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 famously liberal residents are beginning to realize that there is a dark side to the “outdoorsman” culture that’s been celebrated there since the hippies started living on the streets of Haight Ashbury:
Dion Leeds heard screams in the wee hours of Tuesday morning. The retired clinical engineer, who has lived on 47th Avenue next to Golden Gate Park since 1976, looked out the window to see a body lying on Fulton Street.
“I looked out the bathroom window, and that was it,” says Leeds, who called 911. “He was in the middle of the intersection.”
The victim, who died of repeated stab wounds to the face and neck, turned out to be a 29-year-old homeless camper named Brian Austin. Austin’s death, and two other fatal stabbings in the park in the past 13 months, heightened growing tensions between residents and homeless campers in the park.
In July, when The Chronicle began a series of monthly visits to report on people living in the park, Mayor Gavin Newsom reacted with crack-of-dawn sweeps of the park with police and outreach workers. Although it cut down on campers, residents like Belle Burnett, who lives near where Austin’s body was found, are still frustrated by groups of men they believe are sleeping in the park.
“Wednesday, we put out the garbage,” says Burnett, who has lived in her Outer Richmond District apartment for three years. “When I am coming home late, and I see somebody in my driveway going through my trash, they look angry at me. I’m thinking, ‘No, this is my house.’ “
Naturally, since this is San Francisco, the article makes sure to point out the other side of the equation:
The frustration cuts both ways. Some homeless residents see themselves as harmless eccentrics, living on the fringes of society. One park resident, who gave his name as Jeff Olsen, lives in a battered camper with a “Good Sam Club” sticker on the back and a wooden planter box containing three miniature roses balanced on the spare tire.
“I waved to one of the neighbors this morning, and he flipped me off,” Olsen says. “You try to be nice, but if you’re homeless, you’re automatically the scum of the earth.”
As for me, perhaps because my first conscious memories aren’t of the glories of the Summer of Love, but of the decay that swiftly followed, I’ve never romanticized the filthy, lice-ridden, drugged-out free spirits populating San Francisco streets and parks. Cities are organisms, just like anything else. They die if the rot is able to eat out the bottom. Allowing parks, libraries, and streets to become war zones, where hard-working families are constantly assaulted by the stench and lunacy of people who have opted for lives of unrelieved squalor kills a City.
And yes, I do recognize that there are people in society who have suffered genuine hard luck, that there are people who are in the grip of fierce drug and alcohol additions, and that there are drastically mentally ill people whom the law will not protect. Recognizing that these people exist, though, doesn’t mean the only answer is to say that we simply have to accept their existence, turn our streets and parks over to them, and watch normal, civilized culture die or get chased away. Compassion should not equal stupidity.