Homelessness, poverty and crime in the world’s richest city, and what it says about the unequal world we live in

For the past six weeks, I’ve been living in San Francisco and loving it.  It is important to note however that San Francisco is really two different cities. There is a city of progressiveness, leading-edge technologies and business models, wealth, beauty, abundance, fancy restaurants, organic, vegan food, weekend hikes – the city I’ve been loving.

And then there is then the city of cold breezy nights spent on the road; moving one’s stuff around in a shopping trolley; rummaging in bins for food and recyclables; lining up in the Mission waiting for the truck for day workers and hoping you get picked for a job today. There is a city riddled with pain; poverty; addiction and untreated illnesses juxtaposed cruelly with the lifestyles of twenty-somethings on six-figure salaries.

If you walk around San Francisco, you also get a sense for how normalized this juxtaposition and inequality has become – it’s almost as if everyone just accepts this is the way of life. There’s no sense of change or ‘we must do something’ or ‘this can’t go on’ in the air.  There is a sense of ‘we must install better burglar alarms’ in the air. A few locals have commented on the gridlock in local Government here. Mostly, we, like our politicians, are resigned to this never-ending tragedy. It’s the people who’ve known and lived in other cities that point out how grotesque this pain and crime-ridden equilibrium is.

My goals in this blogpost are to share my observations on the dark side of the city – something we don’t talk about enough due to our moth-like attraction to glamor; to argue that this is a relevant issue for everyone – the rich are delusional if they think they are insulated from this mess; and that we must do something because even if you (falsely) believe you can be insulated, it’s a moral issue.

The impossibility of insulation: one person’s poverty translates somehow into everyone’s poverty

Last Sunday, my friend parked his car in pretty Valencia at mid-day. He returned to a broken window and all his belongings (laptop, clothes, passport) stolen. I felt terrible just hearing this story, let alone having gone through it myself.Not only did he lose his material possessions, but also photos on his laptop of all his travels. Irreplaceable. And it’s not unusual or a one-off. Colleagues tell me about break-ins to their cars, to their houses, of bikes being stolen. “Never ever leave a bike parked out for more than a few hours in the day, or over night” said my Landlady when I moved in. Another classmate had his car window broken into when parked outside a restaurant whilst we were having dinner.

People tell me they’ve moved to the East Bay to avoid being in the city which is “ruined by the homelessness and destitution” you encounter everywhere. Ten minutes walk from my office in the Financial District, is a small strip of a refugee camp of homeless people – near 1st Street and Mission Street. Civic center is full of people ‘living in a different reality’, and people talk of the Tenderloin as a place to be avoided, despite its good bars and restaurants.

Everyone is affected, no one is insulated. San Francisco is a microcosm for the world, where the rich invest ever more in security systems and guards to protect their lifestyles from the hungry and desperate poor.

Poverty, Escapism and Illusion

I’m a well-travelled person and I’ve seen and known about poverty – in India, in Mexico, in Bolivia, through my volunteer work at Oxfam GB. But nowhere have I seen so many people who are coping with poverty by escaping its reality through substance abuse.

Nowhere have I seen so many people talking to themselves on the street, or talking to other people. Nowhere have I seen so many ‘crazies’. Whether you hate the word or think I’m being judgmental aside, the truth is the truth. Certain behavior is out of the realm of usual human interaction and well, we have a word for it: ‘crazy’.

There is a ton of ‘crazy’ in San Francisco. You see people yelling on the streets. I saw a woman at the Embarcadero going up to different sea-gulls and yelling at them. Yesterday, whilst walking in Valencia, a man looked at me and screamed ‘I see middle-eastern, Mediterranean!!’ (I’m so obviously Indian so this is also a sign of craziness). It was scary.

A classmate told me the story of a 40-year old man he saw on the street blowing bubbles and looking excited and happy. We sighed in sadness hearing this story.

Despite the substance-induced illusions of a fraction of the poor, I would argue a higher proportion of the rich are under the even more dangerous and unsophisticated illusion that they somehow deserve their wealth and poor people deserve to be poor. They’re also unaware of how complicit we are in a capitalist system that keeps the poor poor, and lets the rich get richer – but the rotten core of modern capitalism is another blog-post for another day.

The moral issue of poverty and inequality

If we would just step back and think about this, we would realize what a giant lottery ticket life really is – no one chose their genetic endowment (there’d be an awful lot of white men in the world if we did!) & no one chose their family background or the random events that would shape their life. Mostly, we were assigned, and some of us had to make do with a rubbish assignment AND then get constantly punished for it by the well-assigned blaming us as if it was our fault.

That’s how I feel about poverty for the most part – that if we’re better off, instead of being smug or rubbing it in, we should help those who are not and recognize humbly it could have been us.