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Journal

Encounters with Homeless

Zuzu Tadeushuk

Two Enlightening Days in San Francisco...

San Francisco has perhaps the most stark, and startling, economic disparity of any city I’ve traveled to in my itinerant years as a model. Well, I take that back...visiting the world's biggest mall which was built by near-slave labor in Dubai probably takes the prize. But San Francisco  had the greatest disparity I've seen in any American city. I was shocked to arrive there this week, on a searing blue day, and check into a boutique hotel with a high-tech gym and refined Danish-modern furniture after having driven past block upon block of homeless, shirtless, weathered men and women, sitting, sleeping, pacing the sidewalks. This may have been especially evident to me because my hotel was located on the frontier between Nob Hill, one of the most ritzy residential neighborhoods of the city, and the Tenderloin, an area known for being a sort of hobo jungle, a homeless headquarters of the West Coast and possibly the nation. 

The name “Tenderloin” can be traced back to the 1890’s, and, as one legend has it, was derived from the fact that officers assigned to patrol the area were able to afford quality meat cuts (like tenderloin) because they received “hazard pay” for working in such a violent area. Or so the old story goes. I heard a number of such rumors about the Tenderloin while in San Francisco: Uber drivers were chatty. One alleged that New York non-profit organizations working to alleviate homelessness in the Big Apple had started buying homeless New Yorkers one-way tickets to San Francisco. Another asserted that many of the homeless residing in the Tenderloin were war vets, and that their presence there had begun in earnest after Vietnam. Another driver claimed that one particular block in the Tenderloin, on Turk street, had so much violent crime that parking had been banned on both sides of the street in an effort to discourage the problematic drug transactions that are made possible by sheltered spaces. 

In addition to hearing rumors about them, though, I also had a fair number of encounterswith the homeless of San Francisco. On the day I worked for Everlane here this week, we shot in a studio in the Mission District of San Francisco, just a few blocks south of the Tenderloin. Upon arriving at the studio, with photo equipment and garment racks in tow, we discovered we couldn’t use the elevator because a homeless man had moved into it and was at that moment attempting to scale the elevator shaft. By the time we had heaved all our supplies up the staircase, the police and fire department had arrived with ladders and pellet guns, and soon the man was extricated, handcuffed, and lead, shouting hoarsely, to a squad car. He wore a hot pink Hawaiian shirt and jeans, backwards. 

That evening after work I was walking past Saks Fifth Ave (far off Fifth!) when I heard a violent shout close behind me and two security guards exploded from the store’s main entrance in furious pursuit of a large and wooly young man clutching a shiny plastic package under his arm. They cornered him on either side of a lamppost and he threw down the box. Was it a perfume? A Kylie lip kit? On the first floor they usually only sell jewels and cosmetics. 

I wasn’t disconcerted by the homeless people themselves as much as I was by their staggering numbers. Here was intense destitution concentrated smack dab in the middle of a progressive, tech-centric metropolis, of one of the most expensive cities in the world (did you know SF recently eclipsed Manhattan in cost of living?)! And the Tenderloin seemed like such a commonplace phenomenon, like a banality to those who live here and know the situation and accept it as part of this city’s reality. Not that it shouldn’t be accepted; there’s nothing inherently wrong with a municipality incorporating into its culture, identity, and legacy a constituency which by definition exists separate from the city, living physically within its bounds but not contributing to nor partaking of its collective economical and political endeavors. Nothing wrong with living amidst or alongside this unorthodox village…but perhaps something wrong with not spearheading, and offering, an alternative? I’m no sociologist or political scientist and I don’t presume to know what should or could be done, but simply from the casual position of one human thinking of other humans I feel perplexed that this severe situation exists at all, and wonder that nothing has been successfully implemented to alleviate it. I am perplexed by the scale of this population of dispossessed and displaced people, perplexed by its coexistence with the multi-million dollar townhouses no more than six blocks northward, perplexed by its apparent permanence. 

There I was, enjoying the glee of simply being in California which a novice East-coaster necessarily experiences on her third and still dreadfully brief encounter with the spacious, the relaxed, the innovative West. I'd become a California enthusiast, though due to the shortness of my visits, only on a regrettably superficial level: I know little of actual life here, but am enamored of the açai bowls, the perpetual sandal weather, the easy pace, the yoga studios, clichés, the direct, earnest sun. And there, in the midst of my aesthetic, pretty lifestyle-y hoopla, in the midst of the things I expected of California, I found a really un-pretty lifestyle, I found a thing I did not expect of California. It was another of those revelations of the road, a reminder that human society, no matter where or when, is a slapdash arrangement at best, and that it almost always leaves someone out. Many someones, it seems. 

I left San Francisco after one day of work there and one of leisure, and returned home glad to escape the flagrant smell of urine on the sidewalks but dismayed to give up the beaming sun drenching those white Mission District facades. I departed feeling full of good coffee, full of good luck, astoundingly privileged. I left with an increased appreciation of elevators and with a tiny gold chain at my collarbone, which I’d bought at Saks, on the first floor. I left with disparity on my mind, and the vast chasms that can exist between the realities of humans who are after all so fundamentally alike. California, like all points on this globe, has its helping of stench and suffering along with its juice bars and ocean breezes. But the streets of mild San Francisco, I realized, may not be the worst streets to call home. They're the least artificial paradise I know.