Apparently you can’t be empathetic, or help the homeless, without a GoPro

Today in bad ideas: Strapping video cameras to homeless

people to capture “extreme living”

Today in bad ideas: Strapping video cameras to homeless people to capture "extreme living"

GoPro cameras are branded as recording devices for extreme sports, but a San Francisco-based entrepreneur had a different idea of what to do with the camera: Strap it to a homeless man and capture “extreme living.”

The project is called Homeless GoPro, and it involves learning the first-person perspective of homeless people on the streets of San Francisco. The website explains:

“With a donated HERO3+ Silver Edition from GoPro and a small team of committed volunteers in San Francisco, Homeless GoPro explores how a camera normally associated with extreme sports and other ’hardcore’ activities can showcase courage, challenge, and humanity of a different sort - extreme living.”

The intentions of the founder, Kevin Adler, seem altruistic. His uncle was homeless for 30 years, and after visiting his gravesite he decided to start the organization and help others who are homeless.

The first volunteer to film his life is a man named Adam, who has been homeless for 30 years, six of those in San Francisco. There are several edited videos of him on the organization’s site.

In one of the videos, titled “Needs,” Adam says, “I notice every day that people are losing their compassion and empathy — not just for homeless people — but for society in general. I feel like technology has changed so much — where people are emailing and don’t talk face to face anymore.”

Without knowing it Adam has critiqued the the entire project, which is attempting to use technology (a GoPro) to garner empathy and compassion. It is a sad reminder that humanity can ignore the homeless population in person on a day-to-day basis, and needs a video to build empathy. Viewers may feel a twinge of guilt as they sit removed from the situation, watching a screen.

According to San Francisco’s Department of Human Services‘ biennial count there were 6,436 homeless people living in San Francisco (county and city). “Of the 6,436 homeless counted,” a press release stated, “more than half (3,401) were on the streets without shelter, the remaining 3,035 were residing in shelters, transitional housing, resource centers, residential treatment, jail or hospitals.” The homeless population is subject to hunger, illness, violence, extreme weather conditions, fear and other physical and emotional ailments.

Empathy — and the experience of “walking a mile in somebody’s shoes” — are important elements of social change, and these documentary-style videos do give Adam a medium and platform to be a voice for the homeless population. (One hopes that the organization also helped Adam in other ways — shelter, food, a place to stay on his birthday — and isn’t just using him as a human tool in its project.) But something about the project still seems off.

It is in part because of the product placement. GoPro donated a $300 camera for the cause, which sounds great until you remember that it is a billion-dollar company owned by billionaire Nick Woodman. If GoPro wants to do something to help the Bay Area homeless population there are better ways to go about it than donate a camera.

As ValleyWag‘s Sam Biddle put it, “Stop thinking we can innovate our way out of one of civilization’s oldest ailments. Poverty, homelessness, and inequality are bigger than any app …”

Depriving homeless people of their last shelter in life is Silicon Valley at its worst.

The 1% Wants to Ban Sleeping in Cars

Because It Hurts Their ‘Quality of Life’

Photo Credit: meunierd/

Across the United States, many local governments are responding to skyrocketing levels of inequality and the now decades-long crisis of homelessness among the very poor … by passing laws making it a crime to sleep in a parked car.

This happened most recently in Palo Alto, in California’s Silicon Valley, where new billionaires are seemingly minted every month – and where 92% of homeless people lack shelter of any kind. Dozens of cities have passed similar anti-homeless laws. The largest of them is Los Angeles, the longtime unofficial “homeless capital of America”, where lawyers are currently defending a similar vehicle-sleeping law before a skeptical federal appellate court. Laws against sleeping on sidewalks or in cars are called “quality of life” laws. But they certainly don’t protect the quality of life of the poor.

To be sure, people living in cars cannot be the best neighbors. Some people are able to acquire old and ugly – but still functioning – recreational vehicles with bathrooms; others do the best they can. These same cities have resisted efforts to provide more public toilet facilities, often on the grounds that this will make their city a “magnet” for homeless people from other cities. As a result, anti-homeless ordinances often spread to adjacent cities, leaving entire regions without public facilities of any kind.

Their hope, of course, is that homeless people will go elsewhere, despite the fact that the great majority of homeless people are trying to survive in the same communities in which they were last housed – and where they still maintain connections. Americans sleeping in their own cars literally have nowhere to go.

Indeed, nearly all homelessness in the US begins with a loss of income and an eviction for nonpayment of rent – a rent set entirely by market forces. The waiting lists are years long for the tiny fraction of housing with government subsidies. And rents have risen dramatically in the past two years, in part because long-time tenants must now compete with the millions of former homeowners who lost their homes in the Great Recession.

The paths from eviction to homelessness follow familiar patterns. For the completely destitute without family or friends able to help, that path leads more or less directly to the streets. For those slightly better off, unemployment and the exhaustion of meager savings – along with the good graces of family and friends – eventually leaves people with only two alternatives: a shelter cot or their old automobile.

