(I have sent this across to the editor ... maybe it will show up in print, eh)
I picked up plenty of new ideas at the
recently concluded annual meeting of the American Association of
Geographers, which was held in San Francisco. In addition to the
scholarly sessions that served abundant intellectual fodder, the city
streets also made me think, yet again, about one particular issue—the
Hilton at Union Square was the main venue. Every time I walked a mere
block from the hotel, away from the touristy trolley car station, it was
depressing to see homeless men and women of all ages. It was a bizarre
and simultaneous juxtaposition of affluence and material deprivation.
are that there are nearly 7,000 homeless people in San Francisco. No
amount of intellectual inquiry about homelessness can help me
emotionally understand how the mightiest country, which can wage wars on
far corners of the earth, can also have seven thousand people homeless
in one of the iconic cities of the modern world.
in San Francisco is so acute and has been so for a while that the Board
of Supervisors has been mulling over declaring a state of emergency,
which will help bypass some of the regulations and requirements that
otherwise will delay implementing even temporary measures to address the
the City of Palo Alto, which is in the heart of the fabled Silicon
Valley, is considering building new housing and offering them at
subsidized rates to families that earn less than 250,000 dollars a year.
Yes, even those earning a quarter of a million dollars are finding it
difficult to get a place of their own in a part of the world where
unimaginable riches are made overnight. If shelter is not affordable for
the rich middle class in the Golden State, then that contrast alone
will make one sympathize with San Francisco’s homeless.
in Oregon, especially in the Eugene-Springfield region, we can relate
to the homelessness emergency in San Francisco. The homeless, whose
number according to reports exceeds a thousand on any given day, have
become a constant fixture in the city and by the river too. The part of
the bike path alongside the Willamette that I always walk often has
telltale signs of homeless people having used that for a few hours or
even a few days.
first exposure to homelessness in the US was even before I got here.
Growing up in India, when comparing and contrasting the two political
economic systems that the Soviet Union and America represented, my
friends and I had a tough time imagining how a rich country could have
poor people sleeping on city sidewalks, like how the urban poor in India
spent their nights. During my first year in graduate school in Los
Angeles, it was even more of an up-close-and-personal
exposure—intellectually and on the streets—to homelessness as a public
it is San Francisco or here in the Eugene/Springfield area, the
homeless are surrounded by extravagant symbols of affluence. For
instance, even here, a couple of blocks away from downtown Eugene is the
two hundred million dollar basketball arena that hosts entertainment
events. Obviously, it is not that we do not have the money to spend on
the humanitarian crisis. Apparently we do not consider spending on
easing the human suffering to be a priority, in contrast to our
eagerness to amuse ourselves.
local governments, to their credit, have for a while clearly and loudly
spoken about urban homelessness. A few cities consider homelessness to
be a crisis enough to warrant a “state of
declaration.” But, when it is a public policy issue not merely in one
or two cities, and not merely in one or two states, it is clear that
local governments cannot solve this problem on their own. There are
deeper structural issues that have to be addressed by state governments
in association with the federal government too.
is unfortunate that the election season underway has not addressed real
and urgent issues like urban homelessness. In a democracy, it is
through politics that we establishing priorities on issues deserving our
collection action. But, the campaigns and debates have rarely been
about such compelling issues. Instead, we have been verbally assaulted
with inanities like the size of a man’s fingers as evidence of
hyper-masculinity and virility.
after almost four decades since those teenage years halfway around the
world, I continue to be puzzled that a rich country has so many homeless
people and, more importantly, its citizens even seem to be ok with it. I
suppose the more things change, the more they do stay the same!