Dead on the streets of San Francisco

Chris Block March 24, 2021

In a recent article, Heather Knight of The San Francisco Chronicle recounted the tragic story of a man who lay dead on the streets of San Francisco for almost twelve hours before he was discovered. The article posed the question: what happened to supposedly compassionate San Francisco?  

I am not going to justify why this human was left on the streets, unmoving and unresponsive for hours. I will tell you this: As someone who spends a lot of time walking around the streets of San Francisco and engaging with our unhoused neighbors, it’s actually pretty easy to tell if someone is sleeping or passed out or unconscious. 

But you won’t notice these distinctions if you only see a lumpy bundle of clothes instead of a real person. You need to look at people experiencing homelessness and really see them so that you will know when they truly need help.

The answer to Heather’s question—what has happened to the compassion of many San Franciscans—is that we have averted our eyes for too damn long. I will not validate, but I can certainly understand why people, as a self-preservation mechanism, decide to “not see” their homeless brothers and sisters. Because for most San Franciscans, while the homelessness situation is unacceptable, we don’t know what to do to help the unhoused people they encounter on the street or what steps they can take to end the suffering caused by homelessness. So, we do nothing. This will not change until people are convinced that San Francisco is meeting the challenge and because there are many fewer people living on the streets. 

“People have reconciled their hopelessness with the reality of widespread human suffering by looking away and, over time, seeing homeless people as “bundles” rather than humans.”
– Chris Block  

But in asking questions, we can bring humanity back to the issue and see how we are all connected. People often ask me what the biggest obstacle is to ending homelessness in San Francisco and making sure that people don’t die on the streets.

Is it:

  1. A lack of resources?
  2. Because we don’t know there is a problem?
  3. Because we don’t know where homeless people are and they don’t want housing anyway?
  4. Because we don’t care?

The answer is ‘5’: None of the above.

It is my experience that we do care. It is also my experience that we have become immune to what we see on the streets, which leads to a young, male, San Francisco resident lying dead for 12 hours on the median before anyone called for help. People have reconciled their hopelessness with the reality of widespread human suffering by looking away and, over time, seeing homeless people as “bundles” rather than humans.   

The cure to hopelessness is knowing that we can solve the problem. 

I am leaving Tipping Point this week to become the Director of Housing Placements for San Francisco. I leave the greatest job I have ever had precisely because I am not hopeless but actually filled with hope that we can begin to house 200 homeless people a month for the rest of this year and beyond.  

But I can’t do it alone. It will take  each one of us to create a San Francisco that answers Heather’s question, “What happened to supposedly compassionate San Francisco?,” by saying that that compassion never left, it just got tired, and in 2021 we started to move hundreds more people into homes and got it back.