However, in places like Los Angeles, the shelters are pretty much always full. Between 2011 and 2013, the number of unsheltered homeless people increased by 67%. In Palo Alto last year, there were 12 shelter beds for 157 homeless individuals. Homeless people in these cities do have choices: they can choose to sleep in a doorway, on a sidewalk, in a park, under a bridge or overpass, or – if they are relatively lucky – in a car. But these cities have ordinances that make all of those choices a criminal offense. The car is the best of bad options, now common enough that local bureaucrats have devised a new, if oxymoronic, term – the “vehicularly housed”.

People sleeping in cars try to find legal, nighttime parking places, where they will be less apparent and arouse the least hostility. But cities like Palo Alto and Los Angeles often forbid parking between 2am and 5am in commercial areas, where police write expensive tickets and arrest and impound the vehicles of repeat offenders. That leaves residential areas, where overnight street parking cannot, as a practical matter, be prohibited.

One finds the “vehicularly housed” in virtually every neighborhood, including my own. But the animus that drives anti-homeless laws seems to be greatest in the wealthiest cities, like Palo Alto, which has probably spawned more per-capita fortunes than any city on Earth, and in the more recently gentrified areas like Los Angeles’ Venice. These places are ruled by majorities of “liberals” who decry, with increasing fervor, the rapid rise in economic inequality. Nationally, 90% of Democrats (and 45% of Republicans) believe the government should act to reduce the rich-poor gap.

It is easy to be opposed to inequality in the abstract. So why are Los Angeles and Palo Alto spending virtually none of their budgets on efforts to provide housing for the very poor and homeless? When the most obvious evidence of inequality parks on their street, it appears, even liberals would rather just call the police. The word from the car: if you’re not going to do anything to help, please don’t make things worse.

United States Is Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading to Poor, UN Report Charges

The UN Human Rights Committee says the U.S. should stop criminalizing homeless people for being homeless.

Photo Credit: CBS New York; Screenshot /

Jerome Murdough, 56, a mentally ill homeless veteran, was just trying to stay alive during a New York City cold snap when he thought he found his spot: a stairwell leading to a roof in a Harlem public housing project. But that desperate act set in motion a nightmare ride through New York’s criminal justice system that would end with Murdough dying of heat stroke in a Riker’s Island jail cell. New York officials now say the system failed Murdough every which way.

When he was discovered, he should have been offered shelter. When he was arraigned, he should not have been slapped with $2,500 bail. When, unable to make bail, he ended up in jail, Murdough, because he was on medication for a mental condition, should have been monitored every 15 minutes, not left unwatched for at least four hours. It was during that untended time that Murdough, as an official told the Associated Press, “basically baked to death.”

Now, as New York officials discuss the “tragedy” of last month and scapegoat one Riker’s Island guard for Murdough’s death — suspending him for 20 days — the United Nations has taken notice. Murdough is just the latest statistic in a series of needless deaths of homeless people while under arrest for “crimes” related to being unhoused, such as loitering or trespassing.

The U.N. Human Rights Committee in Geneva on Thursday condemned the United States for criminalizing homelessness, calling it “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” that violates international human rights treaty obligations. It also called upon the U.S. government to take corrective action, following a two-day review of U.S. government compliance with a human rights treaty ratified in 1992.

“I’m just simply baffled by the idea that people can be without shelter in a country, and then be treated as criminals for being without shelter,” said Sir Nigel Rodley, chairman of the committee in closing statements on the U.S. review. “The idea of criminalizing people who don’t have shelter is something that I think many of my colleagues might find as difficult as I do to even begin to comprehend.”

The Committee called on the U.S. to abolish criminalization of homelessness laws and policies at state and local levels, intensify efforts to find solutions for homeless people in accordance with human rights standards and offer incentives for decriminalization, including giving local authorities funding for implementing alternatives and withholding funding for criminalizing the homeless.

Those recommendations run counter to the current trends in the nation. Laws targeting the homeless—loitering laws that ban sleeping or sitting too long in one public spot, or camping in parks overnight—have become increasingly common in communities throughout the country as homelessness has skyrocketed.

The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP), a D.C.-based advocacy organization which monitors laws that criminalize homeless people and litigates on behalf of poor people regularly conducts reviews of cities criminalizing homelessness and finds more and more laws banning such activities as sitting or lying in public places with each new survey.

“We welcome the Committee’s Concluding Observations and call on our government to take swift action to solve homelessness with homes, not jails and prisons,” said Maria Foscarinis, the NLCHP executive director, in a statement. The NLCHP had submitted a report to the U.N. Committee for review.

Paul Boden, executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, an umbrella organization of advocacy groups in the Western U.S. that is hoping states will sign onto a Bill of Rights for homeless people, said that more and more homeless people are being arrested, prosecuted and killed for actions relating to their poverty.

“The U.S. seems to talk a much bigger rhetoric than it practices,” he said. “At the U.N. level, we have a horrible growing record of supporting repressive regimes, and as we bring our neo-liberal policies to America, we’re doing the same thing here.”

On March 16, a homeless man in Albuquerquewas shot and killed by police who were attempting to arrest him for illegal camping. James Boyd, 38 years old with a history of mental illness, was shot dead by Albuquerque police while his back was turned after a three-hour stand-off. Boyd, armed with a small knife, appeared to be surrendering when he was gunned down. The incident was caught on one of the officer’s helmet-cams and has been posted on YouTube by at least half a dozen news outlets.

