"The annual homeless crisis came to San Francisco early this year," the Chronicle's Abe Mellinkoff wrote on October 16th, 1986. "Usually we don't hear much about it until the weather really turns cold. It's so much easier to feel for those without homes when we are snug inside while winter's winds are blowing at the door."
Mellinkoff, who joined the Chronicle in 1935 and died in 1992, was familiar with San Francisco's seasons and news cycles. "This latest outburst of homelessmania revealed that our town, like others across the country, is stumped by this social disease. The basic problem is that nobody can agree on who is involved and how many there are. The latest local figures range from an official low of about 5,000 to a maximum double that, according to some social activists. To be safe, give or take a few thousand at either end of the scale."
Mellinkoff's commentary, right down to those last figures, might as well be contemporary. The editorial is particularly prescient this week due to a concerted effort by the Chronicle and more than 70 other media publications, including this one, to cover homelessness as headline news and perhaps shed a more complete light on a complex problem. But how we talk about homelessness the language we use, and the varying sensationalism with which the topic is attacked is itself a symptom of the societal quandary it has presented since the media first began using the term "homeless" in the 1980's.
Kevin Fagan, a current Chronicle reporter who has covered homelessness extensively, kicked things off for the paper yesterday by arguing — much as Heather Knight did in a similar retrospective just two years ago — that San Francisco's state of homelessness has been remarkably consistent since about 1982 when the federal government defunded public housing.
In turn, coverage of the issue has also been a constant, though media descriptions appear to waver between Mellinkoff's knowing, slightly cavalier recognition of an ongoing problem and what he described as "homelessmania," a language of emergency or alarm that might better describe a sudden or temporary event. That second sentiment, a sense of shock and shame, has been especially pitched during the frequent seasons when so many other San Franciscans are prospering, "snug inside while winter's winds are blowing at the door." If the problem homelessness is not getting better as other aspects of San Francisco life appear to improve, then the epidemic of homelessness must be getting worse or so the logic seems to go.
One of the first prominent articles about homeless people to appear in San Francisco was a tabloid-style 1982 Examiner piece by Paul Shinoff called "Nightmare In Wino Park." To write it, the reporter embedded himself at one of San Francisco's first public shelters, pretending to be homeless to observe and eventually criticize theft and drug use.
In 1983, and in part as a result of Shinoff's article, the place referred to as "Wino Park," a vacant lot created by Glide Memorial Church pastor Rev. Cecil William and officially called People's Park, was closed and fenced off. "To be very honest with you," Williams told the New York Times, "that article and two editorials in The Examiner helped me to look at things... Then Mayor Dianne Feinstein came to me and said, 'I really wish you would do something with that park.' Nobody pushed me or pressured me. They let me work it out my way.''
Many, including the author of a 1982 edition of the Tenderloin Times newsletter, found the "Nightmare" approach to be a sensational tactic aimed at pearl-clutching law-and-order types. "Kind of conjured up images of ax-murderers or shoot-outs," the newsletter reads. "The article certainly raised some significant problems and issues, but you never really got much of a feeling about the people of Wino Park."
Mocking a conservative strain of "throw out the bums" sentiment, as he did in other satirical pieces like one called "Take Away The Homeless," Chronicle writer Arthur Hoppe skewered this rhetoric of the early homelessness crisis. Further, to comment directly on media coverage of poverty, his 1985 piece "So Long, Poor Folks," begins fittingly with his narrator reading the news.
"It was back in the summer of 1985. I put down the paper with a sigh and looked at my son, Mordred. 'It says here that our very own San Francisco is fast becoming a city of rich people.'' He said what I was afraid he'd say: 'Good,' he said. I frowned. 'You obviously don't understand, Mordred,' I said. 'This doesn't mean the poor people are becoming rich. It means they're moving out.' 'Good-by and good luck to them, Dad,' he said callously. 'It'll be a relief not to have to drive through their depressing slums, dodge their ugly cars or avoid their outstretched palms.' ''How can you say that, Mordred?' I said sternly. 'The poor provide diversity in our urban culture; they give us the perspective to realize how lucky we are; they test our generosity; and they imbue us with the guilt that makes us better human beings.'"
Two years earlier, the 1983 KQED documentary "To Have and Have Not," which is being recirculated this week, drew a similar portrait, jumping back and forth, for example, from a Silicon Valley Ferrari dealership to a homeless protest. At the time, Newsweek was pointing to a general recession, calling the season the “The Hard-Luck Christmas of ’82.” “With 12 million unemployed and 2 million homeless, private charity cannot make up for federal cutbacks," the magazine wrote.
