As a kid, I disliked broccoli. I spread it around my plate so it looked like less food. The goal was to get my plate removed with minimal eating of broccoli. This is San Francisco’s approach to homelessness.
Public attention on homelessness has reached a roiling boil in the last two months, elbowing aside soaring rents, political corruption, evictions, police violence and mayoral ineptness. These crises that beset Mayor Empty Suit are precisely why we’re talking about homelessness now.
Homelessness in San Francisco flares up when our masters feel threatened by a viable cross-class political coalition. Business groups and politicos whip up a panic about homelessness, and the Chronicle dutifully fans the flames until the political crisis dissipates. Then back to neglect.
My unscientific review of Google Trends reveals the last time homelessness had so much traffic was 2003-04. It was the end of Mayor Willie Brown’s elected tenure, when his brazen corruption and imperiousness and the dot-com boom brought the progressive class of 2000 storming into City Hall.
It seemed possible that Tom Ammiano could revive his 1999 write-in insurgency to defeat undistinguished frat boy Gavin Newsom. Then Newsom rode “Care Not Cash” to the Mayor’s Office. While Newsom campaigned to control General Assistance recipients, the Chronicle launched a “shame of the city” exposé of homelessness.
Billboards popped up everywhere, paid for by the Hotel Council and unknown PACs, depicting middle-class people holding cardboard with scrawled messages like, “I don’t want to have to hold my nose when I pass an alley. Tell the Supervisors I have rights too.”
In Newsom’s narrative, homeless people were the powerful and yuppies the powerless. Newsom became mayor. Care Not Cash passed. Progressives relegated to the Board of Supervisors.
Then we forgot homelessness until 2010, when Newsom proposed the sit/lie law. This allegedly would reduce crime by making it illegal to sit or lie on sidewalks. The mayor was unaware that 100 percent of crimes are committed by people not lying down. CW Nevius, Chronicle columnist on the minivan indignation beat, devoted himself to championing sit/lie and ridiculing its critics. Was there actually a problem? Was this constitutional? These were questions for mushy-headed liberals.
Sit/lie was on the ballot at the same time a generational shift was coming to the Board of Supervisors. Sit/lie helped ensure that progressives lost three of the four open races that year.
Now, with a dithering mayor, a progressive majority on the board and a critical election looming, homelessness will remain a crisis until the day after Election Day.
These days, Nevius is recycling his sit/lie script, giving the impression that Coalition on Homelessness Director Jenny Friedenbach controls San Francisco more than Ron Conway, the mayor or fog.
Willie Brown used his Chronicle column to invite our widely criticized police to clear tents by force and hose people in their sleep. Replacing “homeless” with “Muslim” in Brown’s column would have made it indistinguishable from a Donald Trump speech.
Then the trucks and police rolled in to clear out Division Street. The mayor issued no press release to explain his decision. Brown and Nevius had already done it for him.
San Francisco has every right to be mad when people sleep on the streets: We put them there. The total number of homeless people has been steady, but now more of them were living in San Francisco when they became homeless, which leads to the complex sociological hypothesis that one of the causes of homelessness may be evicting people from their homes. If only we’d built more luxury condos.
The national right uses gay marriage, urban crime, communists, welfare queens, Muslim refugees and Mexican immigrants as scapegoating, fear-mongering wedge issues. Homelessness is our wedge issue. Politicians win both from policies that cause homelessness and then again from cracking down on the consequences of their own policies. It’s more useful as a problem that never gets solved.
Nato Green is a comedian and writer who entertains guests @natogreen.