The beggars who took over San Francisco

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 September, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 September, 1999, 12:00am

Tourism boosters like to describe San Francisco as 'everyone's favourite city'. True, it's a lovely place. Visitors from all over the planet head for the sophisticated, stylish City By The Bay to enjoy the atmosphere, shopping and ambience.

It's with anticipation of delight that you stride out of your hotel, a couple of blocks away from fashionable Union Square, to explore the galleries, coffee shops, boutiques and department stores.

Then - six paces from your hotel door - you are confronted with reality. 'Can you spare any money,' demands a gaunt apparition lurking in a doorway. You hurry past. Across the street, another ragged mendicant waits in ambush. Then another. Then more of them, in doorways, slumped in semi-comas against lamp-posts, leaning against shop windows. In a block and a half, six attempted to extract money from me.

They are young, old, lame, sick and healthy. Some of the beggars are pitiful, frail human wrecks. One who accosted me was a man about 40, well-built, strapping, wearing jeans, work boots and carrying a hefty rucksack. 'Can you give me some money?' he demanded truculently as I waited for a traffic light to change. He looked healthy as a lumberjack.

Pleading or menacing, pathetic or potentially dangerous, the street panhandlers of San Francisco quickly wear the charm off the gilded city.

Every time I visit the place, there seem to be more beggars and they are more aggressive, more persistent and more harrowing. City officials seem either helpless or hopeless. Shopkeepers, restaurateurs and hoteliers are either enraged or in despair. They've been protesting for years, appealing for action to get these human wrecks away from their display windows.

But they are only taxpayers, ratepayers, businessmen and workers; it seems in San Francisco they have less clout than bums, drug addicts, alcoholics and the willfully unemployed.

More than a decade ago, I was staying at the snug little Campton Place Hotel on Union Square. The general manager was apoplectic. In the doorway of his charming boutique hotel a crumpled drunk had made his bed. Every night. Another had pitched filthy camp down the road, outside Macy's.

The hotelier was desperate. He had complained to the mayor (Diane Feinstein, now a United States senator) and the chief of police. He had enlisted help from the local tourism association and chambers of commerce. Everyone was helpless in the face of the intransigent hobos, who rattled cups or waved placards at every passer-by.

Last month, I noticed one of these same fellows was still there, which just goes to show how generous and foolish are the visitors to San Francisco.

If you query why nothing is done, you are told, indignantly, by social workers: 'They have their rights.' Great. What about my rights to walk down a footpath and not have to duck and weave to get past some grimy bum? Don't tourists have rights, too? While you get angry with half of them, those who are obviously professional beggars, you can't help but suffer mentally when you look at some of the others. Crippled by cheap booze or drugs or staggering weakly on their last legs from Aids or some other dreadful illness, you ask yourself where are the social services in this richest nation on earth? What this does for the city's image as a desirable tourism destination makes you ponder. How can you go into one of the jolly Irish pubs for a dark ale and a plate of corned beef, when someone seems to be starving to death at the door? To walk around elegant Union Square is to run a gauntlet of human wrecks asking - some demanding - that you give them money. Why should visitors have to put up with this constant rude pestering? Has the city no control over the endless flotsam of human desperation? Does it care? Apparently not much. I shot off messages to the mayor, to all members of the Board of Representative, to the city's public relations office and to its sanitary board. I got acknowledgements that my questions had been received. But I never got any answers.

Well, that's understandable. If I was a politician responsible for this shameful situation, I wouldn't want to talk about it, either.