Albuquerque police officials had concluded that the shooting was justified, but the FBI has since announced it is launching an investigation into the incident and said it is already probing 23 officer-involved shootings in Albuquerque since 2010. On Sunday, hundreds of people marched through Albuquerque to protest the number of police shootings in the city, a day-long event that ended when police fired tear gas into the crowd.

Evelyn Nieves is a senior contributing writer and editor at AlterNet, living in San Francisco. She has been a reporter for both the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Wealthy San Francisco is where elderly homeless women sit at bus stops all day waiting for shelter beds.


In the Nation’s Boomtown, Homeless People

are More Visible and Invisible Than Ever

The sanctuary at Saint Boniface Church looks like a Red Cross center after an earthquake. People are sleeping two to a pew, spread out on blankets on the ceramic floor in the back of the church, or slumped, chins on their chests, on chairs by the old confessionals.

It’s noon, but that’s like midnight in the upside-down world of the people who wait awake all night in alleys, under bridges, in doorways and, more and more, on the sidewalks, for somewhere they can sleep in peace. At 6am, when Saint Boniface opens its massive oak doors, a few dozen people are already waiting to get inside. They keep straggling in all morning, claiming their spot on hard benches designed to keep people awake. Some take a break late morning and get on the block-long lunch line across the street at the St. Anthony Foundation, which feeds 2,600 people a day. Others sleep the sleep of the dead until 3pm, when everyone has to leave to survive another day and night on the streets.

Yes, this is San Francisco, booming techtropolis of new brew pubs, fusion cuisines and $2,000-a-month studio apartments. It’s also a city where elderly homeless women sit at bus stops all day waiting for shelter beds; where an encampment of 10 homeless men and women kicked out of a patch of dirt next to an overpass now live under that overpass; and where pup tents are popping up on leafy, tree-lined streets.

The city has been getting lots of attention since the Brookings Institution announced last month that San Francisco is the nation’s capital of growing income inequality, with more haves next to more have-nots than anywhere else in the country, even New York. The culture war in neighborhoods like the Mission District, the heart of the heart of the high-tech bubble, has gotten fierce. Resentment over the big white buses that pick up and drop off workers from Apple, Google, Facebook and other Silicon Valley companies to the Mission, is so pervasive, it’s almost a cliche. Reporters hoping to document the divide keep dropping by, from all over. The other day, a Japanese news crew and a French freelance videographer jostled for position at a busy corner on Mission Street. Both wanted to film workers getting off a Google bus and an elderly couple peddling Mexican pastries on the corner at the same time. Haves, have-nots, bingo.

Lost in all the anguished discussions over the artists, working-class families and senior citizens getting forced out by landlords raising rents or startup millionaires buying buildings and evicting tenants is this glaring reality: thousands of people are living on the streets of San Francisco, the most in a decade.

Officially, the most current numbers of homeless people in San Francisco are between 6,436 and 7,350. (The city did two homeless counts, one of homeless adults, for the first figure, and a separate one, of homeless youth, which counted 914 teens and young adults on their own. City officials say some in the first count may have been counted in the second.) About half of the homeless people counted were in shelters, hospitals and jails.

Advocates for the homeless say the numbers may be much higher than the official count, since so many homeless people find temporary quarters, on friends’ couches, in cheap hotels for a night or week, or doubled up with relatives. No matter the numbers, to anyone who has lived in the city for even five years, it is obvious that there are more people walking the streets carrying all they own than there used to be. People who are homeless say so, too. In talks with about a dozen people living in an encampment under a freeway ramp in the Mission, everyone said they are running into more people at the recycling center, sleeping in spots they thought no one else knew about and vying for the same odd jobs—like sweeping a gas station—for food money.

“It’s like more competition for everything,”  a 43-year-old man who said his name was Jose—no last name, please—complained the other day. He was sweeping up trash by his camp, as he said he had promised a Department of Public Works employee.

Of course, the city is not alone. New York and Los Angeles have an exploding homeless population, and other large cities experiencing housing booms are in the same boat. But homelessness has been San Francisco’s signature issue for 20 years at least. It has bedeviled mayors and caused the downfall of more than one. Its absence from the current gentrification debate is so striking that one city supervisor, Mark Farrell, publicly asked why last month. He also scheduled several hearings to discuss why homelessness remains intractable despite 50 different homeless programs costing $165 million a year. The first hearing, nearly three hours long, came and went, unnoticed by the public.

