It was horrifying witnessing the conditions these people were living in, especially in a Country which classes itself as a world leader and an example of "how the world should be".
I just came back from a week long trip in California where I spent 3 days in LA and 3 in San Francisco. While LA stole my heart I was left shocked and dismayed by San Fran.
There is a significant homeless and poverty problem in the city which contrasted against the wealth of places like Silicon Valley sits very uncomfortably. Although it’s doesn’t have the largest homeless population in America due to it’s compact size the issue is far more visible then in LA or New York where it’s more spread out.
At anytime of day I’d walk down any given street surrounding my hotel and see significant numbers of people aimlessly shuffling along the pavement or hunched over in doorways. There were streets which smelt so strongly of urine it’d make you heave. It was horrifying witnessing the conditions these people were living in, especially in a Country which classes itself as a world leader and an example of “how the world should be”. However, what was even more shocking was the local reaction and response to the problem. When I broached the subject it was brushed off and I was given the following responses:
- “It’s a liberal city and that’s why it’s allowed”
- “It’s only bad in certain parts of the city, they’ve closed ranks on them.”
- “Well they’re all given mobile phones so they can contact their family, why wouldn’t you be homeless here?”
- “Yea it’s a problem I guess” before swiftly moving the conversation on and hardly acknowledging it.
I was left close to tears after witnessing a scene in Starbucks on Union Square (which is the main shopping area and heart of the city; think the Regent Street equivalent.) when a homeless man with no shoes came in asking for water. The contempt he was treated with was so upsetting and when he tried to pull out the few pennies he had to pay for it it wasn’t even acknowledged. Shortly after, a second man came in an started going through the rubbish bin. In the end a member of staff chased him off by banging against the side of a bin. The same way you might scare off an animal. The treatment was heart breaking and difficult to watch.
I don’t want to overly criticise the staff at Starbucks, this is clearly a frequent problem they have to deal with and they’re there to make coffee not feed the homeless. Also, the factors creating this homeless problem including expensive property and people coming to the city seeking opportunities is hardly their fault or creation. However, what it does demonstrate, not just by them but by those in San Fran as a whole, is they’ve become desensitised to the issue. They see it as a “problem” not a humanitarian crisis which is what it actually is.
It reminded me how important it is to judge a person or situation based on what is right rather than what is usual. Sometimes when we look at things through old worn out eyes we forget what’s OK and what is not. We should all try a little harder to keep our eyes fresh and perhaps each of us little by little can do something to make life a little better for all.