Atlantic Cities

On Admitting That Homeless People Make You Uncomfortable

On Admitting That Homeless People Make You Uncomfortable
Reuters

Every morning, on my walk down Washington, D.C.'s Barracks Row commercial strip, I pass the same homeless man, on the same corner. A year in, we've got our routine down — he says hello, asks me for change, I say no.

I dread this interaction more than just about any other part of my day, and I start bracing for it as soon as I walk out my door. I hate being reminded how unequal things are in this city that I love. I hate that I'm forced to confront how little I'm doing about it. And I hate what my lack of generosity says about me, especially on the days I stop at the Starbucks one block down for a $2.15 tea.

That's why I'm at least somewhat sympathetic to Greg Gopman, CEO of a start-up that organizes hack-a-thons. The San Franciscan has been drawing internet ire this week for the following post (since deleted) on Facebook:

In downtown SF the degenerates gather like hyenas, spit, urinate, taunt you, sell drugs, get rowdy, they act like they own the center of the city. Like it's their place of leisure... In actuality it's the business district for one of the wealthiest cities in the USA. It a disgrace. I don't even feel safe walking down the sidewalk without planning out my walking path.

You can preach compassion, equality, and be the biggest lover in the world, but there is an area of town for degenerates and an area of town for the working class. There is nothing positive gained from having them so close to us. It's a burden and a liability having them so close to us. Believe me, if they added the smallest iota of value I'd consider thinking different, but the crazy toothless lady who kicks everyone that gets too close to her cardboard box hasn't made anyone's life better in a while.

I get it. Getting yelled at on the street, turning people down when they ask for something they need, wondering whether the voices the guy behind you clearly hears in his head could lead him to commit some sinister act? It's exhausting. But going from exhaustion to embracing the idea that, somehow, a city street should be a place with a price of admission (cost of entry: success, a start-up, a nice home) is not just offensive, it's corrosive to the very idea of what a city is and who it should serve.

In fact, over just the last couple of years, social scientists have shown us exactly how bad economic segregation is for our communities. America's increasingly economically segregated cities not only offer far less economic mobility, they actually make the wealthy worse off, too. Other recent studies have linked the size of a city's middle class to its rate of economic mobility, even as our country's economic classes have fractured. The idea that prosperous but deeply unequal big cities, like San Francisco, should somehow be cleansed of their poorest residents would actually be catastrophic to their economies.

But it's not clear that Gopman and his cohort are all that concerned with creating a city for all. As one of Gopman's Facebook friends, Li Jiang, responded:

Why is this the showcase of the center of San Francisco. We're supposed to be a gleaming utopia of what a city could be. Why should we have homeless shelters, method one [sic] shelters, strip clubs all in the center of town."

Of course, I agree that, in a perfect city, we wouldn't need homeless shelters or methadone clinics. A perfect city would have the money and social services to offer long-term support to the mentally ill and the addicted, along with programs that help people find living wage jobs and affordable housing.

But that's not really what Jiang (or Gopman) is getting at. For them, it's not that, in utopia, there is no homelessness, poverty, addiction, or mental illness, but rather that the less fortunate are hidden from sight.

And that's appalling, of course. As uncomfortable as I personally may sometimes feel, the city street is one of the few places where I confront my own opportunity and privilege, and think, seriously, about how other people make their way in the world. This isn't something I put up with as a trade-off for the other perks of urban living. To my mind, it's the whole point.

Top image: Marlene, 59, who just became homeless 9 months ago after cancer surgery, panhandles as temperatures drop to the low 40's on Van Ness Street in San Francisco. (Susan Ragan/Reuters)

Amanda Erickson is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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