There’s no question that San Francisco is a beautiful place. Ghirardelli Square, Coit Tower, and, of course, the Golden Gate Bridge, are visited by thousands every year, making the city one of the nation’s largest tourist destinations. But, San Francisco also has one of the nation’s highest poverty and homelessness rates, with an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 people sleeping on the streets every night.

Last week, when my church took a mission trip to San Francisco over spring break, I wasn’t expecting to see such rampant poverty. After all, I had visited twice before — once with my parents and once with my Girl Scout troop — and we had stayed in the nicer, albeit touristy, parts of the city. I knew that there were bad parts of the city, as with anywhere urban (in this case, the Tenderloin and South of Market both have somewhat of a reputation), but the sheer number of people without enough food to eat or a roof over their heads was a rude awakening. Even though San Francisco has a number of shelters and clinics aimed toward this demographic, it’s just not enough to meet the population’s needs.

A number of recent San Francisco laws criminalize vagrancy in an effort to reduce homelessness rates.

In UN plaza, our group bought a street newspaper (more on that later) that showed a “map” of public places where, legally, a homeless person can sleep during the day. The map was simply a blank white rectangle; there are no legal public places for someone to sleep during the day, let alone sit or lie down on a bench or the ground. Some benches are even built with an armrest in the middle for the purpose of making it impossible for someone to sleep. A recent article by Jeremy Lybarger states that “[the homeless are] ticketed for sitting or sleeping in public places, although it’s unclear what reasonable alternative exists for most people on the street.” The article also notes that, while rates of arrest and citation have dropped dramatically for drunkenness and disorderly conduct, they’ve risen for behaviors such as loitering and sitting down in public.

Women face a number of unique challenges as well.

It can be incredibly difficult for a homeless woman to find feminine hygiene products while on her period; food, blankets, and general hygiene products aren’t too hard to come across and are given out frequently, but pads and tampons just aren’t something that people think of in their donations. And let’s be real — those little vending machines in the women’s restroom can be pretty overpriced and just don’t work sometimes. Even if a female has enough money to afford a few products from there, the immediate need for food often takes precedence.

While giving someone food is a fantastic thing to do if you see someone in need — and it may be fairly effective for the 90% of homeless whose condition is not chronic — it’s not sustainable. Ever heard of the saying “Give a man a fish, and you’ll feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you’ll feed him for a lifetime”? In this case, giving a homeless man or woman the proverbial fish — resources such as food and clothing and hygiene products — is helpful, but it doesn’t grant them the life skills and job experience that they’d need to get out of their situation. Street newspapers like Street Sheet, the one our group bought in UN plaza, are produced mainly by non-profit groups and are sold by the homeless as a way of earning a living. Street Sheet is sponsored and published by the Coalition on Homelessness, which has funded a number of initiatives in the city as long term solutions to homelessness.

It’s a monumental issue, but it’s not unstoppable. And while longer term initiatives are often necessary, it’s still worth your time to offer a word of kindness or whatever food you might have with you to someone who needs it. You never know exactly how much of a difference you’re making, but it might mean more than you think.

2 Replies to “Homelessness in a Big City”

Leave a Reply