How much disorder is tolerable in a city that sees itself as a progressive beacon, but where the housing crunch leaves thousands homeless? (Image courtesy of Creative Outlet)

Order and disorder in San Francisco

The homeless and addiction crises may be better understood as disorder, not crime

By Lincoln Mitchell

Special to The Examiner

We are all familiar with the battery of problems facing San Francisco. The homeless crisis has been with us for years and is not getting any better. Large parts of some neighborhoods feel unsafe to many people. Drug addiction and overdoses are a tragic fact of life in San Francisco, and the government at all levels has failed to meaningfully address these concerns.

While the media too frequently lumps this together under the heading of “crime,” it is better understood as a problem of “disorder.” That word may not feel comfortable as the concept of order often, and not without reason, can strike many as authoritarian. But naming the problem is an important first step to more clearly understanding it.

If we lump all this disorder together as evidence of crime skyrocketing, a view that is not supported by the data, then we would naturally move toward a criminal justice approach. If homeless people are automatically viewed as criminals — and their struggle to make it through the day, to be sure a struggle that is often made more complex by mental illness and addiction is understood to be unlawful — then it is a short step to rounding them up and sending them somewhere out of the sight of law-abiding San Franciscans.

On the other hand, if the presence and activities of the homeless are understood to be evidence of disorder, a more difficult and complex approach is needed. The crisis is really one of both crime and disorder.

The first questions to ask as we probe these crises, both individually and collectively, are: How much disorder is acceptable in a city like San Francisco, where people who have made a fortune and who spend more on a night out than many people make in a week live only a stone’s throw away from homeless encampments? How much disorder is tolerable in a city that still sees itself as a progressive beacon, but where the housing crunch leaves thousands living in fear of losing their homes? And how much disorder dims the vibrancy of a city that remains a magnet for people seeking to find themselves, explore new identities and enjoy freedoms not found in more conservative corners of the United States and the world?

These are vexing questions because reactions to order and disorder in a place like San Francisco are almost entirely subjective, even when the disorder itself is unmistakable. To be sure, some elements of disorder — for example, when a person suffering from addiction breaks into a car or home — are criminal. But many, such as panhandling, not bathing or simply ranting on the streets, are frequently not criminal at all.

This means that while there is broad agreement that real problems exist in San Francisco, which if left unaddressed will get worse, there is no agreement on a solution, not least because too many see issues of disorder through a lens of crime.

If we insist on viewing disorderly behavior, which is frequently in the eye of the beholder, as criminal, the result will be infringements on what many, correctly, believe to be their basic rights. In San Francisco, homeless people have had that right to live and sleep on the streets of The City, and activists have worked hard to ensure that right precisely because they do not want homelessness to be criminalized and addressed solely as a law enforcement issue.

Some historical perspective is essential here as well. While the disorder today is primarily centered around homelessness, addiction, mental illness and perceptions of safety, it wasn’t that long ago that law abiding gay people in the Castro, and a few years before that, hippies, were seen as evidence that The City was out of control and had been turned over to the criminals. Back then, many people thought gays, hippies and young people of color were, just like homeless people today, a problem that needed to be solved.

Or as Dan White, a candidate for supervisor in 1977, wrote in his campaign literature, “I am not going to be forced out of San Francisco by splinter groups of radicals and social deviates.”

The two eras, and populations in question, are not equivalent, but the fear felt by many, rightly or wrongly, was present — and just like today, there were many with a low tolerance for disorder who believed the answer was more law enforcement. Had opinions, like the one expressed by White in his campaign flyer conflating disorder with crime and urging more order in The City carried the day in the 1970s, San Francisco would look very different today. (White, it has to be noted, was convicted of manslaughter for the 1978 deaths of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.)

Today’s problems are different because the subjects of the disorder narrative are, in many cases, genuinely in need of help and in too many cases contributing to problems that cross the line from disorder into crime.

Nonetheless, complaining about disorder is much less compelling than raising alarms about crime. The statistics regarding crime are mixed, but make it clear that, narratives notwithstanding, crime is not spiraling out of control in San Francisco. Car break-ins and some other forms of crime are rising, while homicides and some other violent crimes are down, particularly when compared to a decade or even a few years ago. Some may say this is due to people not reporting crimes, but crime has been underreported in big cities for years.

On the other hand, the homeless, addiction and economic crises may be better understood as examples of disorder, but they cannot be ignored either.

The need for balance when addressing this is frequently lost on people with a lower tolerance for disorder. They may encounter urban disorder and consistently read it as threatening and dangerous rather than seeing it as a multitiered sociological, economic and cultural phenomenon that it is. There is no doubt the homeless crisis is upsetting for some, and very difficult for the homeless themselves, but seeing it as a crime is wrong — not least because it’s not clear who the crime would be against — the people of San Francisco, The City’s image, a happier, cheaper time?

Unfortunately, this disconnect is what is driving so much of the crime narrative, and politics more broadly, in San Francisco now.

​​Lincoln Mitchell has written numerous books and articles about The City. Visit or follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.

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