Saturday, October 20, 2007

I left my heart...

I walked out into a chilly fog-shrouded darkness that was two hours from dawn. The streetlights, theater marquees and illuminated signs for everything from jewelers to massage parlors cast a barely useful light on the surreal scene. Through the mist your eyes can only make out distant shapes and motion. As you draw near, though, you realize that to many observers, these figures are nothing but shapes and motion, rather than people. They are our phantoms, our shadow citizens, they are the homeless.

I was in San Francisco last week, a city that in recent years has had a large homeless population. With a climate that, while tempermental, is no Chicago, and a tolerant population and government, the homeless have long provided a good dose of local color. I hadn't been to the Bay Area in two years, and I must admit, I was shocked. I was not alone in my reaction to what was happening in the city, as the "homeless crisis" was the front page story in the San Francisco Chronicle for a couple of days running. Navigating around between Union Square and Market Street is difficult, encounters with the growing population of street people are becoming more contentious, and the streets smell of urine and marked with human waste.

Homelessness presents questions on many levels. Obviously you have the sociological and psychological questions of how and why. In the classic "hierarchy of needs," food and shelter form the base of human existence, while concerns for security make up the next level. followed by friendship and kinship, then self-esteem and respect. Could any group of human beings possibly be further from the ideal of 'self-actualization" than these wanderers, who cannot even regularly meet their most primitive needs. How did they find themselves in this position, and are there rational ways of helping them? Social services are generally rejected and shelters shunned, as they prefer their meager possessions and the locations they know, in an often self-defeating attempt to exercise some degree of control over their lives.

And from the city standpoint, what approach should you take? In San Francisco, the current approach is to offer services but generally they are left alone as long as they are not disorderly. For those that urinate in public or otherwise cross the tolerance line, the city reacts in almost absurd fashion. They issue citations. That's right, they give tickets and impose fines on the homeless.

I would appreciate your thoughts. What should our cities, and indeed, our societies, do both for them and to them?

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