We Can’t Go Back to This.
The Stark Reality of the Homelessness Crisis in the Bay Area.
In February 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom dedicated his entire State of the State address to focus on the homelessness crisis. But then the pandemic came, putting pressure on state officials to act more quickly to protect the vulnerable homeless population.
In April, California launched Project Roomkey, a project funded by the CARES Act providing temporary housing for the homeless in hotels and motels across the state. Now California is attempting to build on the success with Project HomeKey which allows counties to acquire and rehabilitate various housing options, such as hotels, motels, vacant apartment buildings, or residential care facilities. This project is estimated to add 97 properties and more than 6,100 housing units. This would be a triumphant feat towards ending homelessness, if only it were that easy. Homelessness in California is a truly wicked problem involving many causes and there is not a perfect solution. Even worse, for every one person that is placed in housing, two more are at risk of becoming homeless. The additional 6,100 units will make a small dent in the 150K homeless population of California, so it's unlikely that residents of California will be able to tell any difference.
This article is not to delve into the nuances of the causes of the homelessness crisis in California or propose solutions. Most people are aware that there is a continuously growing problem, but unless you live in the state, I don’t think it is quite comprehendible how surreal the situation really is. This article is not to bash any state or local governments or to scrutinize their strategies or moral character. I have done a lot of studying on the topic and know many brilliant and motivated people who are dedicated to the cause. Still, it is a shame that in the world’s richest nation, and one of the most brilliant, wealthy areas of the country, we have people without a roof, food, or healthcare, whose human rights are being violated every single day.
Instead, I simply want to shine a light on the realities of living in the Bay Area to those who may not be familiar and to perhaps reinvigorate those that live in the area who have become indifferent. I have become familiar with the habits of many homeless that I regularly see and encountered some strange incidents as well. This is me sharing my experience through observations and stories to illustrate what living in this crisis is like from a resident’s perspective. I worked with an illustrative artist named Hadassah Stoltzfus to turn my stories into original art. Some of the stories are funny, some are depressing, some are shocking — but all of them paint a grim and disturbing reality.
The Chalupa Man
Walking out of my apartment, I see a man standing on the corner with a blanket draped around him, yelling. I assumed he was angry at first and was hesitant to walk in that direction. As I approached though, he was not angry at all. In fact, he was quite the opposite. Enthusiastically and passionately, he goes on and on about chalupas and how he was going to “have all the chalupas in the worrrlldd!” I left for at least an hour and when I came back he was still in the same place, carrying on about Chalupas. Amazingly, someone who has a lot they could complain about chooses to be optimistic instead. We could learn a lot from Chalupa man.
Prison Shank Hank
Prison Shank Hank was often found sitting in front of businesses, sharpening make-shift weapons. Despite having a weapon, he never bothered anyone and did not appear to be an angry person. It made me curious, was he creating weapons to protect himself or to hurt others? Could he have been previously incarcerated? After all, it is estimated that roughly a quarter of the homeless population has recently spent time in jail, highlighting the need for us to better prepare inmates for their release and to ensure that they do not end up living on the street.
The Girl With No Pants
I still think about this girl and wonder what happened to her and what her story is.
On the way to pick up my boyfriend from the train station, I see a woman walking in the opposite direction. She is young, maybe in her 20’s. She clutches a blanket in her arms and I notice that she is not wearing pants or shoes. Her skin is smudged with dirt and her face is filled with despair. As I drive, the image bothers me more and more. I tell my boyfriend about it once I pick him up and suggest that we stop if she is still around on our way out. On our way back, she was nowhere to be found.
Over 20% of women who experience homelessness report that domestic violence was the direct cause. I cannot get over the look of excruciating defeat on this woman’s face. What could have happened to her?
It's not uncommon to walk past people who are muttering incoherently to themselves. It is estimated that roughly 30% of unsheltered homeless people have a serious mental illness. This fella’ was particularly animated and angry. He was having a back and forth conversation with a non-existent person as they discussed how much they hated a particular woman and were going to kill her. Perhaps they were speaking figuratively, perhaps not. Perhaps the woman is not real either. All of this is happening in front of a long line flowing out of the most popular coffee shop in San Jose. The customers are not phased as you get used to this type of occurrence when living in the Bay Area.
