Everything you need to know about why we suck can be found in “Nasty problem in some SoMa alleys,” an SFGate story that outlines the struggles of one average little businessman dealing with problems related to homeless people in the area.
The Nov. 15 story, written by Ellen Huet, begins, “Bill Pollock has been running his publishing company in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood for six years, but he’s considering moving his company elsewhere because, after all these years, he’s had it with the alleys and walkways being used as toilets.”
Pollock is so fed up with homeless people urinating and defecating right there on the sidewalk by his business that he’s considering moving his company to the Mission District. He’d rather deal with a higher crime rate than the plein aire restrooms in his SoMa neighborhood.
“Even that location would feel more welcoming,” he said.
The story goes on to explain that Pollock’s business is on an alley, with plenty of dark corners for depositing “an unwanted share of the area’s human and other waste.” Pollock calls the city’s public works department “constantly.” He says the department’s policy is to respond promptly to calls about hazardous waste, like feces and hypodermic needles, but you have to know just what to say to get them to respond quickly.
” ‘There’s certain code words — if you say human feces they come faster, but they don’t always,’ Pollock said. ‘If there’s a pile of homeless stuff, it can be there for three days. Every day, you go through the process of filing a complaint.’ ”
Huet reports that this alley isn’t unique in San Francisco, and a stroll through a few offers proof. Pollock thinks the alleys need extra, regular Public Works maintenance, better lighting, and city-maintained public toilets, like porta-potties.
“’I can’t imagine most people want to go on the sidewalk,’ Pollock said.”
A Public Works spokesperson balked at the public toilet suggestion, citing budgetary constraints and the fact that public toilets “attract unsavory activities,” and said that whenever the city wants to put a porta-potty somewhere, for every business owner who wants that, there’s another who objects.
As for simply increasing police patrol, Huet’s explains that the alleys aren’t a priority. Steve Balma, acting captain of the Police Department’s Southern Station, said the department is understaffed, and officers must deal with violent crime like shootings and robberies before “quality-of-life concerns” like feces and urine in an alley.
Are you starting to detect a whiff of something stinkier than waste-drenched alleys yet? Go back and reread this column so far and keep asking yourself: What’s wrong with this picture?
Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Did you have that “bingo!” moment? I hope so. It’s this: When homelessness is merely part of the urban landscape, the actual human suffering disappears. The only thing people notice is what affects them personally: cleaning up poop.
I have a friend who lives in San Francisco who tells me that when you live with homelessness everyday, and step over passed-out junkies on your doorstep and dodge panhandlers to get to work, your empathy hardens.
“You get tired of it. You actually see it so much that you become immune,” he said.
Beyond simple day-to-day callousness, there’s a grotesque lack of contemplation about the larger issue. Consider Pollock’s comment that he can’t imagine people wanting to defecate on a sidewalk. He doesn’t take the next leap and consider what it would be like if you desperately needed to relieve yourself and had no other choice. Or, worse yet, didn’t even realize that peeing on the sidewalk is an issue, because you are mentally ill. Because that’s what you get when you peel away the layers of homelessness: Beneath the destitution, beneath the substance abuse, you find a foundation that includes a huge mentally ill population. They don’t need porta-potties. They need help.
Once upon a time, such help existed. Those who were too mentally ill to function were placed in mental institutions where they got treatment and, hopefully, transitioned to a halfway house and eventually the regular world. Those who couldn’t make that transition stayed institutionalized, and were at least safe and cared for.
Enter Gov. Ronald Reagan, who declared that mainstreaming the mentally ill into the general population was the right thing to do. Let them make their own decisions about their lives, which sounds really empowering and positive, but in reality was simply asinine. But, Reagan could do no wrong. And so, most mental institutions in California closed, and patients were allowed to just shuffle away into the darkness.
Sadly, there was one little oversight in Reagan’s magical social osmosis plan: Not only did the state fail to provide ample transitioning programs, the ones it did have weren’t mandatory. Patients could choose whether or not they wanted to participate. Lacking any functioning survival skills, and because — duh — they’re mentally ill, those patients just ended up on the streets, particularly streets that are survivable in the winter. Like San Francisco.
My aforementioned friend posed this question: “Should the mentally ill be making quality of life decisions for themselves?” The answer is obvious: No! We’ve been “mainstreaming” (read: neglecting) the homeless population for 30 years, and it’s not working. The only thing that trickled down from the Reagan years is urine in the stairwells of San Francisco.
It astounds me that people will balk at the suggestion that people be institutionalized against their will and call it inhumane, and look at some shivering, strung-out junkie huddled on a concrete doorstep under a pile of urine-soaked blankets and declare that to be more compassionate. It astounds me even further that people complain about cleaning up a pile of feces without thoroughly contemplating how and why it got there. We’re more aware of feces than people.
And this, my friend, is why we suck. We only notice human suffering when it inconveniences us.
— Email Debra DeAngelo, winner of the 2012 Best Serious Column award in the National Newspaper Association’s Better Newspaper Contest, at firstname.lastname@example.org; read more of her work at www.wintersexpress.com and www.edebra.com