J.R.Donohue/Commentary/Hands Off My Shopping Cart
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You Can Wear a $2000 Suit,
But Hands Off My Shopping Cart

A San Francisco Perspective

     When my ten-year-old son Evan and I were in San Francisco this past summer, one of the sights to see (you couldn’t not see, that is) was the population of homeless people occupying the streets. Not just the streets of the red light district or skid row, but everywhere. Market Street, the BART platforms, Fisherman’s Wharf, etc. They were especially evident early Sunday morning when we went for a walk to the bus, because the absence of non-homeless people on the streets made the size of the "indigenous" population stand out.

     Evan and I walked by and through the groups of homeless, not feeling particularly threatened. They are apparently not dangerous under the usual circumstances. We did notice that the clusters were more organized or congealed than one would expect, talking in groups, exchanging clothing, socializing; it was the equivalent of "gatherings." Perhaps this corresponds with church, cocktail parties, PTA meetings or day-trading seminars in the non-homeless (homeful? home-advantaged? housed?) world. One thing we found out: the homeless consider themselves "A Community" in full post-modernist neo-collectivist positioning.

     On a beautiful summer’s day we wanted a ride on the cable car leaving Fisherman’s Wharf headed back to our hotel. One does not simply "get on" a cable car anymore, as I once did in visits to San Francisco during the seventies and eighties. It is now an event. With a line. But the writing was on the wall; if we did not suffer the line, there would be no cable car ride.

     During the subsequent hour of our wait we were treated to a discourse on the history of the cable cars, quite competently done in an agreeable voice. This was delivered not by an employee of the city or a cable car person, but by a wheelchair bound (self-identified) homeless woman who has carved out a niche for herself performing this service. One got the impression that either her mission was well appreciated by the city/cable car "company" in the spirit of community, or that any and all legal attempts to extract her had utterly failed and the thing has now become a fait accompli.

     At the end of her presentation Ms. Wheelchair asked us to support the homeless by purchasing a copy of their newspaper for $2.00. While of course I admire the enterprise involved, and while she did a good job, still it is an unsolicited presentation of a service to a captive audience and then emotional pressure to buy after the fact. Many bought her publication. By the time the line had moved all the way around the cable station and we were about to get on board, I saw that she had been relieved by another person of her community. Shift change, I guess.

     There was another gambit in play at the boarding point in the form of a homeless street musician lacking the restraint of his more respectful wheelchair comrade. This guy was openly hostile to the homeful. He played us a snatch of a song (badly) right before boarding, made a big fuss about "justice," and then impinged himself obnoxiously with a hand held tin cup thrust in our faces as we boarded. His resentment at the low payout was open and sharp.

     There were many other homeless at the cable car station. They shouted to one another across the boarding plaza, carrying on rude conversations as if the waiting passengers were invisible. Far from fearing a roust from police or cablecar authorities, they broadcast a tangible attitude that this was their property, secured beyond all challenge in a successful and proud "squat," and that they were tolerating our presence (and that of our cute toy train) on their land only for the purpose of fleecing us. Several paraded unmasked hurt feelings that we were homed and they were not.

     Now consider Willie Brown. You know, the mayor of San Francisco.

     Willie has been a player in California for a long time, presiding over the relentlessly Democratic state legislature for YEARS as speaker. During the past decades there has been little pretense that things get done in Sacramento on principle, based on the pure meaning of the constitution, or according to objective justice, etc.; it is well known to one and all that the game is pure power. The reason we have the absurd but interesting "proposition fever" in California is that the legislature is not about freedom, property and individual rights; it is about wielding power for power’s sake. This is too bad, because California has a remarkable state constitution, far more Objectivist and Revolutionary in its language than the Federal Constitution. Read it some time for a real jolt.

     Willie was the best at the game of power in California. He endlessly foiled his opponents, frustrated the occasional Republican governor, curried favor as he saw fit, acted as kingmaker and generally presided over a spectacle of utter cynicism like a postmodern philosopher-king.

