A Tale of Two Districts

by Vlad Kay

What is the market value of the human life? In the lawless anarchy of post-Soviet Russia in the early nineties, I knew the exact monetary equivalent of a human soul: It was two thousand dollars. For that money, unprofessional hitmen from the street would effect a simple murder not requiring any special skills.

But what about the present: Twenty-first century America? How much money would be sufficient to destroy a human being? This question stops being an abstract sophistry if you ponder it in light of what is happening today on the streets of San Francisco and other cities around the country.

Those San Franciscans who are bound to live in or around UN Plaza are used to Ambassadors and police patrols. Ambassadors come mostly during events. Police visit several times a day. One sunny California afternoon I observed them picking up one of the homeless people sitting on the stone edging and escorting him to the car. Some people here untidy or intoxicated, but the choice of a quiet, clean-shaven and combed middle-aged person seemed to be rather arbitrary. “What did he do?” I ask Scarlet, who has considered UN Plaza her only home for almost three years.

“Nothing. They come several times a day and often take people for no reason at all, just for being homeless. But at least here we can gather and camp. As for now, here, on the UN Plaza I meet less problems than anywhere else; and I need some place as long as I am alive. I cannot disappear or become invisible like they want me to be.”

Today, dressed in baggy clothing which doesn’t quite fit her, Scarlet looks like a person who just woke up and went out for a second to move the garbage bins. But when she needs to do her business she becomes hardly discernible from other San Franciscans. In her three years of habitation in or around UN Plaza, Scarlet has become an embodiment of human suffering. It will happen to anyone who has had to sleep on concrete panels and eat once every other day for three years.

With the number of her medical diagnoses steadily increasing, Scarlet usually makes it her goal to survive through the night. Sometimes drugs help her to forget about pain and get a minute of happiness. I studied at the California Institute of Integral Studies, and am currently working on getting licensed as an addiction rehab counselor. I worked for the rehabilitation program Hineni in Israel, and have also worked as a counselor in a community mental health agency here in San Francisco. From these studies and previous counselling experience, I know that despite the prevailing myth (or social insult) about addiction as a cause of homelessness, in many cases it happens the other way round: people get evicted first, and later drugs help them to survive life on the streets.

Many customers of local businesses are not comfortable seeing Scarlet on their way to Nordstrom and Macy’s. She becomes an obstacle to the free flow of currency, and has to be removed. This was the origin of the idea of Business Improvement Districts, BIDs. In the case study of the Union Square BID, illustrated with photos of happy faces by the impromptu bar counter, MJM Management Group reports the incredible successes of the project. In this report Union Square is called the “ceremonial heart of the city.”

Alleluia! Union Square is now clean! But UN Plaza is now “dirty”. UN Plaza is apparently the ceremonial bottom, since Scarlet is still allowed to reside there several days a week.

“I have to be somewhere” whispers Scarlet with a sense of guilt, and I see a tear falling from her eye. At the time of markets or special events, when Ambassadors ask her to vacate space for vendors, she feels especially vulnerable. Scarlet is a mild and kind lady, and doesn’t want to be in anybody’s way, but very unfortunately for society, she has to be “somewhere” as she herself verbalizes it.

It is very moving to see how people cherish their remaining dignity and humanity. Scarlet carefully folds her scanty belongings into the cart, and even makes some simple decorations. The Safeway shopping cart with all her earthly possessions looks neat and nice exhibiting the unbroken spirit of the owner. Scarlet sees every day that it is much easier to lose human qualities than to restore them afterwards, and she is doing everything possible to distance herself from those losing their ability to take care of themselves.

Society chooses to fight human suffering and all its expressions by criminalizing homelessness. But criminalizing homelessness is like criminalizing obesity or depression. It has nothing to do with helping people to get out of trouble or preventing them from collapse. It only creates a feeling of righteous contempt for the most underserved of the general population, dehumanization of homeless people.

Thousands of years of human history are full of examples proving that severity is not a solution, but actually leads to aggravation of problems. When dictatorships impose severe penalties for minor offenses, people lose respect for the law and stop cooperating with law enforcement. This is common sense: if you electroshock a kid for not doing homework, they will not do it better next time; they will run away from you.

Scarlet’s life is hard enough without additional problems, and nothing reflects the strength of her character more than the shyness and kindness in her eyes despite the years of suffering and humiliation. The atmosphere of dehumanization of homeless people in society creates problems even with simple physiological needs. At UN Plaza, at least there is a public utility, but if there is a problem with it, no local business will let homeless people use their restroom. For those having energy and lifeforce to take care of themselves, urinating in public is not an option. Even those who are weaker are scared to be equated with sex offenders by the public act, so sometimes it takes a long, long walk from one business to another to find the right place. No need to explore how much effort it takes to keep basic hygiene.

Today’s society is obsessed with punitive measures, hoping that they will lead to desirable cleanliness of the city, but even common sense will tell you that that is a way to nowhere. Society may be willing to pay money to remove Scarlet or make her invisible, but it will not work. It will not work not just because it is immoral (if you think about it), but because it goes against the laws of nature.

Scarlet is young and not ready to die. In her own words “she needs to be somewhere.” So, maybe instead of spending money on moving her from one district to another it would be more ethical and efficient to find her place to stay and an opportunity to recover.

All researchers write that many homeless people have mental health problems, and my experience of work in the field of Social Services both here and in Israel tells me that two thirds of my clients could work and be accomplished if they were given necessary accommodations.

Scarlet is and will be your neighbor like Doctor A and Reverend B. And she “needs to be somewhere” no matter how many times you move her from district U to district P and back.

Deal with it!