Tourists complain about homeless people all the time, as they have for years. Panhandlers, homeless or not, have long made the city’s tourist hot-spots their hot-spots. The encampments of homeless people in the city’s so-called mid-Market Street area, where companies like Twitter have set up headquarters in exchange for tax breaks and a commitment to invest in the community, have gotten City Hall’s attention. Just not in the way advocates for the homeless would like.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee has been ordering the police department to increase patrols to crack down on drug-dealing and other illegal activities, including loitering, among people congregating on mid-Market. That has shifted more people to nearby neighborhoods, where merchants are complaining about people camped out on their stoops or storefronts. The San Francisco Public Library, which has been touted as a national model for how to humanely address the many homeless patrons in libraries, is also suffering repercussions from the crackdown. When the police started rousting people on Market Street, some moved over to the library, which is right nearby. After a rash of violent and bizarre incidents—a man smashing a glass table with a hammer, for one—the mayor ordered stepped-up security at the library and increased penalties for those who violate the library’s code of conduct, which includes a ban on offensive body odor.

Other recent developments in the city have increased street camping. In November, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to close city parks overnight, where dozens of homeless people used to sleep. In December, a drop-in center in the Haight-Ashbury that provided showers, food, a place to sleep and other services for homeless youth lost its lease. Some of its clients, who used to sleep there or in Golden Gate Park, have ended up congregating at a Safeway parking lot. The supermarket recently installed sharp pointed iron railings around its decorative concrete planters to prevent people from sitting on them.

St. Boniface, which first opened its doors for homeless people to sleep 10 years ago, is hosting more people than ever before—more than 100 each day—in part because the city swept a large encampment out of a regional commuter terminal, the Transbay Terminal, in order to renovate it.

All this adds up to a lot of shuffling of the most downtrodden people in the city from here to there.

Bevan Dufty, who directs City Hall’s homeless programs, called the situation “frustrating.” “It costs more to mitigate the effects of homelessness,” he said, “than it does to house people.”

But there are bright spots in the city’s homeless picture, Dufty added. Homelessness among veterans is down 30 percent in two years, thanks in part to federal funding for housing vouchers. Dufty said the city has also just opened new housing for 40 young adults and is set to open two more facilities for young adults this year.

If some of the city’s deep-pocketed residents take notice, perhaps some real progress on homelessness could be made. As Dufty said, “Twitter has made a lot of millionaires.”

Evelyn Nieves is a senior contributing writer and editor at AlterNet, living in San Francisco.

She has been a reporter for both the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Down and Out in Paradise

Homeless in Hawai’i


Jets loaded with vacationers always take the picturesque turn over Waikiki beach as they enter Honolulu airspace and prepare for landing. To the tourist, the tall hotel buildings that line the Waikiki waterfront promise them air conditioned rooms, fancy restaurants, hula dancers, and other exotic trappings. The aloha they have heard so much about engulfs their minds as the plane softly lands and the vast Pacific welcomes them. The pleasant breeze and the incessant beautiful sun bathes them as they prepare for a promised good time in paradise.

But the tourists will at once be bothered and surprised to see so many homeless people living in parks, on the beaches, lingering by bus stops. The tourist, especially the ones who are used to living away from such atrocities of modern America, feels cheated because this is not the Hawaii they imagined. They wanted the aloha spirit, the latest cocktail drinks, and lush rainforests.

According to Jessie Schiewe, writing for the now defunct Honolulu Weekly on March 9, 2011, “13,886 people experienced homelessness and/or received shelter services in Hawaii,” the majority being in Honolulu. Around 74 percent of people using shelters are unemployed, with 23 percent of those having a college education and almost half a high school education or GED. It is instructive to learn what Hawaii’s government has planned to address the rising numbers of homeless people on the islands. In July 2013 Hawaii’s state legislature approved a $100,000 per year for a three-year pilot project to get some homeless people off the islands. The idea is that a significant percentage of them are from the mainland, but this is an argument that bears no actual verification from the homeless themselves.

There are countless blog postings by tourists complaining about the police not mobilizing enough force to get rid of homeless people. Truth be told it takes a particular sense of entitlement to travel another land and expect for local people to reproduce a world likeable to the tourist, because they can always encroach on another people’s land, somewhere else in the world. Such is the power of tourism.

What most tourists do not understand, or seem to care about regarding Hawaii’s laws and way of life, is the Law of the Splintered Paddle, created by King Kamehameha I, a law later instituted into the Hawaiian State Constitution (Article 9, Section 10). The Law of the Splintered Paddle demands that we, “let every elderly person, woman and child lie by the roadside in safety.” Although Kānāwai Māmalahoe, as the law is known in Hawaiian, predates western laws of private property, it is a sentiment shared by kanaka maoli, the original Hawaiians, and accepted and incorporated into the everyday life of local people of the Islands. This is why once this sentiment is understood, even superficially, the “offensive” number of “homeless” people in Hawaii can also be understood as people being taken care of and protected from outsiders, the haole.

Since 2001 a new wave of migrants has flown into the Hawaiian islands just as a wave of Hawaiians has left. The U.S. military presence on the islands has grown back to WWII levels. Many personnel have opted to stay on the islands through housing programs that help them afford a home in the otherwise expensive real estate market.

Simultaneously, wealthy people from the western coast of the USA are moving in increasing numbers to the islands, driving up the cost of housing and living. This migration from the outside by people who know very little about, or care very little about the aloha spirit and the necessary balance between humans and all living creatures has created a hell on heaven for kanaka maoli (Hawaiians) and historical local peoples. No longer being able to afford houses, house payments, rent, or even food, thousands upon thousands are driven to become homeless in their own homeland. The migration of outsiders (haole) who bring their capitalist notions of private property further pushes the local government to privatize public space, just like in the mainland United States. This promises further sorrow, poverty to native locals who do not care for, and do not benefit from such a system.

