Avocado Armageddon

Mural of Robin Williams watching over the homeless and drug dealers and tourists of Market Street in San Francisco.
Robin Williams watching over the homeless, drug dealers and tourist in Market Street, San Francisco.

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.

Welcome 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 offence to the people who endured life on the streets.

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 normalise drug usage. The city has 22,000 intravenous drug users and 4.5 million needles a year are distributed. With this tension between groups, there is no sense the problem is going away anytime soon. I watched drug bags openly changing hands on a street corner, even as a police cruiser rolled by slowly. The dealers muttered about the police, the police eyeballed the dealers, another moment in San Francisco drifted past. Each morning the streets are washed clean. Each evening they are covered in debris again.

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 guy, possibly in his fifties, standing on the sidewalk, brush in hand, painting his hair white.

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 centre. Thousands of housing units are needed, at a cost of $50 million a year. At present there are only 400 psychiatric beds available for the homeless, down a third in the last five years. Lack of public funding means the problem is getting worse. No solution is in sight. While the city spends over $300 million a year on the issue, the numbers suffering increase year on year.

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 stones throw from our hotel. Home to leading Silicon Valley investors. Behind me, only blocks away, multi-million dollar homes. The median house price in the city is $1.7m. Directly in front of me a full block-length of tents to the left. On the right of the same block, it’s even more desperate, blankets over shopping trollies. Or people just living in the open. Even in the most downtrodden of circumstances, humans sort themselves into hierarchies.

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 centre of the road, filthy feet bare. Holding an empty plastic cup over her head and talking to someone, way off in the distance. It’s early in the morning, the street has been washed clean. A long day lies ahead of her.

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.

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