Thursday, August 09, 2007

Marc Salomon: "I'm not concerned about people sleeping in the park"

Marc Salomon is considered an intellectual in the city's left-wing circles. It's not clear why based on his op-ed (below) in the current SF Bay Guardian. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed is king, I suppose. Salomon purports to offer "a feasible midrange political solution" for dealing with the homeless in Golden Gate Park, because "a lot of people are missing the point." Salomon is unconcerned about "people sleeping in the park, just as I'm not so concerned about people sleeping on the sidewalks or the streets if there is no other place available, so long as they are just sleeping."

But to a majority of city voters, people sleeping in public---whether in the park or on the streets---is exactly the point. These are public spaces, not living spaces:

If folks just slept in the park, cleaned up after themselves, and moved on during the day, most of us would probably not notice. If my friends and I decided to take our tents and sleeping bags to the park and spend the night, there probably wouldn't be any trace of our stay the next day.

And if pigs had wings, maybe they would fly. We're not talking about people like Salomon and his friends; we're talking about people who think nothing of despoiling the park with waste, litter, and drug needles.

Salomon seems to think that all we have to do is solve the problem of the waste generated by the squatters, and public concern about the homeless in the park will disappear. But, waste or no waste, it seems that the public doesn't want anyone using the park as a living space. (see the online poll accompanying this article: "Here's the Real Problem in Golden Gate Park," C.W. Nevius, SF Chronicle, Tuesday, July 24, 2007)

Salomon uses euphemisms to identify the waste problem, which he thinks can be solved by using "appropriate technology disposal solutions": Shit is "defecation," needles discarded by junkies are "syringes," and the junkies themselves are "injection drug users." Writers usually use euphemisms when they're unable to face the reality of what they're talking about.

Salomon misses the point about the squatters in Golden Gate Park. It's not just the shit, piss, needles, and other waste that people hate; it's the very fact of people using their public space as a living space that people object to. When Mayor Newsom sends city workers into the park to eject the squatters, Salomon sees that as

attacking them[the homeless] as human beings. Many are seriously messed up for an often overlapping variety of reasons. Outreach workers, instead of forcing homeless people through the criminal justice system, should offer appropriate technology disposal solutions for the most dangerous waste and trash as well as services to help with sanitation. I'd like for the city to initiate a "shit in a bag" program under which city workers would communicate to the homeless the importance of not befouling public space and provide plastic bags, toilet paper, and sanitizers for them to use.

At least he didn't call it "defecation in a bag." What Salomon is proposing amounts to making it easier for people to continue to live in the park, as if waste disposal was the main issue involved. And, according to the Chronicle articles by C.W. Nevius that prompted the latest sweeps, the city is in fact offering the homeless in the park services as an alternative to the criminal justice system.

Salomon misses a number of other points in his short piece:

"It should be noted that nobody is noticing any more of these annoyances now than they were five years ago."

On the contrary, it's my impression that people who live near and/or use the park a lot have been complaining for years about the homeless in the park. City government seems to take official notice of the problem only after the media brings it up, which the SF Chronicle has done recently. Back in 1998, it was a series of articles by Ken Garcia in the Chronicle that prodded Mayor Brown to sweep the homeless out of the park.

"The San Francisco Chronicle is simply tossing Newsom a softball for his reelectiion campaign so that he can appear tough on crime for his base voters (as if that is going to be an issue this year)."

This claim is based on leftist mythology that the mainstream media in SF is doing what it can to ensure Newsom's re-election. The problem with this theory: it was the Chronicle that broke the story in the first place. Obviously any appearance of indifference to the problem makes Newsom look bad, since dealing with homelessness has been his signature issue. At the very least, it would pose a question he would be confronted with if/when he runs for higher office. In Newsom's defense, he claims that his administration was aware of the problem and simply ran out of money this year to continue the sweeps in the park---money that has been put in the budget just passed by the Board of Supervisors.

"It's not cost-effective to deploy the San Francisco police to deal with homelessness."

It may be expensive, but outreach workers during a sweep have to be accompanied by police to ensure their safety. It's not "cost-effective" for 40 city cops to escort the monthly Critical Mass demo, either, but the city evidently figures it's worth it to avoid violence on city streets.

"It's also not cost-effective for the city to make up for the abdication of the state and federal governments of their responsibility to deal with the mentally ill and drug abusers."

This is what I call the Cop-Out Argument: Since the problem of homelessness is a national problem, why should the city try to deal with it alone? In fact, many programs that help the city deal with homelessness, directly or indirectly, already receive federal and state funding. And the Bush Administration was intimately involved---in the person of Philip Mangano---in prodding the city to formulate its Ten Year Plan to end chronic homelessness. But the Cop-Out Argument ignores the political realities faced by local jurisdictions. Since homelessness inevitably manifests itself on the local level, it would be irresponsible---not to mention politically suicidal---for local officials to ignore the squalor on their streets.

"So we can either complain or attempt another approach."

We complain and, if we're lucky, our city government responds to our complaints with sensible and humane approaches to the problem. For the most part, the Newsom administration has done this, with Care Not Cash, Project Homeless Connect, and Homeward Bound. Newsom may have taken his eye off the ball on the homeless in the park issue, but he seems to have responded well to the latest crisis.

In any event, Salomon's "shit in a bag" proposal is not a sensible alternative, since it involves the familiar progressive premise---already rejected by city voters in 2003---that we should just learn to live with homelessness on our streets and in our parks.

The C.W. Nevius article that prompted the latest sweep of Golden Gate Park, and another Chronicle piece following up on his original piece.

