Editor’s Notes

Pub date July 22, 2008
WriterTim Redmond

› tredmond@sfbg.com

A couple of years before term limits ended her career as a supervisor, the late, great Sue Bierman took out the homeless-bashers one day with a legendary burst of honesty and logic.

It was the late 1990s, when the Board of Supervisors was made up almost entirely of the handpicked mistresses (his word, not mine) of then-Mayor Willie Brown. Substantive debate was rare.

This particular day, the item before the supervisors was a plan to crack down on alcohol consumption in Golden Gate Park. The wealthier and more uptight denizens of the surrounding neighborhoods were all atwitter about homeless people drinking, and the board was prepared to direct the police chief to round up the miscreants and send them to jail.

Then Bierman weighed in. Excuse me, she said, but the park is where these people live; it’s their home. "And when I’m in my home in the evening, I often have a gin and tonic," she said. "Why do we want to tell homeless people that they’re any less than I am?"

Yeah, some people laughed, but she was dead serious. And she was right.

I thought of Bierman when I read the latest screed by C.W. Nevius, the Chron‘s suburbanite columnist, about a civil grand jury report pointing out what astute housing activists have known for some time now — that many of the panhandlers on the street aren’t homeless people.

Walk through the Tenderloin and actually talk to the people hanging out on the street, and you’ll learn that many live in the supportive housing or low-cost units that the city and nonprofit housing agencies have built or renovated in the past few years. Visit one of their tiny, single-room apartments and you’ll realize why they spend a lot of time on the street; nobody wants to be cooped up in a tiny space all day.

But to understand why panhandling — the horrible evil that has Nevius so up in arms all the time — still goes on, you need to understand something else, a point he left out of his columns.

When Gavin Newsom ran for mayor on a program called "Care, Not Cash," he had a plan: give people a place to live — but in exchange, cut their welfare checks to almost nothing. The CNC recipients get a roof over their heads, which is wonderful, but they then have to survive on about $50 a month plus food stamps.

It’s not enough. So they panhandle.

I’m sorry, but I’m with Sue Bierman. When I come home at night, I immediately pop a cold Bud Light. If I lived in an SRO, I’d do the same thing. And if I couldn’t work or couldn’t find work, and my food stamps wouldn’t pay for beer, I’d panhandle for a six-pack. Better believe it.

Not every person who drinks needs treatment, and not every drug user is an addict. Some are, and the city needs to do what it fails to do now, and provide treatment on demand. But some people who line the streets and ask for spare change are just like the rest of us — except that thanks to Newsom’s program, they’re broke all the time.

Want to stop panhandling? It’s easy and fairly cheap. Raise General Assistance to a level that supports a decent, humane life (and yeah, that might include a beer now and then.) Otherwise, quit whining. Because panhandling is going to be a fact of life.