Sunday, April 01, 2007

A San Franciscan's Dilema

"Don't give them any money, they'll use it to by drugs or booze!" A friend of mine scolded me the other day as I handed a homeless man on Market Street a dollar.

In all honesty he was probably right. Yet it is hard to just "walk by" a man lying on the ground who clearly has not spent a night indoors in a very long time. It is the greatest civic issue facing San Francisco. Our mass of homeless. For years the homeless migrated here for the mild winter, and for cash. The city used to hand out cash to the homeless in lieu of services. Until recently San Francisco had  the highest cash grants to the homeless in the country —nearly $400 a month, and recipients were not required to prove residency or even citizenship.    Well you can imagine what that did. It turned San Francisco into a magnet for the homeless.

I know this for a fact because there was a guy who always used to ask me for spare change on LaSalle Street in Chicago, and last winter, I saw him with his same cardboard sign on Market Street here in San Francisco. I asked him how he got here , and he told me he got enough money together for a bus ticket and came here. He had been told by other homeless, that SF handed out cash to people living on the streets. He was annoyed to discover when he got here, that the practice had ended shortly after a new Mayor took office.

It was  Mayor Gavin Newsom, who started "Care not Cash". A program where instead of getting money, the homeless get housing and other assistance. It has made a difference. In the time I have lived here, as  there has been a reported drop in the number of homeless on the streets. Yet, critics of the program say the impact has been minimal, and still doesnt address what they see as the root causes of homelessness. Critics of those critics, say the "homeless advocates" are apologists for drug use and petty crime, and dont want people to have to take responsilbity for themselves.  Reality as always, probably lies somewhere in the middle.

Yet this past week the homeless seemed to be everywhere. Maybe it's just good old Lutheran Lenten guilt, but it seemed everywhere I went over the past three days, I was asked for spare change .   It got to the point where I just didn't want to make eye contact with anyone anymore. And I felt really crappy about it too. Yet in all truth what good is one dollar, or a hand full of change going to do this person? What they really need is housing, substance abuse rehab and mental and medical health services. None of which I usually carry in my pockets as I walk down Market Street.

The rational side of my brain is quick to remind me that I give every month to my church, which in turn supports programs like the San Francisco Night Ministry. Which does try to provide those real needs I just mentioned. So why do I still feel so rotten when I pretend not to hear "spare any change?" from the guy with the paper cup? Part of the problem is despite programs like Mayor Newsom's the number of homeless that I see doesn't seem to be going down.

Yet I could give every cent I have to every homeless person I see and it wouldn't do anything to help solve the problem. So I keep walking avoiding eye contact and lamenting the fact that in spite of all the non profits, churches and social services working to aid the homeless in this city, it still seemed to boil down to someone asking me for change as I tried to make my way home.

I really dont have a point to make here. I hope that as we move into Holy Week and Passover,  everyone who reads this will find one organization that does good work, and donate to it. Be it the Red Cross, a church, a food bank or shelter. Maybe if we all did, it would accomplish something.

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