Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Catch Up Blogging.... Back in the Bay Area

Yeah yeah... I know it's been forever since I posted here. In my defense, I have been (to put it mildly...) insanely busy.

As I write this, I am sitting at my desk, in my new office in downtown Oakland, California. 12 weeks ago, such a scene wasn’t even a glimmer in my mind. 12 weeks ago, I was sitting at home in London, watching the telly. When my Blackberry vibrated with an email from my old employer, Kaiser Permanente.

Three Skype calls and three weeks later I had a job offer to return. Return to KP and return to the United States.  That was 8 weeks ago. Now I sit at my desk at  Kaiser Center in downtown Oakland, while I read news reports of the Brexit drama back home in London.

Back home in London… Is both an odd and perfectly logical sentiment at this point. I find that I am still in a bit of state of culture shock being back in the US. It is hard not to feel like you are half one place and half another. The news last week of an incident at Oxford Street Tube Station had me scouring the internet for details. Yet the right side of my brain was quick to point out; “Uh, that really has nothing to do with you...”

That’s an odd feeling... 

Life is about leaps of faith. What you do, who you share your life with, where you build that life. All leaps of faith. Leaving the US to move to London was a leap of faith. Now it’s a bit of deja’vu. Like picking up where I left off 7 years ago. Leaving  London to return to Northern California. I find I had to just take  a deep breath, and leap.

I am excited and happy to back at Kaiser Permanente. It is an organization I am very passionate about. I believe in our mission, I love our culture and am thrilled to be back among incredibly talented friends who share those beliefs. Still three weeks in, I find I dearly miss London. Part of it is, the odd transition. As familiar as the Bay Area is, it isn’t the place I left 7 years ago. (Nor should it be.) But some of that change has been a bit of a shock. 

When deciding where to live I thought I might go back to San Francisco, where I lived for nearly a decade. But the city has changed somewhat. The current tech boom has thrown the divide between those who are doing well, and those who are not, into sharp vivid relief. San Francisco feels…. mean.  

Not cruel- or evil mean, but more like New York City, every man/woman for themselves, kind of mean.   This  is partly due to the sheer sticker shock of moving back.   London is not a cheap city to live in, but  the SF Bay Area runs about  6-10% more expensive  in terms of cost of living than Greater London.    Case in point, the cost of housing.

When I left San Francisco in 2011,  I was living in a small, but nice  one bedroom apartment, South of Market.  Not in a bad area, but sort of close to a less than desirable area.  What  I liked to call  "Uhhhggh Adjacent".  Not in the "Uhhggh" but adjacent to it.

Still  it was a great place, walking distance to pretty much everything  and  it had a HUGE kitchen and a back patio deck  that I used for grilling.    

When I moved out  I was paying $950.00 a month.   That same apartment  now rents for nearly   $4,000.00 a month.   The recent "tech boom"  has made living in San Francisco akin to trying to find an apartment in Midtown Manhattan.  Possible, but only if you have a lot of money.   This has been a boom for landlords and driven development and yes, gentrification in downtown San Francisco.

So, not wanting to spend half of my income on rent,  (as well as forking over one of any bodily organ I have two of, for a deposit),  I, like many folks have opted out of  trying to live in San Francisco,  and instead, moved to the East Bay. (Oakland ).   Mostly due to the the cost of housing in SF, but also because what I mentioned earlier.  The city just feels...  angry.

There has always been a undercurrent of tension between many San Francisco residents, and the city's large  chronic homeless population.    Recent op-eds from various "tech bros"  decrying  the issues that come with a large homeless population, and the resulting backlash against such opinions, has given the city a feeling of being solidly divided along  socio-economic lines.   The angry "haves" who are tired of urban blight, and the even angrier  "have nots"  who have been driven out of their traditional neighborhoods by the recent Tech boom.  

"Don't give them any money, they'll use it to buy drugs or booze!"  A friend of mine used to scold me when I would hand 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. The 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 2003 San Francisco had the highest cash grants to the homeless in the country —nearly $400 a month, and recipients were not required to even prove residency. Well you can imagine what that did. It turned San Francisco into a magnet for the homeless.

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 did make a difference. In the time that I lived there ,  there was a reported drop in the number of homeless on the streets. Yet, critics of the program said  the impact was  minimal, and never  addressed what they see as the root causes of homelessness. Critics of those critics, said  the "homeless advocates" were apologists for drug use and petty crime, and the "right" to live in the street, didn't outweigh the rights of  private property owners.

Reality as always, probably lies somewhere in the middle.

Again, case in point,  my old neighborhood South of Market.   In 2011, shortly before I moved, the city closed off a section of the street in front of my apartment building, and made a very nice small urban pedestrian park  with benches and artwork.   What happened next was sadly all too predictable.  Having made the space safe from car traffic,  it immediately became a homeless encampment, strewn with trash,  human waste and used needles from intravenous drug use.

Local property owners had to eventually demand the city  remove the park and reopen the street to traffic. Which they did.  One former neighbor of mine said the risk of local children getting hit by a car,  was preferable to  kids having "to walk  through  poop and syringes."

Yet there was no mention of where those homeless people went,  after their camp was cleared out.  That part of the equation remains largely unsolved.

This past weekend as I walked down Market Street and through UN Plaza there was a palpable feeling of anger in the air. As techies lined up to buy a $6.00 cup of coffee, they glared with annoyance at the homeless man camped out on the sidewalk in front of them. Who in turn yelled in angry defiance that San Francisco was HIS city and he wasn't going to go anywhere. 

As I walked around downtown San Francisco  this conflict seemed to be  everywhere. Maybe it's just good old Lutheran  guilt, but it seemed where ever I went, I was  confronted by someone angrily asking me  for spare change .   It got to the point where I just didn't want to make eye contact with anyone. 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  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 Interfaith Homeless Shelter program and 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 "Hey!! U got change?"  yelled at me by the angry homeless guy with the paper cup? 

Part of the problem is despite San Francisco spending over $200 Million last year on the problem,  the number of homeless that I see on the streets  seems larger than ever.

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 coming up to me and furiously demanding spare change as I tried to make my way home.

I really don't have a point to make here. I hope that as we move through the Holiday season, 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. 

Happy Holidays from The Bay Area...

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