Homeless Die on the Streets of San Francisco


SAN FRANCISCO-On the night before Christmas the newspapers reported that yet another homeless person had been found dead in the streets.

The body of a 47-year-old man was discovered on a parkbench in Chinatown. The coroner was unable to say as yet whether the man had died of exposure to the cold. But that was not unlikely, given that temperatures had plunged to record lows.

For homeless people in San Francisco, one of the wealthiest of American big cities, the December 1998 cold snap was becoming a life-threatening catastrophe. There are fewer than 3000 shelter beds for the homeless in this city-leaving some 8000 to 11,000 additional homeless individuals and families with no warm place to spend the night.

A half dozen homeless people died in San Francisco in the week before Christmas. And at least 164 homeless deaths were reported during the year-a record number since 1987, when the statistics first began to be recorded.

Most of the deaths were related to the abuse of alcohol or drugs; a few were from AIDS and other diseases; five were suicides. But almost all of the deaths were hastened by exposure to the harsh winters of this year and last. The average age of the deceased was 42.

The city has done little to help stem the emergency. Just before Christmas, more than 1200 people were still on the city’s waiting list for alcohol or drug treatment. And 111 families were on the waiting list for temporary shelter.

Early in his administration, Mayor Willie Brown declared the city’s homeless problem unsolvable and canceled a summit on the issue. Recently, Brown has gone to the point of promoting police sweeps against people living on the streets, in order to attract more tourism and business.

Police have issued more than 16,000 citations this year for offenses such as “aggressive panhandling” and drinking in public, according to homeless advocates.

As the temperature dipped into the 30s before Christmas-in a particularly cold-hearted move-police confiscated blankets and sleeping bags that homeless people had left on the sidewalks. This was supposedly in response to the complaints of some merchants that the sleeping gear was interfering with their Christmas trade.

“I don’t understand why they’re doing this right now, especially when it’s so cold,” said Mara Raider, civil rights coordinator for the Coalition on Homelessness. “Merchants’ rights are more important than homeless rights.”

Why doesn’t the city do more to provide decent housing for the homeless and poor?

It’s not that the money isn’t available; there is plenty for projects such as gold-plating the dome of City Hall and tax cuts for businesses. Booz-Allen and Hamilton, a fancy consulting firm, has just been handed a $14.8 million Christmas gift by the city to manage the decrepit MUNI rail system. Critics call this the first step in the “creeping privatization” of public transit.

Mayor Brown recently told homeless protesters that his administration was stymied in its efforts to provide more low-cost housing because “land in this city doesn’t exist.” He claimed that “whenever I see vacant land, a vacant place, “I ask Marsha Rosen [the mayor’s director of housing] to see if we can get an option on it.”

It is curious, however, that the big developers in this city are finding little difficulty in buying enough land (at the right price) to construct dozens of new luxury hotels and office towers.

Why can’t the city and the federal government do the same to construct low-cost housing for the poor and homeless? For government in this country, and for the big corporations it serves, low-cost housing and other social programs are simply not a priority. Money is spent not for human needs, but for private profit.

We need a workers’ government, one that really represents the oppressed and downtrodden, and one that will recognize that decent affordable housing is a right of all the people!

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