     People admire Willie. Style had something to do with it; he is handsome, well spoken, and above all he is by far the best-dressed politician ever, bar none. I mean a sharp dresser. One feels Willie would never be seen in public in a suit worth less that what I paid for my first new car ($1600.00 in 1972). There is a twinkle in Willie’s eye, a $20. cigar in his hand and celebrity brimming from his entourage.

     Eventually, Willie found himself stranded in the cul-de-sac of term limits. Of course, no denizen of Sacramento would dream of suggesting term limits, but that pesky direct democracy (proposition on the ballot) accomplished the feat, and somehow the state courts and Supreme Court of the USA managed to sustain it in the name of populism. So, Willie was out. He soon found a home downstream on the Sacramento River in the City By The Bay. Elected Mayor of San Francisco in November 1996, Willie brought his flamboyant style with him.

     Upon his triumphal entry through the portals of the city Willie was presented with a scene that could only have insulted his refined sensibilities. The city was infested with all manner of humanity residing in, imbibing hooch in, washing in, defecating in, screwing in, cooking in, getting high in and sleeping in -- his streets and parks. Disgusting. I mean, it was out of control almost to the point of scary. Golden Gate Park, especially, was overrun -- occupied territory.

     Willie discovered that the former mayor had been at least trying. There was a program in place (Matrix) under which much police manpower was allocated in an attempt to "ticket" the homeless away. These citations were for "quality of life" offenses. They had little effect, except to celebrate an endless stream of tear-stained hard luck stories, with the big bad cop as villain, in the liberal press.

If you think it amazing that the homeless have a newspaper (called, of course, "The Street Sheet") please be advised that they also have a website, which can be seen here. Their main organizing entity, The Coalition On The Homeless, is under full advocacy of the ACLU and many other liberal organizations. The homeless are well armed.

     Far from Willie’s first reaction -- to step up Matrix and scour the city to a shine befitting his reign -- he was confronted with the vast expectation that he would eliminate it! Wasn’t he, after all, the great liberal legislator? Couldn’t he stop the fascist police and will into existence vast remedies for the displaced ones?

     Willie called for a big powwow between his administration, the police and the advocacy groups. His rhetoric mollified the advocates for a time, mostly because he killed the name "Matrix" and also because Willie knows how to spin things in victim-speak. "Social justice," etc.

     This honeymoon period was short lived, however.

     Once activists understood that the Matrix program had simply been renamed as "Operation Park" and would now operate as aggressively as ever to simply ticket and confiscate the tents and belongings of the homeless in the parks, the gloves came off. On November 7, 1998 three activists came on stage where Mayor Brown was speaking and stuffed a pie in his face. Willie was quite frightened and also injured by this incident. Also, he was not amused. He launched a hardheaded prosecution of the three attackers and in the spring of 1999 they were given six-month prison sentences.

     Writing from prison, one of the activists expressed her pique that such an incident was considered a violent crime, compared Brown’s clean sweeps of homeless as the near equivalent of Nazi sweeps of a like kind, and voiced her resentment that attempts to disqualify the prosecutor that had put her in jail had fallen on deaf ears. She also apologized to black activists who had taken offence that three white activists had thrown a pie at a black mayor, calling it a racist act.

     In San Francisco one is forever through the looking glass on such things. I must report, however, that I do not laugh as easily at this foible of the dysfunctional capitol of the Left Coast as I might with other issues. This many people living on the streets is tragic. Having visited and discussed the plight of the city with my young son I realize the disturbing nature of this problem. Some of those homeless truly are in the throes of dark misfortune despite strong efforts to do better. It is painful to think of them. I sincerely hope the massive efforts by San Franciscans and their own initiative will pull them up quickly. Many others, however, clearly do little to improve their lot and are simply exploiting the situation by turning need and greed into a political position. It is painful to see the extent to which they are accommodated.

John Donohue
Pasadena, CA

One problem for the homeless is accommodation for their pets. To learn more about this fascinating aspect of the problem, go here.

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All essays Copyright 2001 J.R.Donohue
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