that he was SENT BY THE FIRST GUY! They were BOTH part of a NETWORK and had a PLAN ALL ALONG to extort me!”

Cabbie Therapist, “Wow! What did you do??”

Bob, “Well, I called the police. But they asked me if I had sex with him. I told them, ‘Only five or six times!’ But they said in that case, it would be a civil matter! They didn’t believe me, either! And I was still left to worry if I would get sued for having sex with an employee, even though he was a contractor!”

Cabbie Therapist, digressing back to Homeless Policy Maker,

“Well, back to your original question about what to do about the homeless, it first needs to be understood that the homeless are NOT a monolith. There’s the drug addicts, the runaways — many from abusive homes, the mentally ill, and the more recent rise of the working and educated homeless who have simply been priced out of their apartment, or evicted, with no safety net. I have been seeing A LOT more of the latter filling the tent encampments under the highways in recent years. They seem to be the fastest growing of the homeless population.

There was a pretty cool piece on the history of the homelessness in San Francisco on KQED the other week, when all of the local media joined for a week in addressing the issue. That broadcast traced the bulk of the problem back to the 80’s and Regan’s cutting federal funding for state mental health institutions. But the decline of the middle class since the 80’s, which perfectly correlates with the decline of union membership (Thanks again, Reagan!) cannot be underestimated!”

Homeless Policy Making Cabbie, continuing,

“Yeah, I’ve driven this one homeless case worker for the city a few times. He goes off about how varied the population are. Yes, some are scammers. But some are just incapable of getting a job, like my friend Derek.

He was raised in the city by his aunt, living in a house she owned. He even went to a private high school. St. Ignatius! Where our last police chief AND our current governor went to school! After Derek’s aunt got old, they put her in city run Laguna Honda Hospital to play out her days. And the house was taken to pay for it, which put my friend Derek out on the street.

Derek’s the sweetest guy, and he’s even punctual! If he says he’s going to show up somewhere at a certain time you can set your watch to it And I’m always helping him with heath care and government assistance paperwork. He pursues all of that. And he has spent A LOT of time looking for a job. But who’s going to hire a sixty-year-old, dirty, black guy with one tooth, and a rope for a belt to hold up stained and ripped pants four sizes too big for him that he got free from Glide Church?

And I do have to say, when he sleeps over, Derek is the only person on the planet that I know with the uncanny ability to fit the mustard cap on the mayonnaise jar! And all while forgetting to put them back in the fridge, repeatedly. Of course, no matter HOW HARD you look, Derek somehow manages to make sure there is some hidden goo that you will inevitably get all over your hands when you go to put the jars back!

But still, he tries. One time, Derek had me help him fill out an application to work as a greeter at Victoria’s Secret, in Union Square! I could just imagine him at the door, all emaciated and smiling with his one tooth, in dirty oversized jeans and smelly… greeting ladies with sexy on their minds, as he enthusiastically offers his help with fitting them for a thong!

Nope, some homeless just NEED society’s help. Some are just not able to fit within the system to which they were born, at NO fault of their own.

I mean, Derek does NOT belong in a mental hospital. He’s no threat. Society really needs to start wrapping its head around the idea of a Universal Basic Income. The times are changing.”

Bob, “They put spyware on my computer! AND my phone! They wanted to know what I was telling the police. AND cut me off, if I called! I think there were cameras, too! When the contractor left, he left the walls undone and everything taken apart, with wires sticking out everywhere! The house was in shambles!”

Homeless Policy Making Cabbie, “Yeah, some homeless are just incapable of ‘getting it.’ I do have to say, though, I am heartened by the city’s recent push with these so called ‘navigation centers,’ where the homeless who are afraid of, or turned off to, traditional shelters are allowed to go with their partners and pets into private rooms, where they’re allowed to shoot up, or whatever, while they work with the in-house counselors to get off of drugs and receive mental and physical health services, and help finding a job, or job training, while simultaneously receiving help transitioning out of the navigation center and into stable housing.

Some would have us sweep the homeless under the rug, and squeeze them out. But we need communities where your teachers, police, firefighters, baristas, cab drivers, and yes, even the indigent live and are integrated. It’s healthy.

Hey! Do you know what the history of the word ‘pharmaceutical’ is? It goes back to the Greek word ‘pharmakos.’ That was a ritual back when, where a town would periodically take all the indigents out to the edge of town and stone, or beat, or burn them to death. It was a purification ritual for the community. I wonder how many Burning Man attendees, or drug makers know that.”

And with this, Bob and I pull into SFO — Terminal 2, Virgin America.

Bob, “Well, I don’t know about all that. I’m telling you all of this so you can get the word out. I just thought you seemed like you were plugged-in to the community, and were maybe someone good to warn people about this cabal of homeless scammers running around the city extorting and threatening people. Most of us are too ashamed and stigmatized to step forward. You know, it’s not easy advertising that you’re a victim. I feel so stupid! And I wonder how many more like me are out there!”

I assure Bob I’ll put the word out, as he goes to hand me up a crisp one hundred dollar bill.

Driver, “You hailed me through Cabulous, remember? Your credit card gets charged through the app,” I remind, as I wave off the bill. (Besides, this was my first ride of the day, and all I got is a measly twenty dollars in change.)

Bob, visible distracted and worked into a lather, “Uh, right.”

I pop the trunk and pop out, again, running back to the trunk to help unload Bob’s bag.

And Bob caps our time, all nervous and desperate, at the trunk.

“You understand, don’t you? I just got divorced and needed love and attention. I was just so vulnerable, the perfect mark!”

Cabbie Therapist, “Uh, right…. Have a good flight!”


Photo by Alex SacK

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San Francisco TAXI: Life in the Merge Lane…

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