But the lives of homeless people did not necessarily improve with the fates of the upper and upper-middle classes. Now, returning to his story many seasons later, the documentary's maker, KQED's Stephen Talbot, concludes that the Hard-Luck Christmas has endured into 2016. "Thirty-four years after I first saw and filmed homeless people in the City of St. Francis, I never expected to see this crisis still festering, still unresolved," Talbot writes. "And I have the same thought I had back then: We are a resilient, democratic, prosperous society, but at what point does a city, a country, become so economically divided that it tears itself apart?"
Whatever was in the air then and now according to Talbot was also swirling about in 1991, as captured by an article in the New York Times during former Mayor Art Agnos's reelection campaign. "Agnos now finds himself in a bruising campaign for re-election, blamed by a cranky electorate and four challengers for urban problems that will not go away... Panhandlers seem to be multiplying on downtown street corners. There is litter by the curbs and graffiti on the buses. Polls show that residents of San Francisco are running out of patience with the homeless and that suburbanites consider this a dirty, dangerous city and are staying away." A supervisor at the time, Angela Alioto, observed that "People have never been down and out like they are today. You can feel the lack of morale in the streets."
Jumping ahead eight years later, in September 1999, Mayor Willie Brown was calling homelessness an "intractable" problem. As he campaigned for reelection he found himself in the predicament of choosing between a temporary shelter constructed at Mission Rock to house some 600 homeless during the previous year's El Nino winter, and city-owned land that was needed to create 5,000 parking spaces for the under-construction AT&T (formerly Pac Bell) Park. As the LA Times wrote at the time, about 15,000 people in the city were homeless, the shelter lacked hot water, and it was filled well beyond its 400-person capacity. By 2001, the Chronicle was mocking Brown for his naive stance on homelessness. In a news piece titled "Mayor loses rose-tinted sunglasses, filthy city, beggars suddenly a problem," Ken Garcia wrote that "Brown, heretofore the lone defender of the city's image as sparkling and shopping-cart free, apparently saw the panhandlers through the trees and announced that dirty streets and homeless people were part of the problem — no doubt stunning the many merchants and residents who have been sounding that theme since the beginning of the mayor's first term six years ago."
The experiences of both Agnos and Brown have strong parallels with Mayor Ed Lee's predicament of the last six months. In San Francisco, the idea that homelessness is both normal and the worst its ever been still coexist, if unhappily.
While the SF Homeless Project, steered by the Chronicle, states its goal as a "desire to stop calling what we see on our streets the new normal," it would appear a little late for that. Homelessness has been a glaring fact of San Francisco life and politics for over three decades, and it's not, in fact, new for journalists to propose their own solutions for the problem. The Chronicle has done so, with success at times, before.
Consider "Shame of the City," Kevin Fagan's Chronicle series that debuted in 2003, "How did this happen? How did one of the most sophisticated and cultured cities in the world come to have thousands of people existing in Dickensian wretchedness on its streets?" Fagan was casting fresh light on a seemingly worsening problem then, during an economic lull in the Bay Area, just as former Mayor Gavin Newsom was about to take the reins.
"Over 20 years, a politically accepted, coordinated, consistent policy has never emerged to solve the city's problem with hard-core homelessness — now the worst in the United States," Fagan concluded.
Also in 2003, Fagan told the Christian Science Monitor that he was able to affect change by proposing and reporting on solutions, a theory that has been the Chronicle's battle cry in this current effort. The best example of this is the The Homeward Bound program, instituted by Newsom, who Fagan says read articles of homeless people successful returning home to family or friends.
Still, 13 years later, in announcing the Chronicle-led media effort, the New York Times and Chronicle Editor Audrey Cooper touted the novelty of solutions-oriented journalism. "We need to be a hell of a lot more creative about how we solve this problem," Cooper told the paper, "And we are probably going to have to break some dishes to do it."
But it was not without a touch of sensationalism that the Times chose their lede for that piece relaying Cooper's story of witnessing two homeless people having sex in broad daylight in their tent, flaps open, while she pushed her six-month-old in a stroller down the street.
It raises the question, particularly from homeless advocates, of why we are still talking about homeless people as if they have no right to exist on the street, and sensationalizing things like sex in a tent. "What was she doing peeking in people's tents anyway?" asks Jennifer Friedenbach of the Coalition on Homelessness, speaking to SFist. "Late at night I've caught some glimpses of action myself, whether the people were housed or not."
Friedenbach has been a noted, passionate thorn in the side of San Francisco politicians for decades now, working at the almost 30-year-old Coalition which, in 2012, Supervisor Scott Wiener spoke of in the Chronicle saying it "has had a very, very negative impact on San Francisco's ability to address homelessness in a meaningful way."
