Ascending the Civic Center / UN Plaza BART escalator, I thought I knew what to expect. As I arose, it was as if an eyedropper picked me up out of my bubble and plopped me into what I perceived to be an epicenter of human misery. People walking like zombies, their eyes seemingly lifeless and arms motionless as they shuffled in their raggedy once-clothes, slurring, stuttering, or yelling about something or another, while smelling like they had not showered in months. Homeless people laying on the sidewalk, their legs curled into their bodies, trying to keep warm and take up as little space as possible. Other homeless people sitting in their tents and others just standing around. Drug dealers looking sideways at one another, standing in place, and observing the tourists walking past them. Drug addicts hunched over while lighting their pipes full of crack, right next to the drug addicts hunched over in slumber. The smell of human feces all around us, in piles, logs, chunks, smeared, or invisible but with a smell that never dissipated.
While the rest of my cohort and I walked past what I deemed to be a crisis, I mentally reverted to the “battle mode” I had long developed over my 13 years living in the Bay Area: don’t look at anyone, watch where you’re stepping, don’t speak unless absolutely necessary, don’t look too bourgie, don’t look too much like a tourist, keep an eye on your pockets, discreetly pat them every so often to make sure everything’s still there. Perceive the people and the world around you without making it known you are perceiving them. The people around you aren’t friends, they’re crises in the making, problems waiting to happen. These were “lessons” I have been taught my whole life, mainly from my parents but also observing how other people act in similar situations and emulating it. The walk from BART to the nonprofit we would be staying at for the week only confirmed to myself that I knew the Tenderloin before I had even stepped foot in it. It only confirmed to me that this is a crisis and anyone who tries to spin it into something positive is naïve or a leftist propagandist. No one else could manage to see the beauty where it does not exist.
Why was I even in the Tenderloin? Some other Berkeley students and I spent Spring Break in the Tenderloin as part of Alternative Breaks, a UC Berkeley Public Service Center-led one-week immersion in economically distressed areas of California as well as Puerto Rico. Of the various trips available I chose the Tenderloin because I wanted to use the trip to understand how homelessness occurs and what policies we can push for to eliminate it. I was not interested in thinking about the Tenderloin in any terms other than economic. I was not interested in studying the art or the culture. I was there on a mission—to solve homelessness. I knew this was a lofty goal going in, but I believed Alternative Breaks would help me get closer to my answer. In my head, homelessness was the result of many different forces converging on individuals: a chronic housing shortage, drugs, mental health, insufficient economic opportunities. But I was hoping to talk to homeless people in the Tenderloin to find a silver bullet that connected all homeless people, a story that encompassed them all, some insight no one else has picked up on before. Needless to say, I didn’t find it. But what I did realize was that my approach was wrong from the start.
Over the course of the week, we met with many members of the community, starting with residents living at the nonprofit we stayed at, Faithful Fools. Every day, we met and interacted with members from different walks of life: museum curators, farmers market vendors, artists, alley painters, Urban Alchemy, churchgoers, and yes, the unhoused. We visited art galleries, museums, churches, soup kitchens, and even an alley called Vets Alley, where homeless veterans painted their stories and journeys from war abroad to homelessness at home. When I first signed up for Alt Breaks, I envisioned we would be “helping the homeless” in the ways through which I had always understood help was given: cooking and serving food, organizing clothes drives, organizing canned goods drives, and distributing useful materials. If we weren’t going to do that, what was the point? Are we even helping them at all? It turned out the answer was no.
Our week was focused on art. At first I thought, Typical liberal BS. Always seeking the abstract like art, music, and beauty when we need to be directly helping people. Who cares about art? The homeless come first. But over the course of the week, I began to understand why our Break Leaders chose to focus on art and not charity. Because to really uplift a community, we must understand their story, from start to finish, in its entirety. Serving people food and organizing drives is needed, but it doesn’t last and it’s disempowering. The common theme I heard during the week is that people don’t want to be helped. They want someone to fight alongside them. Scores of do-gooders have come into the Tenderloin over the years and offered their time and labor for charity, which is hierarchical and is given by someone with more to someone with less, often with the dynamic of “I am here on this side of the lunch counter giving you this, so you on the other side should be thankful and see me as a good person.”
Art is so important because it represents the creativity that cannot be expressed in any other way, the creativity that is repressed and lays dormant for 99% of the day, but comes out every so often and brightens the lives of those who make it and those who see it. It can be a way for the community to show its beauty to the world, even when the world only focuses on its ugliness. Art is everywhere in the Tenderloin: in alleys, on the sides of buildings, in art galleries, in parks, and on trash cans. Art is a way to live your true self and fulfill your fullest potential. Shouldn’t that be our goal for everyone?
