Thursday, January 17, 2008

C.W. Nevius, homelessness, and Punks with Guns

C.W. Nevius continues to do SF a huge service with his thrice-weekly columns in the Chronicle. Nevius has a great instinct for writing about subjects "progressive" San Francisco is apparently unable to come to grips with---or doesn't want to think about. First, his columns on the large homeless population that was trashing Golden Gate Park earned him the enmity of Supervisor Daly, John Burton, Randy Shaw, Tim Redmond, and Calvin Welch, to name a few progressive luminaries who have publicly chastised him for his fine columns.

With critics like that, Nevius must have known he was on the right track. Last month one of his columns zeroed in on the so-called homeless advocates who claim to be concerned about the homeless but reject everything the city proposes to deal with the problem:

For every proposal to address San Francisco's problem of homelessness, panhandling, and vagrancy, there has been one consistent response from advocates---no. No to the suggestion of Laura's Law, which would require the severely mentally ill to take their medications...No to the suggestion of looking at Portland's Street Access for Everyone program to get loiterers off the street, and no to clearing campers out of Golden Gate Park.

As Nevius reminds us, five years ago they also said no to Gavin Newsom's Care Not Cash, which proposed ending the city's practice of handing out $300-$400 a month to homeless people, thus in effect enabling them to continue to live on our streets. City voters were desperate to have something---anything---done about the growing squalor on our streets, and Gavin Newsom was the first city politician to propose a change in homeless policy; city voters rewarded him by passing his Care Not Cash in 2002 and then electing him mayor in 2003.

Nevius is reluctant to name his critics, except for Paul Boden, director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, who at least condescends to talk to him, even though they often disagree. The Director of the city's Coalition on Homelessness, on the other hand, no longer talks to him: "...when I asked the director of the influential Homeless Coalition point-blank if she would support it[Laura's Law], she said no...the San Francisco Homeless Coalition told me last week that they would not consent to any more interviews." For whatever reason, Nevius didn't provide the COH Director's name---Jennifer Friedenbach.

Along with his useful columns on how the homeless are trashing Golden Gate Park, Nevius demolished another myth about the homeless---that the city's shelters are too dangerous and dirty for a self-respecting homeless person to use.

City officials gave Nevius a tour of the city's shelters, and he found that that is simply untrue. On a typical night, he found that there were 100 beds still available to the homeless, except when it rains. So why do some of the homeless resist going to a shelter? Because, for one thing, they aren't allowed to drink and drug in the shelters. For another, some homeless people actually prefer living on the streets. Nevius quotes a city official : "I think it is difficult for people to leave their community on the street." And a guy who helps run Next Door, a 280-bed shelter: "There is a small minority who choose to resist the structured program---in the case of Next Door, that means case management. That group has been out there so long that they are willing to maintain that life. Unfortunately, those are the ones who die young."

In today's Chronicle, Nevius takes on another hot-button issue: what I call the Punks with Guns issue, i.e., gun violence in SF:

So are there any suggestions? Actually there are, although the solution begins by understanding the motivation of the shooters. "Since the mid-'80s," says Wintemute, "the illicit drug trade has armed itself with progressively more lethal weapons. If you live in that environment, you'd be foolish not to carry a gun. It's essential business equipment these days." You might have guessed that. But what you might not know is that a very small number of shooters are causing a large number of the incidents. SFPD's Murphy says at one point his group was able to identify and remove 12 bad actors from a neighborhood and "we didn't have a shooting for seven months." Wintemute says that approach is a big part of the "Boston Miracle," a gun violence program that dramatically reduced homicides in that city in the '90s. "They called in the gang leadership," Wintemute said, "and they told them, 'We know who you are, and we know most of you are on probation. If you don't knock it off, you're going to see probation enforcement like you've never seen before.' " Wintemute says the Boston police concentrated on nailing the slow learners who ignored the warnings, even if it was for jaywalking, to get them out of the area. The results were dramatic. (Unfortunately, Boston's homicide rate has climbed again after funding cuts and staffing problems.) Still, it's an idea. In the coming weeks, everyone from Harris and Ryan to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives is promising dramatic new initiatives. They've gotten the memo. This is a topic that has the city's attention.

Nevius rightly thinks "the solution begins by understanding the motivation of the shooters. 'Since the mid-'80s,' says [Dr. Gareth]Wintemute, 'the illicit drug trade has armed itself with progressively more lethal weapons. If you live in that environment, you'd be foolish not to carry a gun. It's essential business equipment these days.'"

But just as surely these young men are influenced by the vile rap/hip-hop/thug garbage they are exposed to from an early age.

Hard to believe that all these shooters are actually drug dealers. There's the real danger a drug dealer faces when another dealer pulls a gun on him, and then there's the apparently equally real symbolic threat of being dissed by someone, especially one of your contemporaries. Nevius cites the recent case of a 15-year-old kid who shot and killed another teenager at the Metreon because he wasn't moving on the escalator fast enough.

I grew up in Marin County in the 1940s and 1950s, and there was plenty of violence in the schools. But it never occurred to me or my contemporaries to arm ourselves to do serious bodily harm to our antagonists; even the then-nascent teen culture wouldn't have sanctioned that. Instead, there were a lot of fistfights, both in grammar school and in high school. If one of us had actually shot someone we had a personal beef with, it would have been seen as crazy and, more importantly, cowardly---in both the parlance and the ethos of the time, "chickenshit."

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