I would see this guy walking all around town, wearing a motorcycle helmet. The first few times I saw him, I assumed he had a bike somewhere but after a while, I realized that he does not. His appearance gave me time-traveler vibes. On my way to work one morning, I saw him sleeping in a planter box, still wearing his helmet. Surely wearing a motorcycle helmet all day is not comfortable. Perhaps it's for a sensory reason, or maybe he is hiding his face from someone… or perhaps he really is a time-traveler.
High and Happy
My boyfriend and I really liked this guy. He is a young man and could frequently be found standing outside of Starbucks asking customers as they walk in to buy him a pastry or coffee. He was polite and we always said yes when he asked. When he wasn’t in front of Starbucks, we would see him dancing and raving around town, high out of his mind. But he was always in a happy state of mind.
One study found that roughly 50% of unsheltered homeless reported substance abuse as the primary cause.
The Invisible Dog
Starbucks is frequently visited by the homeless. The guests are typically kind and will buy foods and the baristas will give free cups of ice water. On this particular day, a man walks in and lays on the floor, and pets an invisible dog for a few minutes before leaving abruptly. No one bothers the man, and everyone goes on about their business.
The Man Who Attacked Me
My boyfriend and I were in the Target parking lot when we saw a man running in our general direction. Initially, we didn’t think we were in any danger since as you can tell, these types of incidents are quite common in the area. Once the guy gets close, he starts kicking and hitting our car. We begin to accelerate out of the parking lot, but the man is chasing the car and manages to open my car door. I make eye contact and I can see that his mind is not in this world. I yell at him and am able to pry the door shut as he can no longer keep pace with the car. All of this happened in a split second, but it felt like an eternity. I immediately called the police which went to voicemail the first time. Once I finally get an operator on the line, she simply tells me to get myself to safety. I expected the police to come out, but they did not. I expected a follow-up about the incident, but there was none. I called the police station for a week after the incident to try and follow-up about what happened but I was unable to get anyone to pick up the phone. I could not find any record of the call in their crime reports database. I messaged the departments on Facebook, reached out to media outlets. No response. I posted about the incident in online forums and discovered that the same man had chased another couple down the sidewalk, and he was harassing other vehicles. I was so angry and frustrated that there was zero accountability for this man that could have seriously hurt me or someone else. It felt like the city just did not care about me. I felt alone and I grew quite bitter after the incident. I started searching message boards and found that it is not uncommon for police not to respond to incidents involving the homeless or “petty” crimes. And while I understand that the department is busy, this particular guy was violent and should not have been ignored, doing so felt like a total disregard for the safety of human lives.
After the incident, I found myself becoming very anxious when passing homeless men. When my back was turned, I would get this chilling sensation that I was about to be attacked. I became quite paranoid, especially knowing that most likely, no one would help me. I’ve worked hard to try and bury this bias, obviously not all homeless people are violent, but I am a lot more cautious and hesitant now.
I’ve told this story to others and experienced quite a bit of victim-blaming. Why didn’t you drive away faster? (slow car I guess) Why weren’t your doors locked? (I assumed they were) Why didn’t you just shoot him? (even if I did have a gun, my instinct was to get myself away from the situation by creating distance and barriers)
But to those people I will say, you don’t know what you would do in any particular situation until you are in it.
I was very curious about this man, it is not easy to deduce why he might be homeless. He was neat and tidy and carried a broom in his shopping cart. I would often see him sweeping the sidewalk or around his tent area. His clothes looked clean. He tucked in his shirt and combed his hair. He seems to have pride and self-respect, so why was he homeless? About 10% of the homeless population report having a job so maybe he simply did not make enough money for a living. Maybe he is homeless by choice. While the vast majority of homeless people are not there by choice, there is a small percentage that are.