Aside from the bonding time with other Alt Break members, the most memorable portion of the week was the “street retreat,” in which we walked in pairs around the Tenderloin, taking in the scenery that surrounded us. It felt like I was betraying every single one of my survival instincts. The streets I would normally take one glance at and avoid, I walked right through them. The rows of tents I would never pass by, I passed by them. The deposits of people with whom I would never speak, I said hello and smiled. And you know what? They said hello and smiled back. Not all, but many. Not once did I fear for my safety. Granted, I am a young man who was walking with another young man during the day. Walking as a woman alone, especially at night, is a different ballgame.
That being said, when I stopped trying to find the ugliness, I saw life. In the unhoused, I saw a group of people who created a community, helping one another, chatting with one another, laughing with one another like all people do. In the buildings, I saw immigrant-owned restaurants offering cuisines from Mexican to Sudanese. In the parks, I saw families gathered and children laughing and playing. In the skies, I saw buildings with beautifully painted murals. In other words, the Tenderloin is a neighborhood. It is where children grow up and where elders grow old. It is where people’s small business American Dreams come true. It is where immigrants find a home in San Francisco, the third most expensive large city in America. Homelessness does not define a neighborhood, its people do. And believe it or not, the people of the Tenderloin were some of the nicest people I have ever met, and that includes the unhoused. Other pairs in our cohort came back and talked about positive interactions with unhoused people, which sometimes was a long and fascinating conversation, and other times was a brief but bright smile and wave.
To be sure, the street retreat was not Candyland. Women were constantly catcalled. People offered to sell us drugs. The conditions that the unhoused had to live in were beyond grim. However, it showed me the inner strength of the unhoused. In my observation, we tend to look at unhoused people as weak, helpless victims who are powerless to fight back. To be sure, they lack power, but that doesn’t mean they lack strength. To endure unimaginable discomfort and terrible conditions—living in the elements, hungry, without sufficient bathrooms or showers nearby, people constantly trying to steal your belongings, and being constantly moved by police or Urban Alchemy—but still be able to smile and see the positive in the world is a strength I could not imagine having. The unhoused are already strong. They just need power. That was my biggest takeaway from the week. They don’t need someone to give them things. They don’t need someone to do things for them. They need the tools and the power to be who they have always dreamed of being.
Of course, unhoused people need far more resources than the government or nonprofits are providing them with: housing, food, clothes, documents, benefits, reconnection with their families, a job, education, drug addiction services, mental health treatments, and healthcare. However, so long as the distribution of American economic opportunities remains unchanged, homelessness will continue to worsen in San Francisco.
In my view, the Tenderloin and small town America are suffering from two sides of the same coin, the new information economy. Economic opportunities in the most lucrative sectors of the world economy—finance, tech, business—are concentrated in just a handful of American urban areas: New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Houston, Boston, etc. Young highly educated workers congregate in these cities, where they will find the high paying jobs of tomorrow. The residents in the cities they are moving to, as well as the residents of the towns they leave behind suffer from soaring cost of living for the former and brain drain for the latter. These “brain gain” cities have an oligopoly on highly educated young talent, which allows them to “improve” their cities by attracting new highly productive workers instead of developing the untapped talent that already exists, but is masked beneath underinvestment. What city wouldn’t want to brag about having the headquarters for Uber? And for the highly educated young people moving to these cities, why wouldn’t they? Aside from price, they get to live in beautiful cities with great paying jobs, lots of people like them, clout, and a good nightlife. But this inequality in economic opportunities across the United States—and the world—has a cost, two of which are two different housing crises. The first is in San Francisco, where housing prices are astronomical, pushing middle and low income residents to the Tenderloin—the last remaining somewhat affordable neighborhood in the city—or out of the city altogether. The second crisis is in small town America, where often thousands of vacant and abandoned houses are demolished to raise neighboring property values.
This same effect is occurring internationally. The United States knows it doesn’t need to invest in its people, but instead can import top talent from developing countries around the world, who will accept the much higher cost of living than their home countries in order to access the economic opportunities only found in a handful of places worldwide. This increases the cost of living where they go and hurts the places they leave behind due to brain drain.
The housing crisis in San Francisco, which has given the Tenderloin many of its economic problems, will only worsen because—along with decades-long irresponsibility to not build housing and actively oppose housing construction—the Bay Area is too successful. There are too many high-end paying jobs here, especially combined with the poor public education system in the Bay Area. Economic opportunities must be decentralized from big cities to currently smaller cities in all fifty states, and across the world. The current structure of economic opportunity has brought many places such as San Francisco past their breaking point, and hampers growth, poverty-reduction, and socioeconomic mobility long-term.
Although I did not manage to discover the cure to homelessness as I originally hoped, the Tenderloin and Alternative Breaks taught me something even greater. If we are to solve homelessness in the Tenderloin, and across America, we must cast aside simplistic media depictions of the unhoused and meet them where they are. We must work alongside them to rectify the daily injustices that shape their lives, not act for them. We must appreciate who they are, their journeys, their dreams, and their inextinguishable inner fire. We must analyze the larger forces shaping people’s lives, rather than analyze people’s actions in a vacuum. I will carry these lessons with me forever.
Featured Image: USA Today