The Needles and the Damage Done
If you’re going to San Francisco
Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair…
For those who come to San Francisco
Summertime will be a love-in there
In the streets of San Francisco
Gentle people with flowers in their hair
–from the song “San Francisco,” written by John Phillips
This romanticized depiction of the streets of San Francisco, which I have called home for the last two decades, may have contained a kernel of truth in 1967, when hippies from all over the country flocked here for the so-called Summer of Love. But it doesn’t reflect our local reality on the precipice of 2019. Not even close.
For starters, it would be more prudent for San Francisco tourists to protect their hands and feet with gloves and work boots than to worry about their hairdos, because instead of finding “gentle people with flowers in their hair,” visitors are more apt to find homeless junkies with needles in their arms, needles they will likely leave lying wherever they happen to fall—in parks, on playgrounds, even on bus and train seats. And no longer do our streets smell of incense and patchouli—those aromas have been supplanted by the inescapable reek of human waste.
The problem spiraled dangerously out-of-control so gradually that I didn’t fully realize just how bad it had become until a few weeks ago, when I took BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit—our light rail system) to the Civic Center station for the first time in several months.
This station is in a notoriously sketchy area. It borders the Tenderloin, which is perhaps the poorest, roughest neighborhood in the city. At the same time, as the name implies, all of the city’s governmental buildings are located nearby, in addition to many of San Francisco’s finest museums and cultural attractions. So, every day in United Nations Plaza, where the Civic Center BART station is located, an almost absurd juxtaposition of contrasting characters convenes—civil servants neatly attired in conservative suits, opera patrons decked-out in posh finery, and souvenir-toting tourists share the sidewalks with grimy street urchins, peacockishly painted prostitutes, and everyone else who has fallen off society’s radar—often because they fell in love with the needle.
There is nothing new about the random socio-cultural cross-sectioning that occurs at this curious crossroads. But the last time I was there, I did see something new in United Nations Plaza.
Black syringe depositories have been installed near the regular trash cans—indeed, one might mistake them for garbage bins if not for their funereal color and stark, striking BIOHAZARD warning signage.
Underscoring the need for such bins are the legions of strung-out zombies strewn about the vicinity—sitting, slack-jawed and glassy-eyed, on curbs; crawling around the plaza on all fours, shaking and shouting and searching intently for heaven only knows what; stumbling aimlessly up and down the alleyways, caked in filth; and lying across the sidewalks, arms wide open and mouths agape, the living indistinguishable from the dead.
And punctuating this bleak de profundis dirge are the by-products of this wretched existence—feces, garbage, syringes, and urine—scattered and splattered everywhere. Virtually every San Francisco area resident, myself included, has been confronted with the grim spectacle of someone shooting up, urinating, defecating, or some combination of the three, in a public place and in plain sight.
Sleek new needle disposal bins won’t even make a dent in this problem.
Indeed, nothing the city has done has helped. On November 30th, 2015, the San Francisco Chronicle published a story regarding the skyrocketing number of complaints about discarded syringes in public areas, noting that the number had risen from 440 in 2012, to over 2500 in 2015. They also reported that the city was expanding access to disposal boxes and establishing “rapid response teams,” though exactly what those teams might do was left unexplained.
Fast forward to April, 2016. The San Francisco AIDS Foundation’s blog, BETA, published an article entitled “Syringes and Needles on the Street in San Francisco: What’s Being Done?” This piece detailed the measures being taken at that time to combat the problem, which included: community cleanup events, wherein residents of “hotspot” neighborhoods “cheerfully [went] about the neighborhood to pick up syringes”; “increasing education” among the drug-using population about where and how to properly dispose of needles; and training museum and library staff in the Civic Center area on safe disposal methods. Library staff was also trained to provide disposal equipment to homeless people inside the library and was given said equipment, apparently free of charge.
Fast forward to July 17th, 2018. Business Insider published a piece about San Francisco’s new mayor, London Breed, and her plans to combat what is still being described as “copious amounts” of syringes, not to mention human feces, on San Francisco’s streets. Apparently those rapid response teams, education programs, and community cleanup events just didn’t cut the mustard. What does Ms. Breed propose? She wants to set up “safe, supervised injection sites” where homeless addicts can go—in lieu of public spaces—to intravenously ingest their drugs of choice … because your average addict is oh-so-likely to forestall shooting up after scoring until he can get to a location supervised by a city official.
While the city is scrambling to come up with strategies to combat the syringe litter problem, the San Francisco Health Department is busy handing out free needles. The San Francisco Chronicle notes that in fiscal year 2015-16, the city distributed 4.45 million needles at a cost of $523,363. The article goes on to state: “Of the 400,000 needles distributed monthly … about 246,000 come back though [the health department’s] 13 syringe access and disposal sites. That leaves more than 154,000 needles a month still circulating … thousands wind up on streets and sidewalks, in tent camps, and in parks and playgrounds.” The number of needles distributed by the city hit six million for the 2017 fiscal year.
It’s almost as if San Francisco’s right hand doesn’t know—or care—what’s being done by the left.
Similarly, although most everyone acknowledges that addiction, including alcoholism, is one of the key factors leading to and perpetuating homelessness, one of the “solutions” San Francisco has proposed as part of a package designed to combat its homeless epidemic is a so-called “wet house”—a shelter in which alcoholic vagrants are allowed to drink openly and without fear of eviction.
