Mirage of Relief: the Sobering Truth about San Francisco’s Social Services

San Francisco has the illusion of social services.  Like some jesting phantom, they taunt us with a never-ending promise of relief.

A light post image of a blonde woman looking up to the sky on Bryant street in the South of Market district reads: “SF Marin Food Bank – The face of Hope“; the web page of the Glide church has an orange heart around their name next a montage of smiling faces with bold letters that read: “I Am GLIDE: a radically inclusive, just and loving community mobilized to alleviate suffering.”; In Home Support Services Public Authority’s website also has orange hearts (seven of them) listing the “major” services they provide so that disabled people like me may live “healthier, happier and safer lives at home and engaged in the community.”  That all sounds lovely, doesn’t it?

        What is more important than the Love and Hope and “radical inclusiveness” of it all?  The numbers. All social services love to boast of their numbers.  Like a 1950s billboard ad above McDonalds reading “over 1 billion burgers served” they operate from the assumption that a person “served” is a person “helped.”  Frequently in a massive font, this all-important figure, from which the bulk or private and public funding is acquired, distills a mass of human beings down to cold arithmetic, our suffering on display to pad their egos and wallets.  In fact, you can’t get them to shut up about their “numbers served” because it is frequently the only leg they have to stand on. Like someone showing you endless reels of baby pictures on Facebook, you want to yell but you’re just too damn busy being polite and trying not to hurt anyone’s feelings.  Like Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald’s, they are very proud of their numbers served.  And like a McDonald’s cheeseburger, you’ll feel a lot better making your order than when you’ve digested it all.  In fact, it’s probably safe to say that in the end, you’ll wish you had never gone there in the first place.

        So what’s with all the pessimism, you ask?  After all, shouldn’t I be grateful for all the free handouts around me? These places must do a lot of good for people or they wouldn’t have been around for so many years.  Maybe it’s my attitude: maybe you’re thinking, “well if you don’t like it, why don’t you go move to [insert impoverished country sanctioned by war and famine]?” Or, if my skin wasn’t white enough: “why don’t you go back to where you came from?”  These are the common retorts to even the slightest criticism of social services.

        One of the worst of these behaviors is the overzealous, unsolicited offering of “ideas” and “suggestions” by strangers, friends, and family. These well-meaning people might sometimes list several “options” for you to explore, completely deaf to the repeated phrases, “I’ve been there” and “I’ve tried that.”  In its worst iteration, this kind of patronizing “help” seems to hope that we’ll say something like, “WOW, what a wonderful suggestion! Now I can get off my lazy ass and start being productive again!” How nice of them to do all this research for us, the sloth-like apathetic miscreants that we are.

        And God forbid you haven’t actually tried one of their Golden Suggestions- you will be faced with The Look.  Anyone living in poverty knows The Look: a sad, disapproving stare- something between a grin and a frown but universally implying the same thing: You’re not trying hard enough.

        This breakdown in communication is precisely where the insidious nature of this structure lies: it gives the illusion of available help, so that the public won’t be upset enough to do anything themselves.  “It’s not my problem” we think, “I donated money to [insert highly-funded, well advertised social service].”  And as long as the brochures, billboards, and websites are neatly manicured with enough smiling faces of poor people, they believe the mirage is real.  That leaves it up to us at the bottom, those with severe disabilities, mental handicaps, PTSD, and other crippling challenges, to try and articulate our everyday struggles against the educated and carefully tailored PR speak of staff members.  Which one do you think people tend to believe: the “disabled bum” or the white-collar, smooth-talking social worker?

        All of the retorts, rebuttals, and disapproving reactions have one universal thing in common: they haven’t been through this. They haven’t been through the system day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year trying to survive and beg for these handouts, sucking up to the egos and authority complexes that dominate these programs.  They haven’t been stripped clean of their dignity, thrown out of a six-month referral process because of a typo, lost food for the week because the phone battery died, the office closed early, or (very often) the staff is on vacation. They haven’t been told repeatedly that their access to food, shelter, mobility aids, and the most basic of human necessities are denied because “it’s against our policy.”  They simply haven’t experienced the degrading, bureaucratic inhumanity of it all.