The social obligations of employer to employee are all but hidden from any analysis of the homeless crisis in a tourist destination like Hawaii. This is especially true in Honolulu, the heart of this industry, where beaches like Waikiki are heard of and dreamed about the world over. The minimum wage remains just a little under $8/hour. Many locals need to have two or three jobs to barely cover rent and food.

Heavily contested housing projects make the news headlines because they will benefit military personal and outsiders from the United States. Locals refuse these projects because they will be built on sacred lands, and will continue to displace Hawaiians further into inhospitable parts of the island. Little concern is given to the negative environmental impact of these projects, let alone the impact on already degraded local communities.

Government officials deny that haole in-migration, limited housing space, and low wages are the main reasons for island homelessness. The overall political consensus is that homelessness is an individual’s problem that can be remedied with shelters and job placement. In this way the local government has adopted the dominant ideology of the United States, personalizing social inequality. But jobs pay low wages which puts people back where they started, living one paycheck away from living at the beach, the park or a bus stop, becoming an “eye sore” for the tourist paradise, and the pampered global tourist.

There is no talk in the Legislature to ease or regulate the housing grab by wealthy outsiders, particularly on Oahu, where Honolulu is, and Maui, the island most coveted by rich outsiders. The Legislature has no actual plan to increase wages for the tens of thousands of locals and native Hawaiians who toil away in the tourist industry, which by the way, maintained a steady business despite the global economic depression. Unfortunately, the Legislature has begun to rewrite laws addressing the homelessness issue by granting police the power to impound their property, move them away from parks and beaches, and relocate them to the harshest parts of the islands, the very same places to where kanaka maoli, the first Hawaiians, have also been relocated, a 21st century manifestation of reservations for Native Americans and now the indigent.

Cosme Caal is a community activist who recently moved to Hawai’i from the Americas. His interests include political mobilization of Mayans in Guatemala and Los Angeles, and the Pachakutik indigenous political organization in the Andean region.

San Francisco and the Storm of Progress

I live in the building against whose walls a young boy sleeps, and this is not a matter of merit.

Early one Saturday morning I found my landlady standing in front of our building, staring at the wall, with a bottle of bleach and a pair of rubber gloves. “What are you working on?” I asked, with a forced cheeriness that comes from being a little afraid of her. “I’m bleaching the piss off the front of the building,” she said.

Many parts of San Francisco often smell like pee. Since I moved here six months ago, I’ve seen more people urinating on the sidewalk than in the previous 28 years of my life combined (years spent living in Boston and D.C., among other places). Homelessness is rampant here, but more than that, visible. Walk down any street in my neighborhood—Market Street, Castro Street, 18th Street down to Dolores Park—and you will be forced to reckon with more than the smell of urine: you will see evidence of ravaged humanity. Nests of sleeping bags and trash bags tucked into doorways. Guardians of trashcans, babbling and searching for cigarette butts, clothes stained red and brown like maps. Young runaways and addicts, their escapes gone wrong, cross-legged on the sidewalk, their skinny dogs on leashes.

I recall Joan Didion’s haunting refrain in Slouching Toward Bethlehem, “children are missing.” All of these children in my neighborhood are missing from some place else, some location of origin, but maybe not each one is missed, and maybe that’s part of the problem. Just yesterday I passed a boy sleeping against the wall of my building who looked so much like my 24-year-old brother I had to restrain myself from stooping down next to him, wiping the dirt off his face, and taking him upstairs for a shower and chocolate milk.

I am no stranger to the darker sides of life. I have my own story and my work has taken me into jails and institutions and into neighborhoods people said I shouldn’t be in. But still I am addled walking through San Francisco. One time I gave a tall, bearded man five dollars for a poem, though admittedly I didn’t know the poem would be an original creation, about music, and recited on the spot. Another day I bought a sandwich for a weathered man holding a sign that said “hungry homeless veteran,” but I didn’t know what kind he wanted so he came into the store with me and picked out his own (ham). Other days, when I am importantly rushing around, I might try not to see it so clearly, but then the old man on the corner wearing red sunglasses and stained sweatpants shouts in my face, “Aha!” and follows me down the block shaking his finger until I duck into the hardware store to hide among the hammers.

Meanwhile, private, unmarked busses sail through the city like great, white cruise ships, carrying freshly scrubbed Google employees southward to Silicon Valley behind tinted black windows. Soon, they really will be cruise ships.

Something is happening in San Francisco. It’s nothing new, exactly; the widening gap between rich and poor is a story unfolding across the nation and the world and San Franciscans are growing weary of the spotlight. But the story here is hard to keep quiet about because it’s unfolding dramatically, at an accelerated pace and on an exaggerated scale. The numbers speak for themselves: in the city of San Francisco, the median price for a two-bedroom apartment is now $3,875, the highest in the country, and eviction notices are up 40 percent since 2010. On the one hand, the city counted 6,436 homeless people, more than half of whom suffer from mental illness, earning San Francisco fourth place in the nation for its homeless population. On the other, if all Stanford-alumni-founded companies formed a nation, its economy would be the 10th largest in the world, creating 5.4 million jobs and generating an annual revenue of $2.7 trillion.

