San Francisco Nimby’s

I think David Latterman, the President of Fall Line Analytics, a Bay Area market research firm, has put his finger on the San Francisco psyche:

“Maybe there has been an epiphany,” says David Latterman, president of Fall Line Analytics, a local market research firm. “People have realized they can hate George Bush but still not want people crapping in their doorway.”

Yes, it turns out that San Franciscans, famed for loving everyone but Republicans (and especially the arch Republicans Bushandcheney), have found another unlovable group, and it’s a shocking one, since it’s a victim group:

San Francisco – the liberal, left-coast city conservatives love to mock – could be undergoing a transformation when it comes to homeless people. Although the city would still be a poor choice for a pep rally for the war in Iraq, indications are that residents have had it with aggressive panhandlers, street squatters and drug users.

Of course, being San Franciscans, they’re justifying like mad their perfectly normal response to filthy, often mentally ill, people with substance abuse problems:

Consider the case of David Kiely, who has lived in the South of Market area for 18 years. He bought a home when prices were low and now lives there with his wife, Jenny, and their three boys, ages 7, 4 and 1. Kiely insists “we’re not some white, yuppie parents saying we can’t take this.” In fact, he says, they donate to programs for homeless people at Glide Memorial Methodist Church and the food bank at St. Anthony Dining Room. But he’s finally saying “enough is enough.”

“I don’t expect it to be Cow Hollow or Pacific Heights,” he says. “But the other day Jenny is bringing the kids back from the park, and some guy is standing on the corner throwing up on himself.”


Of course, having staked out what can only be seen as a conservative position, those in the center of the issue are seeking to redefine it:

“I don’t think this is a conservative or liberal thing,” [Trent Rhorer, executive director of San Francisco’s Human Services Agency] says. “This is quality of life for everyone. What research has shown and what we have seen from visits to cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, Portland and New York is that you need to combine good social outreach with law enforcement.”

As someone who grew up in San Francisco, let me explain that it is, in fact, a “conservative or liberal thing” — or, at least, that its genesis was the battle that the conservatives lost 40 years ago to the ACLU. I have to warn you that Reagan figures in this narrative too, and not in a good way.

One of the big ACLU and liberal lawyer triumphs of the 1960s (and one they’re still working on at irregular intervals today) was to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill. (You can get a taste of that battle here.) The ACLU’s point was that it was a denial of civil liberties to force the mentally ill into institutions when many of them (most notably the paranoid schizophrenics) so obviously didn’t want to be there. I remember vividly when Reagan, while still Governor of California, signed off on Legislation deinstitutionalizing the mentally ill. (I don’t know if he did it out of conviction, political expediency, or because he was forced to do so. I just remember it happening.)

The immediate and obvious result of Reagan’s “freeing” of the mentally ill was a huge influx of people on the streets living in filth and talking to themselves. Indeed, my experience with these street people is so deeply ingrained that, even now, more than a decade into the wireless headset years, when I see a well-dressed young man talking to himself and gesticulating, my first thought is still “Oh, boy, a crazy man. I’d better cross to the other side of the street to avoid him.”

These new homeless, who often coupled substance abuse problems with their mental illness, were appalling. They ate out of garbage cans; lived in their own filth; had all their worldly goods piled in stolen shopping carts; had terrible lesions on their bodies; were tubercular; harbored contagious vermin (such as lice); lunged at people walking by; and occasionally killed people. That sentence was in the past tense. It needn’t be. As the above shows, these street people are still appalling. While I don’t live in the City anymore, I only have to head to a major urban downtown (New York, S.F., Phillie, wherever) to see them again.

In California, if the street people are too visible — too wild, too decayed — they can be “5150’d”. That is, the police can bring them into a City psych ward for observation for three days. If they are not deemed an imminent danger to themselves or to others, though, and if they decline treatment (which paranoid schizophrenics or heroine addicts craving a hit usually do — that being the nature of their illness), they’re back on the streets again. As it is, I’m not sure how you measure “imminent danger” for someone who is mentally ill, drug-ridden, tubercular, riddled with skin lesions, eating out of garbage cans, and sleeping in gutters, but, heck, what do I know?

All I can say is that, if you measure a society’s humanity by how it treats these helpless people, our current laws allowing them to descend into the Seventh Circle of Hell on our own streets is a striking example of inhumanity. The fact that some who are profoundly mentally ill can still function at a minimal, animal level, doesn’t mean that we’re doing them a favor by allowing them to avoid health care, mental health treatment, decent food, and some level of physical safety.

I’m absolutely sure that the old mental institutions weren’t nice places, and I’m equally sure that many were Dickensian in their horrors. I also doubt that the current mental institutions are anything to write home about. Nevertheless, it would seem to be that the better tactic is to improve the institutions and not turn our streets in giant, filthy, insane asylums. And so, while it may not be a liberal/conservative thing now, it was then, and I find it hard to forgive the ACLU and their fellow travelers for their huge push, 40 years ago, to create the urban sepsis of homelessness.