Last week, my husband and I went to San Francisco. He had a conference, and I tagged along so we could make a trip of it after the conference ended. San Francisco has been a metonym for all the right’s cultural bugaboos, a hash of anarchic counterculture bogeymen and nanny-state liberal scolds, sexual libertinism mixed with pious political correctness. And now it’s become another allegory, as the anti-urban Republican coalition paints it as a symbol of the inevitable failure of any liberalism allowed to govern: homelessness rampant; madmen screaming in the streets; the sidewalks and houses smeared with human shit, the boulevards all shooting galleries. Our president, who loves schoolyard inversions of his enemies’ insults, taunted the city on Twitter, saying the growing piles of shit and used needles were washing into the bay and causing an environmental catastrophe and that he might send in the EPA.
San Francisco is experiencing a rise in homelessness, as are many cities across the country where combinations of tech industry salary inflation and speculative real estate development have driven housing prices higher at a pace not seen since before the great crash of 2007. Like so many of the eminently solvable problems of inequality in America, which almost all arise from the deliberate misallocation of resources upward to the already rich, mainstream politics and much of the national media want you to believe that the problem is utterly intractable, an unaccountable force of nature that can at best be ameliorated at the margins. The horizons of political feasibility have narrowed, and the responsible voices only ever ask: Where can we tinker?
The reasons for the homelessness surge are evident to anyone who bothers to look. Official unemployment is low, but there has also been tremendous growth in precarious and part-time employment. Mental health and other supportive public services are thin, underfunded, and inadequate. Public and social housing are insufficient. And yet despite this, there is a politically bewildered reaction: “As Homelessness Surges in California, So Does a Backlash,” went one recent New York Times headline. You will find this language of surges and epicenters, evocative of natural disasters, throughout the reporting on the subject.
As is often the case when the right has staked out fever dream as a political position that the Times feels obligated by its own blinkered definition of fairness to respect, the language of its story is tortured to allow the gross exaggeration a pale aura of plausibility. “For many,” the paper wrote, “that breaking point was the worsening squalor in the streets of cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, where open-air drug dealing is rampant in some spots and where human feces and scattered needles and syringes have been found lying about.”
These heavily hedged phrases — “in some spots,” and “have been found lying about” — are doing heavy work. How many spots, exactly, in a dense and geographically diverse city? Where, how often, and how scattered, exactly, have “feces and scattered needles and syringes” been found “lying about?”
Like many of American culture’s self-inflicted injuries, homelessness is visible only when convenient.
I won’t play the Times columnist game and draw sweeping social and ethnographic conclusions from my few days wandering around a city I barely know. But I will say, anecdotally, that while there is a great deal of visible homelessness in a few of the city’s neighborhoods, I did not see any needles, and any feces I saw appeared to be of the canine variety, including, I would add, in a few of the tonier neighborhoods I passed through.
I use the phrase “visible homelessness” under advisement. Like many of American culture’s self-inflicted injuries, it is visible only when convenient; otherwise it is a parallel city — the same space, and the same reality, an ever-present but invisible threat from across an also invisible border, except when, in rare moments, something from the other side comes crashing through before it can be unseen. Tourists and residents pass the homeless, past encampments and makeshift shelters, with their eyes locked forward, choosing not to see the people — they are people — who are living on their shared streets. Even this description is fraught. “Tourists and residents,” I wrote without thinking, as if homeless people constitute a third category, as if they are not residents of a city, too.
This is not unique to the Bay Area, or to California. It is a growing issue in New York City. It is a perennial political hot-button in Austin, another expensive, warm-weather city that has long struggled with the competing forces of its own political liberalism and the financial and development pressures of a booming tech economy and red-hot housing market.
You won’t be surprised to learn that bleeding-heart liberalism loses out almost every time to arguments about property values and the awkward terror of having to interact with a panhandler. Even in my own relatively small city of Pittsburgh, a reported rise in the homeless population has led to angry public debate, with the mayor and the CEO of one of the city’s largest cultural organizations trading incendiary letters about ties between homeless and the perceived—but statistically dubious—“declining level of public safety.” (Full disclosure: I worked for that cultural organization, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, until 2016.)
