Homeless in San Francisco

We are on a tight budget, Mon insists.

$25 a day. We have been doing free things, such as wandering around the streets.

We chatted to a homeless guy the other day. His name was Darryl. He served in both Iraq wars. He said that they were awful. He now lives on the street with his wife.

I asked him what he would do if he was president and he said “America should stop sticking its nose in other people’s business and start caring for it’s own.”

San Fransisco is full of homeless people, over 10,000 apparently. They trundle about with carts, picking up rubbish, which they can get money for at recycling plants.

Lots of the homeless are black of course, seeing as so many black people are so poor here.

Darryl said that life at the bottom is so hard that it is very easy fall off the last rung and end up on the streets. Once you are there it is easy to give up and start getting high/drunk whenever possible.

Many housed people seem to believe this sequence happens in reverse: people get addicted drugs/drink then they slide to the bottom rung and onto the streets.

A recent report on homelessness on the west Coast urges a change in thinking. Solutions to homelessness are often built on the assumption that homelessness comes about due to biographical factors, but really, this report argues, the problem is not about individual failure, rather it is due to ”systemic and broad structural causes” and that the omission of these from public discussion and policy responses is ”nothing short of a collective deception”

The report analysed the available data, and found that homelessness sky-rocketed after the huge cuts to subsidies encouraging affordable housing made in the 1980’s and thus advises that spending on homes for the poor be dramatically increased.

Darryl’s solutions were more short term. He said that there should be more facilities for homeless people, for lack of drinking water and access to toilets was a real problem. He also said that there should be shelters and half-way houses. We asked him what him and his wife receive in benefits and he replied that they get $67 a month between them.

We told him about our dear old NHS (at least what is left of her), and encouraged, he added that access to health-care would be nice too. Well we had ourselves a regular little Party meeting, I was just about to suggest that we start singing ‘The International’ when Darryl surprised us both by saying that he would vote for Romney.

You see, he is so very disappointed that ‘Obamacare’ is not producing what was promised that he was prepared to give Romney “a chance”. But wasn’t it Republican senators who tied the scheme’s shoelaces together anyway?

It struck me that voting is much less ideological and much more personal over here.

‘Ideological’ has become a bad word in recent years (not that I am aware of any years before the recent, as my good friend Stephen once said of me, “Wilf is so young that when he exposes himself to people in parks, THEY get arrested.” N.B. I don’t expose myself to people in parks).

But if we make our democratic decisions based on someone’s personality, aren’t we bound to be disappointed when their personality fails to alter the mighty flow of the socio-economic river of everything?

One person, however strong or good, and I do believe that Obama is a good person, cannot make such a difference.

Even truly exceptional leaders don’t so much turn the tide as ride the crest of a wave.

We saw an elderly Chinese woman out with her cart, all the different kinds of rubbish organised neatly inside. I watched her for a while. She seemed so sober, so ordinary. Just a normal grandma, selling rubbish to survive.

Like me and my imaginary wife, Darryl and his wife aren’t addicts who have given up on life, rather, they dream of having a farm.

Other homeless people here are less sane. They babble to dustbins, scream at passer’s by. Many of the old crazy black guys do one particular thing. They stand at the side of the street and wave on the traffic. As the headlights stream by they churn their arms, as if they are controlling the flow somehow.

They have given up trying to stop things happening you see. Once, like Obama, they tried, but now they have given up. Tragically, wisely, they have given up. Now, they tell it to pass, and they laugh at it’s passing. They don’t go with the flow, but, unable to change it’s direction, they show the flow they know where it is going.

Every night, short of a miracle, they are homeless. Every night, the traffic grinds by.

See www.cohsf.org/ for more info.

Put the tent in the bank! Put the tent in the bank!

San Francisco’s Occupy camp was broken up the other night. It had been running for over a year.

Darryl, a homeless veteran we spoke to, had told us that the place had degenerated from a protest to a den of iniquity: drugs, violence etc.

Me and Mon hurried over to check it out. Sure enough, most of the people there either looked like teen runaways or older people who had been homeless for a long time.

They were smoking weed that smelt like a deadly but rather floral poison, possibly one made from the sweat of a mythical creature. We politely declined to sample their peace pipe, but we did sit with them a while.

A lady who calls herself ‘Anona Moma’ was doing most of the talking. She was a committed activist, having been in Occupy since the beginning, given up her flat and possessions, and lost a few ribs to a debate with the police.

She had also been elected ‘Queen of San Francisco Occupy’. As they practice ‘complete democracy’, where decisions must be agreed upon by everybody, her role was constitutional.

However she admitted that since receiving the title she had a lot more interest in Monarchy as a system of rule.

Among Anona Moma’s various creative actions, she had once broken into a bank and set up a tent in there. This one caught my attention, because I happen to have personal experience of this daring and perplexing manoeuvre.

At the G20 in London a number of years ago Me and Mon had been unfortunately kettled in the financial district. People milled around for a bit, and gradually everyone realised we were trapped in there.

To this day I wonder, why?

At the time I asked a police person. They ignored me, wouldn’t even look at me. I moved my head until I was looking in their eyes, they changed the direction of their gaze. I asked another one. They told me it was ‘captain’s orders’, and looked at me semi-apologetically.

After a few hours people were really cross. There was pushing and shouting where the protest met the lines of riot police.

Back from the front, where we were, the throng was more jolly. People were commenting sardonically on the situation. We all tittered to each other. We were like a flock of caged birds. There was a huge feeling of camaraderie. We all felt like one big Oscar Wilde.

Items were being passed around over peoples heads – a traffic cone, a bucket – it was surreal.

Some other folks were smashing up the big windows of one of the banks. One pane was almost all broken in. No-one really knew what to do next.

Then a fully erected tent came crowd-surfing by.

It approached the broken window. Perhaps the whole crowd was thinking it, but it was one person who shouted the words: “Put the tent in the bank! PUT THE TENT IN THE BANK!”

People started chanting. There was something compelling, symbolic, hilarious about it all. We desperately wanted the tent to go in the bank. It moved deliberately through the crowd. We were one seething muscle.

I don’t know what it is about tents in banks.

I am glad Anona Moma exists. She is a patient fighter, a sensitive soul, and tough as old boots. She is also an Aztec.

I’m not sure about what Darryl said regarding drugs and violence at Occupy SF, but it seemed very possible. There is no denying that the place basically is a homeless shelter now.

On this basis the SF Chronicle ran a story celebrating the end of the camp. “Occupy’s Point Eclipsed”, ran a header, shaming the little row of tents and information stands as a poor front for the movement: “just a homeless camp that the city has let exist for too long.”

Reading this, Mon pointed out something very profound: a homeless encampment nestled among the skyscrapers of the financial district is perhaps an even more visceral statement than the original protests, with their dust storm of visiting intellectuals and newspaper inches.

Protest is a ritual with agreed rules. Protests are part of the identity of democracies. I’m sure the elite who work in that district agree that protest is a healthy part of life in a free society.

But the actual fact of extreme inequality is sick, and people do not like to be reminded of sick.