        So can we blame them?  Not entirely. Experience is the mother of education, but that isn’t always a good thing. I don’t believe in “an eye for eye” and I would never wish this kind of a life on anyone.

        So what can people do?  They can simply believe us.  Like a trauma or abuse survivor, you can just believe us when we say that it is bad out here. A simple, “that really sucks” would do well for us. Recently, I saw a picket sign for SF’s annual Walk Against Rape that read: “Believe survivors.”  Believe Survivors. That’s all. That’s what I want most right now, to just be believed.

        Believe me when I say that Rebuilding Together does not help disabled tenants install a permanent wheelchair ramp in their home.  Believe me when I say the SF Food Bank will not make a disability accommodation for their home delivered food program because it’s “against their policy.”  Believe me when I say that the Community Living Fund, designed to help disabled people live independently, will not spend even $1 on batteries for my wheelchair.  Believe me when I say that In-Home Support Services Public Authority denies me help to a home care provider, a support group or including information on trauma services for assault.  Believe me when I say there is not one support group for male survivors of domestic violence in San Francisco.  Believe me when I say SFMTA disability hearings are biased and that MUNI buses won’t pick me up in my wheelchair.  Believe me when I say GLIDE treats people like cattle with lines around the block, shoving us in droves to a lifeless concrete dungeon to serve us old iceberg lettuce and tasteless chicken breast.  Believe me when I say that Social Security Disability Income/ SSI disqualifies us from food stamps.  Believe me when I say most of these organizations are often manipulative, with head games and gaslighting on a regular basis that inflict psychological and emotional abuse on us.  Believe me when I say that these problems are systemic, that “the system” is not designed to help veterans, disabled, and disenfranchised people get a leg up in the world.  We are fighting an uphill battle and we don’t get vacations.

        So what’s the solution?  I can’t say I have all the answers, or that I should. What I can say is that not all nonprofits and social services are bad.  Like a good restaurant or community thrift store, the best stuff can go under the radar. There are smaller organizations which are not widely publicized or well-funded that do incredible work. I encourage people to donate to them often.

        Places like Faithful Fools in the Tenderloin where volunteers actually live on the streets for a brief period in order to better understand their patrons.  Places like Martin de Porres where healthy food is served in a humane way, and the people are given access to a courtyard to relax in and play board games with each other. Groups like Curry Not Worry and Food Not Bombs which are volunteer run and serve gourmet recycled food to people outside, in protest of draconian “health safety” codes.  Then there’s Hospitality House in the Tenderloin, which works hard to hire people who were previously homeless, offers free drop-in therapy, coffee, toiletries, and more.  And of course, the Coalition on Homelessness, which gives 100 percent of its sales of Street Sheet (thank you!) directly to the people who sell them.

        That isn’t to say that any of these organizations are free of criticism.  This foggy concrete jungle contains no utopias. Organizations should strive for elasticity and seek to improve themselves regularly.  Listen to the people that use these services and not the silver-tongued college grads that peddle their public relations propaganda. Get your facts ‘straight from the source,’ by reading newspapers like this one.  Be an informed citizen and believe survivors.

        Knowledge is Power, as Kool Moe Dee said, so lets clear away the fog around social services and keep it where it belongs: wrapped around the golden gate bridge, dewing our gardens and watering redwoods along our coast.  Let’s replace the mirage with the real thing by funding peer-support networks run by the people they are designed to help. As of this writing, I have begun hosting two support groups: one for disabled people and one for survivors of domestic violence.  It’s amazing to see the positive difference a grassroots group can make. The results have been promising so far, and I hope they continue. Let’s work together to keep this city accessible to all people, replace hypocrisy with loving-kindness and create a home we can all be truly proud of.