I read about all of these proposed “solutions”—the crews of law-abiding citizens sent out to “cheerfully” clean up the filth left behind by their junkie scofflaw neighbors; the “supervised injection sites” and “wet houses” and millions spent on free needle distribution—all of which enable and validate the behavior which caused many homeless people to wind up on the streets in the first place; and I can’t help but think, what planet are these people living on? Do they know anything about the people they’re trying to help? The fact is, although I have no doubt that there are countless hearts in the proper places, nobody here seems to be in touch with reality when it comes to actually solving this problem.
There are a few things everyone agrees on: the addiction epidemic in our city is directly related to and intertwined with our homeless crisis, and the biggest contributing factor to that is the lack of affordable housing. This is a very real problem that I have experienced firsthand. I currently pay $1800/month for a studio apartment, and it’s not even in San Francisco itself, but, rather, in the Oakland/East Bay area. When I experienced a major injury that kept me out-of-work for the better part of a year in 2017, I was very nearly evicted, and, if not for my amazing faith community and family assistance—support structures that tragically few people in contemporary society have—I would have wound up among the Bay Area’s 35,000 homeless, up to 15,000 of which live in San Francisco proper.
Everyone knows affordable housing is a serious problem. But not everyone has a clear grasp on the causes for this predicament, or realistic prospective solutions. A basic understanding of the laws of supply and demand, for example, seems to be almost completely lacking among my fellow residents. Consider the following example:
There has been an empty lot next to my building for about 20 years. It’s in a prime location, right next to a BART station and in close proximity to the UC Berkeley campus. Several months ago, signs appeared in my neighborhood to notify residents of a proposed development in that lot. The project would be a multi-story residential building with commercial space on the first floor—so it would provide a considerable number of new housing units as well as space for a few new shops.
I was delighted by the proposal. It would take wasted space and put it to good use. It would stimulate the micro-local economy by bringing new shops—and, in turn, new jobs and more tax revenue—to the area. And it would make a significant contribution to the supply side of the housing market, which is, ultimately, the only way rents will come down; after all, housing prices here are high because demand is high and supply is low. It’s basic Economics 101 type stuff.
But my neighbors disagreed. Almost immediately after the signs announcing the proposed development went up, another set of signs appeared. They announced citizen meetings to discuss and organize opposition to the building project.
Neighbors within my building assumed I would attend. “The building would obstruct our view of the Bay,” they whined, “and it would make it a lot harder to find parking around here. Plus, it would destroy the laid-back vibe of our neighborhood and replace it with a really ugly commercialized energy. Besides, it’s totally unjust! There’s no provision for affordable housing!”
It’s the same narrative I have heard a million and one times since I moved here—the developers are evil and greedy and only care about making money. They don’t care about the poor and downtrodden. What’s more, the things they build are ugly. Therefore, we must stop them at any cost.
Nobody seems to understand that they are shooting themselves in the foot by halting development—that they are thereby keeping housing scarce, keeping prices high, keeping people poor, and, ultimately, keeping people on the streets. They also don’t seem to understand that nobody is going to eliminate the supply gap by building a plethora of low-rise, low-rent housing units—assuming there were enough open space in which to do so, which there isn’t—because there’s no profit to be made on such an endeavor with the outrageous current price of land. No magic billionaire humanitarian fairy is going to float down from the clouds—where most of my neighbors’ heads seem to be—to rescue us with truckloads of free money. But, judging by the way they shape public policy, that’s precisely what Californians, and Bay Area residents in particular, seem to expect: a miracle.
And, at this point, that may be what it takes to put this place back on track. This is a city with areas regarded by some infectious disease experts as “more unsanitary than many of the dwellings in impoverished, developing countries”; a city with “contamination [that] rivals that found in slums of Brazil, Kenya, and India’s developing communities”; and a city that spends $30 million per year cleaning up discarded needles and feces from its public spaces. This is a city with the highest per capita homeless population in America; a city that refuses to prosecute that population for public defecation/urination and littering, and turns a blind eye to the epidemic of property crimes for which it is responsible. And it is a city with no realistic solutions on the horizon, and not a single pragmatic leader in office—how else might things be turned around? A bona fide act of God may indeed be required.
But this is also a city wherein God, and those who believe in Him, are openly ridiculed and excluded from civic discourse.
This is a city where, in 2009, a Catholic parish—and a notoriously liberal and pro-homosexual parish at that—was vandalized and spray-painted with swastikas after California passed Proposition 8, which defined marriage as being between one man and one woman only.
This is a city that unanimously passed a resolution on April 4th, 2006 denouncing the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s directive to Catholic Charities not to place children for adoption with same-sex couples, calling it “hateful and discriminatory … insulting and callous, and show[ing] a level of insensitivity and ignorance which has seldom been encountered by this Board of Supervisors.”
Furthermore, this is a city that flaunts its abandonment of traditional morality. Once a year, fully sanctioned by the local government, gay men openly engage in public sex acts as part of the “Pride Parade,” an event which is promoted as being family-friendly. A few months later, the city’s BDSM community gathers to publicly flog and flagellate each other at the Folsom Street Fair. Public sex is de rigueur in the City by the Bay.
Should we really be surprised to see so much of the city’s population living in such debased and demoralized conditions, when the city itself has so thoroughly shunned morality and common sense?
Given San Francisco’s downward trajectory and crumbling social ethos, don’t expect to see thoughtful, reasonable solutions to these problems being generated locally any time soon. We are too busy parading our perversions, persecuting our Christians, and enacting important legislation like plastic straw bans and sugary drink taxes. The only thing you can really do for San Francisco is pray. Pray for us like we’re blithely headed for hell in a hand-basket—because, as far as I can tell, we absolutely are.