SAN FRANCISCO — It takes only a few blocks to realize that street people and panhandlers are as much a part of this gilded hill city as the Golden Gate, the Presidio, or the striking views of Alcatraz from Russian Hill.
San Francisco belongs to them as much as it does to the scions of Pacific Heights or former dotcomers now working in temp jobs. In this tolerant city, politicians who have sought to remove them from street corners have long been labeled callous - and often rousted from office. Here, urinating in public is a cherished right.
As the problem grows, however, San Francisco appears to be reaching its breaking point. According to some estimates, it has roughly the same number of homeless people as New York, even though it has one-tenth the population. Two years ago, nearly 200 people died on the streets - twice as many as in the state of Florida.
Now, a city politician is again attacking the issue - but this time, people are listening. While his proposals may not be as hard-edged as those of former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, they represent the most serious attempt at reform in more than a decade, and San Franciscans' receptiveness is telling.
This issue, perhaps more than any other, has in recent years defined San Francisco's sense of itself as a liberal-minded haven for all humanity - from immigrants to anarchists, homosexuals to the homeless. Yet as the scope of the problem becomes overwhelming, this culture of tolerance is being tested by a practical desire for peace and safety.
"The homeless problem has become cataclysmic in San Francisco," says Gray Brechin, a historian at the University of California in Berkeley. "Now, people really want something done about it."
Since 2000, the homeless population of San Francisco has grown by more than a third, totaling some 7,300 people. In places such as the Tenderloin district, streets seem little more than galleries of "Checks Cashed" signs, strip clubs, and wobbly shopping carts packed with worn clothes, trinkets, and trash. Sidewalks double as sleeping quarters, and the smell of stale urine is rarely far away.
Mr. Brechin says he won't come into San Francisco, because he "can't take it anymore." Six-year resident Sonja Brandjes is sometimes afraid to walk the streets in certain parts of town. "It's worse than it has ever been," she says. "We just accept it because it has always been there, but I don't think it's safe."
Such complaints are not unusual. Yet, for the most part, these are not people calling for street sweeps and jail time. This is a city conflicted, and for many here, Supervisor Gavin Newsom has provided a way out.
In his office, he displays two conspicuous piles of letters for and against his plan to help solve the homeless problem. The "support" pile teeters at least 10 times taller, but what is amazing, Mr. Newsom says, "is how much they apologize. They say, 'I'm a progressive, and I can't believe I'm writing about this subject, but I support you.... Please don't use my name.' "
"People are questioning their beliefs," he adds. The response has indeed been surprising. Part of the plan is to expand a ban on panhandling to places such as median strips and transit stations. In the mid-1990s, Mayor Frank Jordan tried to take a hard stand on homelessness, too. Voters canned him in the next election.
Yet several things are notably different this time around. Foremost among them is a growing sense that the old way is just not working. As San Francisco's tourism-based economy sours in a post-Sept. 11 world of less travel, many are wondering if their tax money is being used in the most effective way. The county spends some $100 million a year on homelessness.
"It's analogous to where New York was in 1993 - reeling from recession," says Newsom. "People started focusing on the problems and got fed up with the soft ineffectual symbolism."
For example, while most municipalities offer benefits to the homeless in the form of a small cash stipend and other benefits such as vouchers or shelter beds, San Francisco still gives about one-third of its homeless population its benefits all in cash - as much as $395 a month. At the same time, the number of deaths among the homeless has increased recently - from 103 in 1995 to 183 in 2000.
That disconnect has resulted in a new willingness to consider new solutions, such as Newsom's proposal to take most of that cash and apply it to improving shelters and other homeless services. "It's difficult to deal with this issue without betraying progressive principles," says Richard DeLeon, a political scientist at San Francisco State University. "But Newsom's proposal has opened up a space in the public discourse."
To some observers, however, the shifts in policy still completely miss the mark. They say homelessness is a problem greater than any shelter or stipend, created by San Francisco's chronic lack of affordable housing and its decision decades ago to shutter mental institutions. These measures, then, are simply punishing the destitute, with only the thinnest suggestion of actually fixing what is wrong.
"All we ever get is the punitive, and we never get the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow," says Paul Boden of San Francisco's Coalition on Homelessness. "Until they address the needs of the mentally ill, people will have a sleeping situation that is totally inappropriate for them."
Standing on a downtown corner, looking at a panhandler wrapped in a tattered and filthy blanket, Matt Beard agrees. "This guy here, you can't get him to follow somebody else's rules," he says.
Mr. Beard isn't sure that Newsom's new proposals are the answer. He feels the situation goes beyond improving shelters. Still, the shaven-headed and goateed San Franciscan is glad to see someone try.
"The problem," he says, "is enormous."