(SF Bay Guardian, Aug. 8, 2007)
Mayor Gavin Newsom's moves to sweep homeless people out of Golden Gate Park have generated a lot of controversy — and a lot of people are missing the point.

I'm not so concerned about people sleeping in the park, just as I'm not so concerned about people sleeping on the sidewalks or the streets if there is no other place available, so long as they are just sleeping.

If folks just slept in the park, cleaned up after themselves, and moved on during the day, most of us would probably not notice. If my friends and I decided to take our tents and sleeping bags to the park and spend the night, there probably wouldn't be any trace of our stay the next day.

My main concern is when ancillary conduct related to a poverty existence, such as defecation, urination, and the dispersal of syringes, becomes problematic. Is it worse when these things happen in Golden Gate Park or Corona Heights than it is when the same behavior occurs around Marshall Elementary in the middle of the Mission? The costs to police the park and the concrete public realm to the extent that one would see a difference in less feces and fewer syringes are probably as significant as the cost of constructing facilities to house and treat the homeless.

A feasible midrange political solution would be to adopt a broad front of harm-reduction policies designed to lighten the annoying footprints of the homeless on our public spaces without attacking them as human beings. Many are seriously messed up for an often overlapping variety of reasons. Outreach workers, instead of forcing homeless people through the criminal justice system, should offer appropriate technology disposal solutions for the most dangerous waste and trash as well as services to help with sanitation. I'd like for the city to initiate a "shit in a bag" program under which city workers would communicate to the homeless the importance of not befouling public space and provide plastic bags, toilet paper, and sanitizers for them to use.

Similarly, syringe-disposal systems are inherently safe, are designed to be unopenable without tools, and should be deployed in sites frequented by injection drug users.

It should be noted that nobody is noticing any more of these annoyances now than they were five years ago. The San Francisco Chronicle is simply tossing Newsom a softball for his reelection campaign so that he can appear tough on crime for his base voters (as if that is going to be an issue this year). It's not cost-effective to deploy the San Francisco police to deal with homelessness. It's also not cost-effective for the city to make up for the abdication by the state and federal governments of their responsibility to deal with the mentally ill and drug abusers.

So we can either complain or attempt another approach
.

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4 Comments:

At 4:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

'[A]ppropriate technology disposal solutions' is clunky wording. The rest, tho… You may need to look up the definition of the word 'euphemism'. There's no special reason to use the term 'needle' rather than 'syringe' or 'shit' instead of 'defecation'. 'Junkies' are heroin users in general, & needles are not the only mode of heroin use, nor is heroin the only injection drug: It's the use of drugs thru injection which has been the focus of the recent hullabaloo.

You also may want to reexamine the concept of 'tossing one a softball'. I don't think that's what the Chronicle was attempting to do (I think they were attempting to sell papers), but breaking the story in no way absolves one of soft-ball-chucking.

'Shit in a bag program'? Jesus Christ.

 
At 12:00 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Short words that say the same thing as longer words should always be the first choice, even allowing for the fact that words are never exactly interchangeable. "Shit" is surely better than "defecate," unless you're writing for the NY Times, and especially if you're supposedly a straight-talking radical like Salomon. Your point on junkies and needle use in general may be correct but seems pedantic in the context. Salomon's point was that the Chronicle was trying to do Newsom a favor with the Nevius story, which is a stretch. It only made Newsom look bad, since the homelessness issue is supposedly one of his strengths. The notion that the Chronicle calculates both the assignment and the impact of such stories seems way off to me. It just seems like just another cop-out---tinged with paranoia---by the city's left, which has some serious problems with its own media and writers, namely, that they are incompetent and mostly crackpots.

 
At 1:49 AM, Blogger Martha Bridegam said...

When you get past the fancy diction, Marc Salomon is saying something valuable: homelessness is here to stay until the economy changes. It's stupidly defensive to pretend this economic phenomenon can be stopped with police harassment -- like ordering the tide to let your sand castle alone.

It would be smarter for those of us who are housed and those of us who are homeless to work together on ways to be better neighbors to each other. To give a different example, city garbage pickup service is currently not available, either free or for money, to campers who want to keep tidy. Just for example, why shouldn't the city garbage contractors be willing to accept a certain volume of bagged trash placed on a certain corner on a certain morning of the week provided a group of campers pay maybe $10 a month each for the service?

 
At 10:19 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

"...homelessness is here to stay until the economy changes. It's stupidly defensive to pretend this economic phenomenon can be stopped with police harassment---like ordering the tide to let your sand castle alone."

Martha: You've managed to maintain the mindset that prevailed among city progressives before the advent of Gavin Newsom and Care Not Cash---that there's nothing much we can do about homelessness, since it's only symptomatic of our capitalist system. Your view was implicitly rejected in 2002, when Care Not Cash was passed by city voters. The city not only can but must deal with people who try to use our public spaces---our streets and parks---as living spaces. Salomon is in the prog tradition of trying to make it easier for people to be homeless in SF, while city voters want more aggressive government action to get people off the streets.

Nor is "police harassment" the issue here. Of course city workers who do the 4:00 a.m. sweeps of Golden Gate Park need to be accompanied by police for their protection. Nor should the city alter its trash collection procedures to make it easy for "campers" in Golden Gate Park. No one should be "camping" in the park.

Contrary to your rather passive, neo-Marxist acceptance of homelessness, Newsom understands that city voters don't share that view. Nor is your view particularly realistic. It seems clear now that, for a variety of reasons, homelessness in SF is a problem that won't go away if/when the economy gets better, since it's been with us for years now, through economic booms and busts. Newsom is putting a number of programs in place that will help us deal with it over the long haul: Care Not Cash, Homeward Bound, Project Homeless Connect, etc.

 

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