It’s more than statistical extremity that accounts for the drama: characters here play their roles with pizzazz. In December, at one of the private bus protests, Union organizer Max Apler pretended to be a Google employee and his rant went viral: “This is a city for the right people who can afford it…Can’t afford it? You can leave.” Residents’ willingness to believe the gag points to the problem. Then realer villains took the stage. AngelHack CEO Greg Gopman posted a Facebook tirade about “the degenerates”—San Francisco’s “crazy, homeless, drug dealers, dropouts, and trash … [who] gather like hyenas, spit, urinate, taunt you, sell drugs, get rowdy…” He wrote:

The difference is in other cosmopolitan cities, the lower part of society keep to themselves. They sell small trinkets, beg coyly, stay quiet, and generally stay out of your way. They realize it’s a privilege to be in the civilized part of town and view themselves as guests. And that’s okay…

You can preach compassion, equality, and be the biggest lover in the world, but there is an area of town for degenerates and an area of town for the working class. There is nothing positive gained from having them so close to us. It’s a burden and a liability having them so close to us. Believe me, if they added the smallest iota of value I’d consider thinking different, but the crazy toothless lady who kicks everyone that gets too close to her cardboard box hasn’t made anyone’s life better in a while.

Gopman apologized for his rant, as he should have, but the fight between his defenders and vitriolic critic—and the discourse around other instances of tech CEO idiocy—extends far beyond what he said. He emerged as a symbol. We search for someone to blame. His cruelty is breathtaking, but his visceral unease walking down Market Street isn’t incomprehensible.

In October, when my father’s book tour brought him to the West coast, my parents stopped in San Francisco for a visit. It was a return, of sorts: they lived here together for four years in the early eighties, in a two-bedroom apartment on Shrader Street in Cole Valley, where I was born. My father was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, working as a handyman and carpenter on the side, and my mother taught in the creative writing department at Stanford and took me with her to aerobics classes on Cole Street. Two young writers, ex-hippies, with a baby. They would never be able to afford it now.

Me, Tassajara Bakery, Cole Valley, 1986

This fall, they stayed at a hotel downtown and, on their first day in the city, decided to enjoy the sun-soaked October Saturday by walking up to meet me in the Castro, a route that took them straight up Market Street. About halfway up, they abandoned ship and hopped on the trolley. “Whoa,” my mother said as she climbed the stairs to my apartment. “That is a pretty bleak scene.” I got them lemonade and asked if it was worse than they remembered. “Oh yeah. Much, much worse,” said my mother. “I felt like I was in a dystopian movie,” added my father. “I looked down an alley and a man in a wheelchair was screaming at a woman pushing a shopping cart.”

My parents aren’t fogies or faint of heart. My dad lived in Hell’s Kitchen in his twenties—his favorite place he ever lived—and my mom has spent years working with at-risk youth in Boston. They’ve seen a lot, been through a lot, done their fair share of drugs, and they aren’t snobs (well, they are a little snobby about art and literature, but not about humanity). Still, Gopman’s admission that “there is nothing more grotesque than walking down market st [sic] in San Francisco,” indicates a deep disturbance not wholly dissimilar from my parents’ experience. Though for admittedly different reasons, what’s being expressed is a horror at the visibility of human suffering. “One block from our shiny hotel,” said my mother. “It feels so wrong.”

Since then, my mother has admitted to me that she also felt threatened. I can relate to this. We are both relatively small women and there have been times when I’ve felt wary walking alone. I’ve been grabbed before and I’ve seen people spat on and there is a kind of unpredictability in the Tenderloin, a kind of wild west vibe, that makes me wish I looked or felt a little tougher. I cannot help but read fear in Gopman’s words, too: “it’s a burden and a liability having them so close to us.” Maybe the threat is physical, maybe Gopman’s shins were kicked by “the crazy toothless lady;” maybe it is a deeper uneasiness, a moral discomfort coming out sideways—the way my brother used to get mad at movies that made him feel sad; or maybe it’s a fear of the classic dystopian outcome, a fear of being eaten by the mob.

What’s happening here in this city of my birth is the thorny, tormented mechanics of progress. Rebecca Solnit’s thoughtful comparison of the tech boom to the gold rush reminds us that progress is unwieldy, harmful. It is not a moral process, especially as it gathers speed. Progress leaves people behind and pushes them out. Morality is up to us. We are the ones who have to decide what is and isn’t worth it; we have to mitigate the damage wreaked by the tumbling, tearing storm of progress.

I am not so interested in the argument about the real value of tech startups versus their harm, and whether or not they’re “welcome” in the Bay (though I did think it was funny when Matt Yglesias suggested we move the whole operation to northern Ohio). The value of these companies announces itself amidst this very argument, as so much of the discourse is enabled by the tools and forums they’ve created. Peter Thiel and Elon Musk are undeniably visionaries and their kind of vision is undeniably valuable.