Friedenbach is quoted in almost every major article on the topic of homelessness, advocating for the progressive view that while homelessness may not need to be a normal, accepted fact of city life, it also can't constantly be brushed aside as a scourge and a mess to be cleaned up for the sake of wealthier residents' comfort. She serves as a constant reminder to the media of the humanity of the individuals who make up this larger "problem." As her husband, middle school teacher Joe Condon, told the paper, "Jenny does not walk by a person asleep on the street without checking to make sure they're breathing." He adds that she's taught their sons to do the same, saying, "It's not a sense of feeling sorry for them. [Our sons] look at us like, 'How are you going to help that person? What are we going to do?'"
That is perhaps a healthier "psyche for a city to have," as the SF Homeless Project's open letter put it yesterday one of care and a desire to help, rather than one of constant shock and frustration at "tent cities," needles on the street, and people having sex in tents. But the language of politics, as many conservatives have proven, along with not a few Democratic SF mayors, often is about getting "tough" with sweeps and "cracking down" on illegal camps or as Wiener more soberly called the outlawing of any tents or shopping carts in Jane Warner Plaza in 2012, "basic, common sense legislation."
Not every citizen has the energy or fearlessness to be checking to see if every person they pass asleep on a sidewalk is still breathing. As comes up again and again in the media, and from average people interviewed on the street, we want the city to do this for us, for politics or the police to make the "social disease" go away, to take care of these "miserable souls" and keep them from lying on the sidewalk in the first place and to solve this "intractable problem" that is so obviously "worse" than it ever was.
Just four months ago, the Chron's own sometimes conservative voice, C.W. Nevius, took Friedenbach on directly not for the first time with an open letter rejecting her "lone voice of dissent" on a piece he wrote calling for a swift clearing of "the tent city on Division Street [that] was frightening and intimidating residents and merchants." While she tried to argue that vitriol against homeless people and failures of policy were more to blame for the encampment, Nevius was supporting the idea that it had gotten "out of control," that the tent city was a health hazard, and he had received numerous emails from fans of his column supporting his view. No doubt, it was columns like this and the response they received that led Cooper and her staff to feel a rising tide they wanted to address in a bigger way in mid-2016. "I’m a columnist taking the pulse of the city," Nevius wrote, "and when the city responds positively, it seems I’m doing my job."
He argues that the rising tide of negative sentiment now demands some new policy that doesn't come from homeless advocates though the policy of shuffling tents from one place to another was criticized by many people beyond Friedenbach, and there were, objectively, not enough shelter beds or housing to relocate all those people. "I'd say the coalition is in the minority," he wrote. "Your influence is outsize partly because, in the interest of balanced journalism, we've made you the voice of the homeless. And now when the homeless crisis is at a peak, all you do is blame others for the plight of these people."
The "crisis" isn't at a "peak," though. The numbers, as far as we know them, don't bear this out the peak was in the mid- to late 1990's, under the leadership of Willie Brown, and has been relatively steady with less than half that population for the last decade. Maybe what Nevius saw was simply a spike in meth addicts in one area and their erratic behavior Fagan's retrospective this week cites Division Street as a recent nexus for methamphetamine dealing and use.
Not to mention Nevius's crie de coeur might remind any longer-term residents here of numerous similar columns from decades past. Take this gem from the Chronicle's Carl Nolte in 2002: "At night, downtown San Francisco looks like a casting call for 'The Night of the Living Dead.'"
Politics is driven by rhetoric, and when you have near annual cycles of news writing that encourages the rhetoric of fear and frustration, referring to homeless people as all like inhuman zombies, policy can be accelerated and even shaped by it.
If we yell louder, reach out farther, or recount the numbers one more time, will that improve a set of a policies that has consistently resulted in a shortage of options for homeless people even though we have successfully housed 22,000 of them in the last 12 years?
The best thing that could come of this project, the bulk of which is set to be published Wednesday, June 29, is to move the conversation beyond "the worst it's ever been" or the brand new "new normal," and recognize that just because our city is very pretty and rich, as cities go, this isn't a unique problem that's grown out of anyone's control. And of course it's solvable which is true of many of society's deepest and most complex failures, from education to systemic racism to widespread poverty. Just as San Francisco's homeless problem wasn't formed in one day, neither will it be solved in one. That's why people like Freidenbach, and those at dozens of non-profits that the city helps fund, work every day: So that someday, people in poverty or those with mental illnesses won't be treated like problems, they'll just be treated.
Jay Barmann contributed to this piece. More than 70 Bay Area news organizations are participating in this media project that launches in full June 29. Follow the SF Homeless Project on Facebook and Twitter.izar decleto via Flickr