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.


5 Responses

  1. […] [Discuss this article with Bookworm over at Bookworm Room…] Share Article David Latterman, Republicans, conservative, liberal    Sphere: Related Content | Trackback URL […]

  2. Well, sanity is finally leaking into the consciousness of the “moderate” San Franciscans….maybe having three kids under 10 has helped David Kiely see the blindingly obvious. I’m fairly confident that 10 years ago, he’d have been out picketing people who talk the way he does today. I hope I’m wrong about that.

    Part of Reagan’s success at the federal level was due to his experience being rolled by the leftists in the California legislature. He was much more cautious when he got to Washington…..although the illegal immigrant bill he signed was one more example of giving what they asked, and getting nothing of their promised half of the deal.

    The “other half” of getting rid of the enormously expensive California institutions housing the mentally challenged, was half-way houses and group homes, which were promised to do a better job at far less cost. Naturally, as soon as the money for the State Hospital system was freed up, the California legislature found many projects to spend it on that had much larger constituencies than half-way houses and group homes for the mentally handicapped and deranged. So the taxpayers of our cities ended up paying the costs, and since that’s where most liberal/leftists live, one is tempted to a bit of schadenfreude.

  3. It also makes people less compassionate and numbed to suffering. I remember the first time I went to NYC and a ragged and filthy, obviously hallucinating, homeless man was lying on a subway grating on the sidewalk to get some warm air on a freezing winter day. I was shocked and horrified. Swarms of people were walking around him, doing nothing, not even looking at him. Well, what could they do, actually, throw him a dollar, or invite him to lunch? People were scared of him. He was psychotic, unpredictable, and filthy beyond description. He needed real help, systemic help. That he didn’t get.

    I remember coming through the Lincoln Tunnel into Manhattan and immediately being swarmed by mobs of homeless with spray bottles and old newspapers who “washed” your car windows whether you declined or not. They then aggressively demanded payment. Drivers were intimidated. A lot of the window-washers were clearly substance abusers. they needed real help.

    I remember explaining to my daughter why I chose not to give a particular panhandler money- and how hard this was for her to understand. It reminded me of the first time I saw a person holding a “will work for food” placard off the L.A. freeway. I was so horrified- what has our society come to? Eventually we all get hardened. the same placard was at every freeway exit, and major intersection- you’d pass dozens day. So many ready to work for food? The same perosn offering to work for food for months on end- all day,, all the time? People got doubtful- why not line up for day jobs then? With skepticism comes a diminution of pity.

    Truth is again, they needed real, long term, systemic help- to get clean, healthy, or looked after. This, they didn’t get.

  4. Truth is again, they needed real, long term, systemic help- to get clean, healthy, or looked after. This, they didn’t get.

    Every classical liberal eventually comes to a point when they have to make a choice about which path they will take. They can either pretend that government can fix these problems or they can go a different route.

  5. […] 20, 2007 by Bookworm I wrote earlier in the month about the fact that some in San Francisco are finally getting fed up with the homeless culture. There are more signs that, at least when it comes to their own back yards, San Francisco’s […]

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