A subtler dynamic, though, bears mentioning: the underlying accusation of otherness levied by all sides, but especially by the haves towards the have-nots. It is a notion that shows up in our language. “The homeless,” “the mentally ill,” “the degenerates”—each category preceded by a definite article, “the,” a tiny word with great significance. These definite, enclosed categories of personhood communicate an illusion of separateness, and still more troubling, a suggestion of immutability. As if a person’s chief feature, fixed and unchanging, is her status or sickness. Gopman’s call for a more segregated city is premised on this illusion of otherness.

We are all, each one of us, eligible to experience loss, abuse, addiction, and mental illness. The odds that an American will experience homelessness in the course of a year are one in 194. One in four American adults suffer from a diagnosable mental illness. And random factors make eligibility more or less of a statistical likelihood: race and national origin, the happenstance of being born into poverty, the windfall of attending pre-kindergarten. Accidents of birth. Maybe the more you have, the scarier eligibility becomes (I am reminded of a study I read years ago that said people living in gated communities felt less safe than others and less safe than they used to feel). Maybe this is why the notion of otherness, or ineligibility, is so often fortified by those with lots to lose.

I do not dismiss the value of hard work and good ideas, or discredit the possibility of our favorite story, “rags-to-riches.” But I live in the building against whose walls a young boy sleeps, the walls that serve as a toilet for the man on the corner, and this is not a matter of merit. My soul is no more valuable, my body no more useful. In one sense, of course, the sleeping boy is not my brother but in another sense he is, or could be, and that’s the possibility that we, “the homed,” the billionaires and millionaires and builders of websites, might remember more often.

Capitalism and Democracy: Year-End Lessons

Wednesday, 18 December 2013 09:12By Richard D WolffTruthout | News

(Image: <a href=" " target="_blank"> Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t</a>)

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t)

2013 drove home a basic lesson: US capitalism’s economic leaders and their politicians now regularly ignore majority opinions and preferences. For example, polls showed overwhelming popular support for higher taxes on the rich with lower taxes on the rest of us and for reversing the nation’s deepening economic inequalities. Yet Republicans and Democrats, including President Obama, raised payroll taxes sharply on January 1, 2013. Those taxes are regressive; they take a smaller percentage of your income the higher your income is above $113,700 per year. Raising the payroll tax increased economic inequality across 2013.

For another example, many American cities and towns want to use eminent domain laws to help residents keep their homes and avoid foreclosure. Eminent domain is a hallmark democratic right as well as US law. It enables municipal governments to buy individual properties (at market prices) when doing so benefits the community as a whole. Using eminent domain, local leaders want to compel lenders (e.g., banks, etc.) to sell them homes whose market prices have fallen below the mortgage debts of their occupants. They would then resell those homes at their market prices to their occupants. With their mortgages thus reduced to their homes’ actual prices, occupants could stay in them. They still suffer their homes’ fallen values but avoid homelessness. Communities benefit because decreased homelessness reduces the fall of other property values, reduces the number of abandoned homes (and thus risks of fire, crime, etc.), reduces the number of customers lost to local stores, sustains property tax flows to local governments and so on.

Used this way, eminent domain forces lenders – chiefly banks – to share more of the pains produced by capitalism’s crisis. Most Americans support that, believing it will help reverse income and wealth inequalities and also that banks bear major responsibility for the economic crisis.

Yet the country’s biggest banks are using “their” money and laws (that they often wrote) to block municipalities’ use of eminent domain. “Their” money includes the massive bailouts Washington provided to them since 2007. Big bank directors and major shareholders – a tiny minority – fund the politicians, parties and think-tanks that oppose municipalities’ use of eminent domain. In these ways, capitalism systematically undermines democratic decision-making about economic affairs.

For yet another example, the recent bankruptcy court decision about Detroit allows the city to cut retired city workers’ pensions. Those workers bargained and signed contracts with Detroit’s leaders over many years. They accepted less in wages and benefits in exchange for their pensions as parts of their agreed compensation for work performed. Now that an economic crisis and the unemployment it generated have cut Detroit’s tax revenues, this system’s “solution” includes cutting retired workers’ pensions. Other cities are expected to adopt this solution. Inequality worsens as the costs of this economic crisis shift from lenders to cities (usually rich) to retired city-worker pensioners (never rich).

In these and other ways, 2013 taught millions of Americans that capitalism repeatedly contradicts the democratic idea that majority decisions should govern society as a whole. The system’s tendency toward deepening inequalities of income and wealth operated across 2013 in direct contradiction to the will of substantial American majorities.

The same happened in the decades before the 1930s Great Depression. However, in that Depression, a mass movement from below (organized by the Congress of Industrial Organizations – CIO – and socialist and communist parties) successfully reversed capitalism’s tendencies toward inequality. Supported by majorities of Americans, it was strong enough to obtain Social Security, unemployment compensation and millions of federal jobs for the people whom private capitalists could not or would not employ. Those programs helped average people rather than bailing out banks and other large corporations. That movement also got the government to pay for those programs by taxing corporations and the rich at far higher rates than exist now. Capitalism’s deepening inequality was partly reversed by and because of a massive democratic movement.

