The young homeless life is, by necessity, one that spurns possessions. “Money is evil,” says Gabrielle Wullschleger, a 19-year-old girl who, until recently, slept in Golden Gate Park. “When you’re inside, you’re more materialistic.”
Americans constantly discard the detritus of their country’s wealth, and in a boomtown like today’s San Francisco, it’s easy come, easy go. Trash bins yield old laptops and cellphones to be used or sold to fencers. Panhandling can net $40 on a good day on Market Street. Urban hunter-gatherers rifle through the “as is” cartons of clothes at Goodwill, $2 a pound. The Social Security office will hook you up with an Obama Phone — a government-subsidized acknowledgment that a phone is almost essential for survival.
But alongside this abundance is a city-imposed scarcity created by policies that seize belongings from homeless while doing little to solve the problem of having nowhere to keep them. Mayor Ed Lee mandated high-profile sweeps of encampments on Division Street (after homeless were forced to go there during the Super Bowl) and in the Mission (after a homeless man was shot dead there by the police).
A recent study by University of California researchers and the Coalition on Homelessness surveyed 351 homeless people in the city, finding that 46 percent had had things confiscated, and 38 percent had had their belongings destroyed by the city. Homeless people have pressed successful suits in small-claims courts for years, and, after recent sweeps, the ACLU and others issued Lee a demand letter to stop what they called illegal confiscation of personal property. If the mayor doesn’t respond with a new policy, the groups say they’ll sue.
In June, seemingly in response, moderate San Francisco supervisor Mark Farrell introduced a ballot measure for the November election proposing that the city create a policy banning encampments so long as the city gives 24 hours’ notice and offers an alternative-housing option. Progressive supervisors are countering that the shelters are maxed out and that there’s nowhere to send the campers.
Kirk Richard, a homeless man who looks to be in his 20s, lost the Ford Ranger he’d been living in to city impoundment. “The worst thing that I lost? Probably family artwork, shiny rocks, family silver.” The city gave him the option to pick up his car, but with all his parking tickets, he decided to cut the loss. “It sucks that the possessions went missing,” Richard says. “But you know, they’re just possessions.”
At the top of the list of many young homeless people’s most prized possessions are their dogs: dogs better cared for than their owners, puppies stored in backpacks worn over stomachs BabyBjörn-style. They are companions, and especially for the young itinerant types, sometimes their only one. “It’s nice to have someone to snuggle with,” one 20-something former camper tells me about his puppy, Steely. “It’s safer, and no matter how bad your day was, he still wants love.” There’s an economic perk, too — when panhandling, you can net three times as much.
The things young people carry are a mix of necessity and comfort.
A portable cellphone charger for the times when there is no outlet. A tablet to study Linux, hoping it will lead to a gig as a systems administrator. A diary of etchings. Pokémon miniatures. A young couple’s shared earrings — one of the pair in each of their ears. Stuff is on homeless people’s minds all the time: the ebb and flow of it, the finds and the inevitable losses. A scrawl of writing on Division Street reveals a dirge for the city’s recent plundering:
NEIL, THE COPS CAME AND TOOK EVERYONE’S STUFF. SORRY.
Rian Dundon is a photographer based in Oakland. His most recent book, FAN, is a visual memoir of China’s celebrity-industrial complex. He teaches documentary photography at the San Francisco Art Institute.
Lauren Smiley is a San Francisco journalist covering how the tech boom has changed the city.
Amy Standen is a podcast producer and radio reporter based in San Francisco.