The Sickness of San Francisco

The city’s struggle with homelessness is revealed by the rain

If you’re not from San Francisco, or if you’re otherwise unfamiliar with life in this city, you might envision the city’s relationship with rain as fundamentally romantic. Perhaps you think of considerate little rain clouds rolling all polite and cottony into the bay, blanketing the Golden Gate Bridge in soft swaths of gray; or maybe you picture eloquent Victorians glistening with the misty residue of a morning shower, or well-to-do couples strolling along the Embarcadero after dinner, arms entwined beneath the safety of a shared umbrella. But this is the San Francisco of postcards and screen savers, of TV shows and romantic comedies. What actually happens when it rains in San Francisco is starkly different.

San Francisco is sick, and rain aggravates that sickness — exfoliates the ugliness of its symptoms.

This sickness, of course, is homelessness, and its symptoms have become thoroughly engrained in the city’s character, as fundamental to its identity as the bridges and houses and symmetrical-looking couples that comprise most people’s paradisiacal perception of the place.

The suffering infects nearly every neighborhood, so much so that the manner in which we locals learn to ignore it has become another defining characteristic of life here.

For decades — since Reagan slashed federal housing subsidies and essentially shuttered public mental health facilities — San Francisco has been attempting to reduce homelessness. It has been famously unsuccessful. Despite this, San Francisco’s strategy in combating homelessness has remained largely consistent: 1) provide services that are ample and well intentioned but expensive and bureaucratically compromised (according to the Board of Supervisors’ 2016 Performance Audit of Homeless Services, the city doesn’t even have enough beds for its homeless population to begin with); 2) police the sidewalks to maintain a manageable status quo; and 3) tolerate any subsequent human suffering.

San Franciscans are reminded of the statistics that represent our city’s sickness all the time. Likewise, our municipal incompetence in addressing the sickness is a source of near-constant conversation. But it’s the ugliness of the suffering piece that we talk about less, and it’s the suffering — the very human suffering — that is most noticeably exfoliated by the darkness and discomfort of rain.

The suffering infects nearly every neighborhood in San Francisco — so much so that the manner in which we locals learn to ignore it has become another defining characteristic of life here. And but so when it rains, not only is the sickness of our city revealed; the shame of our collective willingness to ignore its repercussions is too.

Rain reminds us that ours is not the San Francisco immortalized by screen savers and postcards and Fuller House.

Or at least it feels like this to me. When I walk by someone marooned wordlessly and raggedly in a wheelchair or in a doorway on a day that’s dry, it feels weirdly and embarrassingly easier to just keep walking, to keep on convincing myself that I’m not complicit in the continuation of their suffering, as I’ve learned to do, mostly by way of comforting my inaction with reminders of the city’s collective liberalism, its energy of innovation and its politics of consciousness — as if good intentions alone might suffice.

When it rains, however, what accompanies my awareness of these people’s discomfort is a somehow more salient awareness that they’re enduring it because they don’t have anywhere else to go.

And so, no, rain in San Francisco is not romantic. Rain exfoliates the aspects of life in this city that most of us who live here work to ignore. Rain reminds us that ours is not the San Francisco immortalized by screen savers and postcards and Fuller House, and it reminds us of the fundamental, underlying reality that those of us who are lucky enough to think of homelessness strictly in the abstract could be doing more to help those who have to deal with it physically, if for no other reason than to grant for our fellow humans — even for just a moment or for a meal — the decency of the absence of pain.

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