However, that movement stopped short of ending capitalism. Thus it only temporarily reversed capitalism’s tendencies toward inequality. After World War II, business, the rich and conservatives mobilized a return to “capitalism as usual.” They organized a massive government repression of the coalition (CIO, socialists and communists) that led the 1930s movement from below. By such means as the Taft-Hartley Act and McCarthyism, capitalism resumed its development of ever-greater economic inequalities, especially after 1970. In the Great Recession since 2007, the absence of a sustained movement from below has allowed inequality to worsen as our examples above illustrate.

The lessons of recent history include this: To secure democratic decision-making and the kind of society most Americans want requires moving beyond capitalism. Capitalism’s difficulties (including its crises and inequalities) and its control of government responses to those difficulties keep teaching that lesson. The widening gap between democratic needs and impulses and the imperatives of capitalism is becoming clear to millions in the United States but also in other countries.

For example, the Rajoy government in Spain recently imposed new levels of repression on the strengthening protests against its austerity policies. Spain’s unemployment rate today exceeds the US rate in the worst year of the Depression. Rajoy wants fines of up to $40,000 for offenses such as burning the national flag, insulting the state or causing serious disturbances outside Parliament. Indeed some fines go up to $800,000 for “demonstrations that interfere in electoral processes.”

Contradictions between democratic rights and demands and the processes of capitalism are accelerating into clashes in legislatures and the streets. Informed by history’s lessons about capitalism and democracy, today’s movements more likely will recognize the need to confront and supersede capitalism to secure real democracies. Policies that achieve only temporary reversals of capitalist inequalities no longer suffice. The system’s imperatives to profit, compete and grow are now so costly to so many that its critics and opponents are multiplying fast. Once they confront and solve the problem of politically organizing themselves, social change will happen fast, too.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Richard D. Wolff is Professor of Economics Emeritus, University of Massachusetts, Amherst where he taught economics from 1973 to 2008. He is currently a Visiting Professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University, New York City. He also teaches classes regularly at the Brecht Forum in Manhattan. Earlier he taught economics at Yale University (1967-1969) and at the City College of the City University of New York (1969-1973). In 1994, he was a Visiting Professor of Economics at the University of Paris (France), I (Sorbonne). His work is available at and at

7 Homeless People Have Frozen To Death This Winter so far in the Wealthy Bay Area


By Scott Keyes on December 18, 2013 at 1:55 pm

In The Wealthiest Area Of The Country, 7 Homeless People Have Frozen To Death This Winter


Joe White, a homeless man who died during a Bay Area cold snap last weekend, in a photograph with his mother Mary Archuleta

Joe White, a homeless man who died during a Bay Area cold snap last weekend, in a photograph with his mother Mary Archuleta


Joe White was this close to making it.

A 50-year-old California man described by relatives as a “loving father and a doting grandfather,” White had been living on the streets of Hayward for years. He wanted to work and was able to find odd jobs here and there, but it was never much or consistent enough to afford a place to live. Hayward has no emergency shelter with beds for single men, so White slept outside.

But things were looking up. Last Saturday, White was second on a long list to get permanent supportive housing in Hayward. He had been waiting in line for months and it seemed as though he might finally catch a break.

White died on Sunday.

Temperatures in the Bay Area plummeted to near-freezing on December 10, an uncommon occurrence in a region generally known for its lack of inclement weather. White’s body was found in the old Hayward City Hall courtyard. He’d been beaten up and robbed by multiple men, who took the new winter coat White’s sister had given him on Friday. He was wearing just a hoodie and shorts. His cause of death is still being determined, but police speculated that his death was weather-related.

White is now the seventh homeless person in the Bay Area to die in the cold since November 28. The others were Daniel Brillhart, 52; Enrique Rubio, 56; Andrew Greenleaf, 48; Daniel Moore, 53; and two men in the East Bay and Peninsula whose names have not been released.

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, approximately 700 homeless people die from hypothermia every year. Those deaths tend to occur in the East Coast and Midwest, not California. But temperatures in the Bay have repeatedly dipped below freezing in the past few weeks, leaving thousands of homeless people in danger.

The Bay Area has one of the highest homeless populations in part because of the explosion of recent wealth that has led to increasing inequality and a lack of affordable housing for those without high-paying tech jobs. The San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose metropolitan area is the wealthiest in the country, even outpacing New York-Connecticut and Washington DC-Maryland-Northern Virginia. This influx of money has brought higher housing prices and more evictions in the past few years.

And for those viscerally impacted by rising inequality, life is especially difficult when the temperatures drop. Many communities in the Bay Area lack emergency shelters, in part because freezes aren’t very common. But what happens to many of the thousands of people living without shelter in the Bay Area, waiting for their name to be called for the few affordable housing units that exist? “What happens is they die on the street,” Betty DeForest, director emeritus of South Hayward Parish, wrote in an email to the City Council last week following White’s death.

In other words, we live in a society that leaves many people too poor to survive but are surprised to see them die.


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