Sand Castles and Snake Pits: Homelessness, Public Policy, and the Law of Unintended Consequences

The walk from my home on top of San Francisco’s Nob Hill down to my studio at its bottom is a lesson in class and status in America. As each few blocks take me down another rung on the socioeconomic ladder, I move from the clean, well-tended streets at the summit through increasingly littered, ill-kept neighborhoods where property values decrease as the numbers of potholes and homeless people increase. At the bottom of the hill sits the notorious “Tenderloin,” a district that houses what the Victorians called “the lower orders,” where the desperate and the dangerous hang on every street corner waiting for the local food kitchen to open its doors.

Three blocks later, I’m downtown looking at the visible signs of gentrification—an upscale shopping mall featuring the recently opened Bloomingdale’s West Coast flagship store and an Intercontinental Hotel under construction next door. From there I pass into the more industrial parts of the city, where my studio sits in an old warehouse building, an entrance to the freeway on one corner and St. Vincent de Paul’s homeless shelter—the biggest in the city—on the other.

How did this, the richest nation in the world, give birth to an enormous population of people who live on the streets or in shelters—men, women, and children, impoverished, desperate, and very often mentally ill? Three-quarters of a million Americans in 2005, the most recent national estimate, without a place to call home—a reckoning that most experts agree is far too low because it includes only those they could find to count. How did homelessness become so pervasive that a college student in the class on poverty in America I taught a few years ago couldn’t conceive of a world without “the homeless”?

“Are you saying there didn’t used to be homeless?” he asked, bewildered. “They’ve always been there, all my life,” he continued, as other students nodded assent. How is it that even those of us who remember a time when homelessness was something that happened in India, not here in these United States, have become so inured to the sight of people living on the street that we walk past and around them without really seeing them?

Maybe it takes a few years of working next door to people without homes to see them, not as an undifferentiated mass—“the homeless”—but as men and women (mostly men) with whom I share a greeting when I arrive in the morning, people with names and faces and hard-luck stories. They’re unclean, unkempt, and with a bone-deep weariness that seems to seep out of their pores, yet someone offers help when he sees me struggling to manage more than I can comfortably carry up the stairs. And once, when I tripped and fell, another picked me up off the sidewalk, wiped the blood off my face (Never mind that he pulled a filthy rag of a handkerchief out of his pocket to do the job), and despite my protests, refused to leave until he saw me safely to my de...

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