San Francisco, Long Haul
San Francisco, a late afternoon arrival after a ten-hour flight. The day stretched a little longer as we were held on the runway for an hour. Followed by another two hours getting through immigration. The atmosphere was so hot and heavy in the immigration hall that a police officer collapsed and was removed by paramedics.
By the time the Uber deposited me at the hotel on Market Street, I had that all too familiar disconnected feeling that comes with long haul travel. The hotel is relatively new, I picked it from the website as a change from the usual bland business hotel offering. “Market Street” sounded fine at the time of the booking. I had forgotten that it’s a long street. The Tenderloin section of Market Street.
To The Tenderloin
The first thing I noticed was the sheer number of homeless in various states of disarray. Many of them with obvious mental health issues. A policeman with a resigned look trying to corral a couple of men into moving along. To my left a long line of the city’s socialites waiting to get into the new rooftop bar. To my right a man lying on the ground babbling to the police officer.
After check-in and quickly unpacking, it was time to clear my head with a quick walk. Left out of the hotel and over the pedestrian crossing. A group of young men openly selling drugs, openly using drugs. An invisible social barrier between us, maintained by the thousand-yard stare of the obvious leader of the group, who noisily spit on the ground. Me observing the appropriate make-no-eye-contact protocol.
Further down the road a shabby building, a large gang jostling on the pavement, the smell of cannabis stingingly strong in the air. Oddly, a mural of the late actor Robin Williams smiled over us. For a couple of minutes, I wondered if it was God in the mural. But it was Robin, looking at the doped throng. An old man sitting in a ruined office chair held court on the street corner. King of all he surveyed. More drug dealers. A hostel, another chair-bound citizen apparently unconscious, yet upright.
The street started to look slightly more gentrified. A Westfield shopping mall, Four Seasons hotel, to the left Barneys department store. A group of oddly attired black men explaining that Jesus was black. Oddly attired as in Star Wars with a lot of leather costumery. I turned left, thinking a leisurely loop back to the hotel made sense. Up the hill a couple of blocks and then left again, crossing the tram line.
A Wave Of Homelessness
Into a ghetto of tents on both sides of the road. People lying on the road next to their tents. A man shuffling across the road, mumbling to himself. Shoeless. An old guy rolled past on his electric invalid tricycle, jerry-rigged speakers blasting eighties R&B music. The street stinking of urine. Broken syringes and faeces in the gutter. I looked to my left and new buildings were under construction. Renewal and the lowest poverty on the same city block.
Time to cut back to the main road, the environment was getting grittier. Ahead were more and more tents and makeshift shelters. Tents to my left, on the other side huddles of young black drug dealers. A tall, white, well-off looking, out of place man who clearly didn’t belong here. It wasn’t even safety that troubled me. It was the overwhelming feeling of being an intruder, causing
Thirty percent of the homeless in the USA ‘live’ in the California. The highest concentration is in San Francisco, where the official count is just under 6,000. Local health organisations say the true number is over 10,000. While there is a chronic shortage of housing, that alone isn’t the solution. Mental illness and high levels of drug usage appear to drive the homeless count as much as the lack of shelter.
Mental Illness, High Drug Use
There’s a standoff between local residents and some advocacy groups who lobby to
It’s estimated half of the homeless are mentally ill. On any street block in the Tenderloin area, you will see barefoot people wandering down the middle of the road, or the blank-eyed rocking back and forth in doorways. Today a tall
There’s a chronic shortage of hospital beds for the mentally ill. It would cost $80 million a year to make 100 beds available in a psychiatric ward. $20 million a year to house the same number in a nursing home or non-secure treatment
Wealth & Desperation
I’m looking down a street, at the end the high technology Salesforce Tower looming over. A reminder this is a city which is home to some of the world’s preeminent technology companies. Uber, Pinterest head offices a
I walk back down the hill and turn left. There’s a breakfast cafe just here, one I’ve eaten in before. I order eggs, avocado, toast. It seems most of the items on the menu include avocado. I eat at the bench seat near the window, looking out on Market Street. A young woman walks down the
A City Of Beauty
A couple of days later I’m talking to the chef in an Italian restaurant right on the corner of the Tenderloin. He is from Venice originally and his family can be traced back to the sixteenth century. He tells me San Francisco is a city of great beauty, drawing a parallel with his home city. He loves living here. I raise the subject of the social tragedy outside the of the window and he nods, slightly sadly. But reminds me that London – where he used to live – has ten million people. San Francisco has 850,000 residents and he notes it’s not as easy to hide the social issue in a smaller city.
Leaving the restaurant it’s only a couple of blocks to the hotel. It’s dark and the cannabis fumes are potent to the point of stinging my eyes. Police are now on the streets. I’ve seen that three nights in a row, the patrols after dark. Walking down the wide street, past the God of Robin Williams, walking through a narrow tunnel of people. We are all present in the same space, but a social apartheid separates us too, visible and not visible to each other.
Also published on Medium.