Meanwhile, private philanthropy is, to use an expression from the world of business and finance, moving into the space, albeit in its sometimes well-meaning but habitually roundabout and ineffectual way. Mark Benioff, the billionaire CEO of Salesforce and — minor credit here — a public critic of the antisocial parsimony of his wealthy peers and their wealth companies in California’s tech corridor, gave $30 million to fight homelessness, but he did so by creating a “Homelessness and Housing Initiative” at UC-San Francisco with the charge to find “a North Star for truth on homelessness.”
Even in my own relatively small city of Pittsburgh, a reported rise in the homeless population has led to angry public debate.
Not to be outdone, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and one of the two richest men in the world, made a splashy pledge of nearly $100,000,000 to combat “family homelessness.” It made for great headlines, although at even a modest rate of return on his $100 billion-plus fortune, his gift is about the equivalent hit to his income as a family making $100,000 a year — around the estimated minimum for making ends meet in San Francisco — that writes a $100 check to the local shelter at Christmastime. It is also, when you get to the details, rather less grand: 24 gifts of $2.5 or $5 million apiece to 24 different charities.
I have done a great deal of work in the non-profit sector in my career. Such a gift would be world-changing for many small charities, but this is not a durable funding model. It’s a momentary boost to operations and programs that will be expended within a few years, and it will not “solve” the endemic homelessness of tens of thousands of people. As with the poverty of which homelessness is a symptom, the causal complexity of the phenomenon — especially in its relationship with addiction and mental health — obscures the straightforward nature of the problem itself. The poor do not have money. The homeless do not have homes.
The common counterarguments are that the poor are poor because they don’t know how to save; the homeless are poor and homeless because they are mentally ill, they are addicts, they choose to beg and panhandle rather than join society — and in any case, to simply house them without robust social services, counseling and addiction treatment, would be to create unpoliced asylums, precisely the image of horror and contagion employed by the nice liberal neighborhood association when they hear that a shelter or clinic may be built where these unpeople will be harder to ignore.
Here is the crux of the matter: Homelessness is another problem that cannot be solved by targeted charity and entrepreneurial initiatives, but that requires collective social action, and not because of its burdensome complexity, but simply because of its scale. Yet while the idea that health care, for instance, or some degree of higher education, is a fundamental human right, not a commodity to be bought and sold and speculated upon in the marketplace, has gained traction and popularity over the last decade, the idea that housing represents at some fundamental level an investment has pushed to the margins the idea that housing is itself an even more fundamental right, that some minimal level of shelter, food, water, and clothing must precede all other rights and liberties.
The causal complexity of homelessness — especially in its relationship with addiction and mental health — obscures the straightforward nature of the problem itself.
But as with the clearly related “issue” of immigration, there is a certain political and rhetorical value to having this alien population on the other side of an imaginary line, somehow pressing on the resources that we will not share to begin with, an invisible invader right in front of our eyes. In 2009, the author and Marxist critic China Miéville published a strange, thrilling detective novel called The City and the City. Miéville is best known for his “weird” fantasy novels set in baroque, grotesque, and often magical worlds. But in The City and the City, he tells a classic, noirish murder mystery with one utterly fantastical and yet appallingly believable conceit. The story is set in parallel cities of Bészel and Ul Qoma, the former a Slavic-inflected Balkan city-state, the latter similar, but stylistically oriented toward the Turkish and Islamic east.
The cities are basically coterminous; they coexist in the same space and know each other exists, but they hardly interact, and the other’s presence can only be dimly sensed across the ghostly divide. Except — and this is what makes the setting so shocking once it becomes clear — the two cities do not exist on separate planes of existence or in parallel dimensions or any of the other usual tropes of science fiction and fantasy. They really, actually exist in the same world, wrapped around and through each other, and it is simply, or not so simply, the collectively enforced choice by citizens of each city on either side of the fractal border to “unsee” the city on the other side.