You may have heard rumors that people poop on the sidewalks in California. I can confirm, yes, those rumors are true. It is not something you see every day but in my time living here, I have seen multiple occurrences. There are hotlines for reporting such incidents. In 2018, San Francisco had nearly 15,000 reports of poop on the sidewalks. Yes, it is a public health issue. Yes, the city works hard to try and combat this. While the city struggles to accommodate housing for the large population of homeless, there is another issue, access to bathrooms for those that are unsheltered.
The Metal Pipe
There is a trail near my home that my boyfriend and I run on almost daily. On this day, we see a homeless man coming towards us pushing a shopping cart. The man sees us and retrieves what looks like a long metal pipe from his cart and is holding it slightly behind his back and looking right at us. This gives me an eerie feeling and I get a flashback to the previous incident of when I was almost attacked in my car. I am getting the sensation that this man may attack me with the pipe he just pulled from his cart if we continue towards him. My boyfriend and I exchange looks and we are on the same page, let’s turn around. So we do. We stop to warn another couple that is walking in his direction, but the man does not seem to mind them. He is only angry at us. He begins yelling, “You better run, you stupid cunt!” and other obscenities. We are very far away from him now and can still hear him yelling at us. I ponder why he would be so angry at us in particular, we had never seen this man before. I assume that perhaps we look like someone else or we triggered something in his mind. I don’t know.
A man is standing in the middle of the sidewalk, yelling to the top of his lungs. He is yelling so hard that his face is red and as we drive past, I can even see the veins bulging out of his neck. There is no one else around, but he is so angry and is yelling at nothing that I can see. He has a cute, small, pug-like dog on a leash who patiently waits by his side for him to finish this episode. The dog is not phased by the noise, so perhaps it happens often. Many homeless are turned away from shelters for having pets and of course, they choose their pet. Wouldn’t you?
The Sidewalk Blockers
An elderly man in a wheelchair and a morbidly obese woman would sit in the middle of a busy sidewalk nearly every day, in the same spot, often surrounded by trash. Nicely dressed couples and families would jog or bike around them. A large portion of the homeless population has a physical disability, indicating the need for us to ensure that disabled people have access to healthcare and a living wage.
The homelessness crisis in California is intricate, convoluted, and messy. There is no perfect solution and every solution will have unintended consequences, paving way for new problems to arise. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the deep inequalities that are rooted all across America (not just California) and we have been given an opportunity window to reshape our societies for the better. Given the grim reality of everyday life pre-COVID, I think it's safe to say that we can do better. We CANNOT go back to accepting people living on the streets with no food, roof, or healthcare. Not only is this a human rights issue, but we have learned that having people in our society who are not stable or independent is also an economic liability evident by the millions of Americans who have recently fallen into poverty due to the pandemic. We need our population to be resilient to disruption — to have the basic necessities for life and living. This will not be the last crisis, but next time, let’s be better prepared.
We Can’t Go Back To This.
Resources to Learn More:
Levin, M., & Botts, J. (2020, January 2). California’s Homelessness Crisis — and Possible Solutions — Explained. KQED. https://www.kqed.org/news/11793607/californias-homelessness-crisis-and-possible-solutions-explained
Robinson, N. (2018, August 18). Why is San Francisco … covered in human feces? The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/18/san-francisco-poop-problem-inequality-homelessness#
Smucker, S., Locker, A. R., & Chesler, A. N. (2020, July 2). After COVID-19: Prevent Homelessness Among Survivors of Domestic Abuse. The RAND Blog. After COVID-19: Prevent Homelessness Among Survivors of Domestic Abuse
Wagner, D. (2018, September 4). Thousands of Californians Are Working While Homeless, and Many Don’t Want Their Boss to Know. KQED. https://www.kqed.org/news/11690325/thousands-of-californians-are-working-while-homeless-and-many-dont-want-their-boss-to-know
Wiener, J. (2020, September 17). Breakdown: California’s mental health system, explained. CalMatters. https://calmatters.org/explainers/breakdown-californias-mental-health-system-explained