The City of San Francisco made the news recently by breaking up a homeless encampment on the streets, a long row of tents that Judy and I often drove past on our way to Rainbow Grocery, the store we use. The camp was the subject of a lot of controversy, especially after the CEO of some tech company wrote an open, complaining letter to the mayor, demanding that the mayor do something. The poor guy was sick of having to look at the homeless. It’s commonplace to say that San Francisco has a “serious homelessness problem,” but the entire country does, really. I read recently that my hometown of Vancouver, Washington has homeless camps. The homeless are more noticeable in a place like San Francisco, that’s all. I myself was without a home for 15 years, living on the street in San Francisco from 1973 to 1988. I wasn’t what most people picture when they hear that word, “homeless,” but I was out among the homeless much of that time, and I have a decent idea of what’s going on. When I hear people talk about the problem, I realize that no one even comes close to understanding it, that it’s only going to grow.
For a long time I’ve been trying to figure out a simple way of describing what I see, but only recently did I find the words I was looking for: We live in a system that creates homelessness as one of its inevitable byproducts. This society has a near-religious belief in competition, and wherever you have competition, you have, inevitably, winners and losers. You can’t have one without the other. It’s like water boiling at 212 degrees Fahrenheit: It’s the only possibility. The homeless are the ones who have lost the game. As the competition heats up—as it has been ever since Reagan—the winners keep grabbing more and more, so we have more and more losers of the game. People like the CEO of that tech company are either ignorant or arrogant. Or both. Whether he sees it or not, he‘s a huge part of the problem.
When I was on the street I was subjected to all kinds of absurd situations and arrogant treatment. One example is when people become furious with homeless people for defecating on the street. This society gives them no place else to go. There are few public toilets, at least ones that don’t cost money , and restaurants, cafes, and so on don’t want the homeless in their businesses. I never ended up in a situation where I had to do “my business” in public, but I came close a few times. When you are in an absurd situation like that and you’re surrounded by people who can’t understand the most obvious and simple thing, you tend to lose your respect for them. You end up doing whatever you feel like doing.
If we genuinely want to end the problem, we have to abandon the idea that it’s okay to accumulate as much wealth as possible. It’s not okay to be a billionaire. And if we can’t abandon the idea, then we have to prepare ourselves for the inevitable epidemic of poverty. It’s that cut and dried.