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04/26/2012 / van berger

San Francisco: “the homeless capital” of America


Coming from a country like South Africa, and more specifically a city like Cape Town, I am used to seeing homeless people everyday. You see them at traffic lights, under bridges and on the side of the road. After a while as a middle class person you seem to just unintentionally take it for granted that you aren’t in their position. So when I came to the US it wasn’t surprising for me to see homeless people, but it was more interesting to see just how many  homeless people there are and compare the situation with South Africa. San Francisco is known across the US as being the “homeless capital of America”, along with Los Angeles. The first time we took a train into the city, I was shocked to see how many people were going about their daily business while many others (mainly older males) were looking in rubbish bins and pushing their ‘mobile homes’ (trolley’s) around. The trolleys were all filled to the brim with a mixture of personal belongings and trash for recycling. A large proportion of the people we saw were talking to themselves or acting in some kind of unusual behaviour. On that day we were only asked by one person for spare change. And when we politely refused, they just said “Have a nice day” and moved on. This was intriguing to me as I think a lot of people in South Africa automatically equate “beggars” to “homeless people”. In the USA it seems to be slightly different as many of the homeless people don’t really stay on the streets to beg, but simply because they don’t have any other place to be (or choose not to be).

Back in the Silicon Valley (where D and I stay), I take the bus quite often. There are such a mix of characters on the bus, some who definitely have some mental health problems and some who just seem to stay on the bus forever. When I asked local people about this they explained that a lot of homeless people take the bus during winter because they just have to pay for a day pass and being on the bus provides warmth and protection for the day. There seems to be no problem with this and many of the bus drivers seem to know and recognize the “locals” on their routes, making friendly conversation with many of them. One bus incident stands out for me since I’ve arrived. D and I were on the bus and minding our own business. The notorious 22 bus was quite empty with an American woman talking loudly on her phone infront of us (not unusual here). A homeless looking man across the bus was half passed out or sleeping- we weren’t sure. As the woman continued with her conversation, the man started to shout and slur “Shut up, just shut up ” to her and then kind of pass out again.  The woman was having none of this, and a full childish argument followed with her saying “No, you shut up” and him replying “No, you shut up” for literally I’m not kidding about 10 minutes! It was only when the bus driver got involved that they stopped. These sorts of incidents happen all the time and I think a lot of it has to do with some seriously mentally-ill people in the Unites States. Or maybe it’s just because I don’t take much public transport in Cape Town, so I’m not as exposed to these kinds of scenarios. When I thought about the homeless situation here and compared it to back home it got me questioning as to why San Francisco has such a big problem and what some of the causes could be. So I did some research…

Obviously it would be impossible to go into all the reasons in a single blog post so I’ll leave that up to the sociologists and their in-depth thesis’s. However here are some interesting reasons I’ve found as to why it is such a problem in this area.

  • San Francisco has a mild climate all year round which means that being on the street all night isn’t as bad as it would be in colder cities elsewhere in the US.
  • The city used to have a programme where homeless individuals were given cash payments, but after 2007 they began to scale back on this system and introduce a “Care not cash plan”.
  • Historically it looks like many mentally-ill homeless people came onto the streets because of the “Deinstitutionalization movement” in the 1950’s. Instead of state mental health systems taking care of mentally-ill patients on a long-term basis, there was a movement towards “community-based treatment”. Many of these patients had no support from families, and were therefore forced onto the street.
  • Through redevelopment, many low-income neighbourhoods were demolished for projects that brought about higher-property taxes. This created a shortage of houses for these working class families, the elderly and the disabled.
  • There are many Veterans (mainly from the Vietnam war) who have not been provided with sufficient mental-health care by the government or job training.
  • Many foster children land up on the streets after they have been released by foster care.
  • San Francisco is no stranger to earthquakes as many people know. These natural disasters (and others) destroy homes and often leave people with nothing.
  • San Francisco is built around a bay with many ports for shipping,etc. However the industrial crises of the 1970’s and 80’s led to the main port collapsing, meaning a lot of people lost their jobs.
  • Being the hub of the IT industry, the Silicon Valley and San Francisco has driven up house-prices enormously making it an extremely expensive place to rent or buy. Even our one-bedroom apartment outside of the city is very expensive in comparison to other parts of the country. This has caused many people to leave the city and head to cheaper areas like Oakland (across the bay) or be stuck in the city without low-cost housing.

Left: An area in SF named ‘Homeless Island” Source: Chronicle. Pic by Brant Ward. Right: Street scene in SF. Source:  Zimbio. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images North America

Teresa Gowan is the author of Hobos, Hustlers and Backsliders- homeless in San Francisco, a really interesting book I would recommend reading (there’s a preview online if you’re interested in the topic). She’s an assistant sociology professor at the University of Minnesota and spent a long time studying and interviewing many of the city’s homeless community. Throughout her studies she says that she met a variety of different ‘types’ of homeless people, and can roughly divide them into “sin vs system”. There are those that accept that this is their fate because of their involvement in drug abuse, etc, while there are others that are simply mentally-ill, unable to gain unemployment or disabled (screwed by the system).

One of her informants said this about the city:

Some of the reasons she was given as to why the subjects said they prefer to live in the city:

  • They can collect appliances and old clothes from dumpsters and are able to sell them on busy street-corners (called it dumpster diving). They also take large amounts of recycling goods to centres where they get a small amount of money. (sure this is standard across big cities).
  • They don’t feel they need to hide as much, seeing there is such a large community of them.
  • The city is seen as a refuge for nonconformists, artists, activists and gay people. Therefore it generally appears more ‘liberal’ than other US cities and people flock here for those reasons.
  • The streets in the centre of the city are so dense and diverse that they feel safer in San Francisco.

According to Gowan, there are many different reactions to homeless people which she encountered during her studies. Many social workers were said to treat the individuals like “chaotic addicts”, while doctors saw them as “depressives” and police treated them as a nuisance and interference to the lifestyle of residents of the city. This obviously brings up questions about the attitude of Americans to the homeless problem. There are mixed reactions it seems. Through my research online I came across the Coalition on Homelessness which is a website dedicated to informing citizens about various protests around homeless people in San Francisco. The main frustration the group seems to have is that city laws aren’t helping. A Californian prohibition was passed in 2010 against people sitting and lying down on public sidewalks from 7am to 11pm. Failure to follow this can result in a $1000 fine, 6 months in jail or both. Some small headway has been made in the form of getting government to change budget priorities which have kept some of the shelters and emergency resource centres open. The numbers of people on the street have still only decreased slightly over the years.


There are quite a large number of homeless shelters around the city and bay area, but for some reason a lot of people choose not to use them. In this article I found out some of the reasons why. Unlike South Africa, many homeless people here have jobs and the shelter check-in and check-out times are very rigid, meaning they can’t have access during the times they need. Many of the shelters seem to not cater for disabled people which is a huge obstacle to many of the Veterans in the city. Some of the shelters are seen as unsafe, and often a place for rapists to target vulnerable homeless women. Apparently police don’t often take complaints from homeless people as seriously as they should which means these crimes continue. According to the article many of these shelters are filled with parasites because of the bedding that is shared amongst homeless people. At the same time there are a lot of ill people around the shelters, which means that homeless people with lower immune systems can easily pick up diseases. Many families get separated from each other once they check-in at shelters, and most of them are separated into male and female shelters. Most of the time male shelters won’t accept children and therefore single fathers don’t have any choice, but to sleep on the street.

Although there are support groups like Coalition on Homelessness there are also many negative reactions where blame is placed on the homeless people for getting themselves into their circumstances. In an article on Inside Scoop SF, a journalist poses the question about whether residents would be happy paying an extra 1% tax at restaurants to fund homeless people . This idea has apparently worked in other US cities like Miami, Florida. I was really interested to see the mix of comments that followed the article (mainly negative):

Another very interesting article I read is called  People to Avoid, San Francisco where readers have provided ‘advice’ on who to talk to and who to avoid in San Francisco. It obviously is seen as a bit of a scarier place compared to the rest of America with headings like ‘Watch out for Obnoxious Vagrants on Public Trans’ and comments like these about the homeless community:

It seems that homelessness is a global problem, but while our apartheid history is a large influencing factor in South Africa, there seem to be quite different reasons for so many people living on the streets out here. San Francisco is not an extremely dangerous place from what I’ve seen, but there are definitely a large amount of homeless people who have mental-health issues. I wonder if there are any solutions that South Africa has come across that could work here, or visa versa?



Leave a Comment
  1. Andrea Barras / Apr 27 2012 00:20

    So interesting Van, nice post – reminds me of that movie The Soloist!

  2. van berger / Apr 27 2012 08:51

    Thanks Andrea. I just watched the trailer for the movie and must def see it!

  3. Mandy / Jul 2 2013 01:10

    Very interesting read. Thank you. I am here from the U.K where we have a national health service. Are our mentally ill people with no one to care for them institutionalised ? I suppose so….in that respect this is land of the brave and free. I have been troubled by the amount of homeless people on the streets of San Fran …..something is very wrong with our society…..and perhaps these streets are just exposing what is otherwise hidden from us.

  4. sarahduff / Aug 16 2014 11:22

    This was such an interesting read, thanks Van! We’ve been in San Fran for a week and have been wondering endlessly about all the homeless people and why there are so many here. We spent six weeks in New York and have now been to loads of cities in the US and San Fran has the most homeless people by far. I would even say that there are more here than in Cape Town, which is saying a lot.

    • van berger / Aug 18 2014 01:10

      Thanks Sarah. I found it fascinating when we lived there. Honestly it was so much more in your face than in South Africa even though the level of homelessness is different to ours. Have you noticed how many of them are mentally unstable too? I’ve written a few other articles here about SF so take a look if you’re interested. Hope you’re enjoying your stay- I’m so jealous and following your pics with envy! 🙂 brings back good memories!

  5. James bussard / Jan 11 2015 14:02

    What we do like me I was born disable I’m 71 now what would a home do for me look at 4 walls I did that long time by been on the st we can talk to each other I pay rent I would have nothing left

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