Compassion for Homeless Is Wearing Thin in Bay Area


Mayor Art Agnos, the former social worker, has a term for it: compassion fatigue.

People were weary of being hit up for spare change. Brown-bagging office workers resented seeing 200 homeless, derelict and otherwise lost souls pitch camp in a choice picnic ground under the olive trees across from City Hall. The Chamber of Commerce worried that Civic Center panhandlers were scaring off tourists and conventioneers.

Finally, after he had let them stay for two years, Agnos evicted his ragged neighbors earlier this month and decreed that police should enforce a ban on sleeping in the park. It’s a scene being played out this summer across Northern California, a region renowned for its tolerance. Authorities are forcing squatters to pick up and move, to the delight of constituents who are sick of sidestepping occupied sleeping bags.

Agnos, at least, had places to send them: a new 110-bed shelter, plus a 200-bed center that had housed refugees of the Oct. 17 earthquake. Neither is complete. Both are Spartan. But sleeping on cots under a roof is “a hell of a lot better than sleeping in the street,” Agnos said.


Other cities seem to have less to offer.

“The numbers are becoming overwhelming to the cities,” said Myra Snyder, Agnos’ aide in charge of grappling with the problem that won’t go away. ". . . It’s so intense that their compassion is being tried.”

In Santa Cruz, an Independence Day demonstration by 200 people decrying the plight of the homeless was countered by more than 500 people demanding that people living in parks and on benches leave. Where they should go was not clear--though some thought a few nights in steel-reinforced housing might help.

“If they actually get jail time, they’ll stop doing what they’re doing,” said Carolyn Busenhart, a Santa Cruz-area hairdresser and organizer of the counter-demonstration.


“These people are out there having their chosen lifestyle of bumming around in the streets,” Busenhart added, “and they’ve brought about the economic destruction of our main business section.”

Authorities from Fresno to San Jose, Oakland and Sausalito have pushed or started to force homeless people from their shantytowns. Some cities offer them shelters. Some simply want them to go.

Frustration has reached even Berkeley.

“Everybody’s rights have to be protected--and that includes the fortunate person walking down the street,” Berkeley City Manager Michael F. Brown said.

Early one morning last week, police in that bastion of liberalism descended on people sleeping on sidewalks near People’s Park. The sidewalk census had swollen since January when officials cracked down on the 200 people who called People’s Park home.

“We’re all feeling a lot of pressure. Fuses are becoming shorter,” said Wendy Georges, Berkeley Emergency Food Project program director, which feeds people down on their luck in Berkeley.

In time, Berkeley officials hope to ease street people into a shelter to be located in an industrial area. But officials report opposition from residents who fret that the unwashed masses will traipse down their streets en route to panhandling territory downtown.

Some of the frustration is, in a sense, an aftershock of last October’s earthquake. The temblor so damaged several inner-city residential hotels in Oakland and San Francisco that they had to be destroyed. The loss of the rooms added to Bay Area homelessness.


But the quake also has resulted indirectly in new building. Most of the millions spent on San Francisco’s two shelters has come from Red Cross and Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster assistance.

One of San Francisco’s shelters, in an old Pierce-Arrow automobile showroom, had been opened by the Red Cross to house people whose homes were destroyed in the quake. The city took over the four-story building July 1. When it is done, the building will house more than 300 men and women, and have a kennel for pets of the homeless. The other center, to house about 200 when complete, is in a converted warehouse in an industrial area south of Market Street.

Agnos has trumpeted the centers as the unique result of two years of planning. Once inside, the homeless become “guests.” Each guest, the theory goes, will have a case manager to analyze his or her problems and then find programs that can help. No one, it is hoped, will stay longer than a month. So far, the centers serve only men but will open to women later this year.

“Can the system deliver? We’re going to find out,” said Norm Coffman, who directs the center south of Market Street.

“Eventually,” said Steve Suwalsky, who runs the Pierce-Arrow center, “you can make some kind of dent.”

Trying to shed bleak images conjured by such settings, the shelters are called multi-service centers. The idea is to turn them into mini-malls for the needy. Social workers from as many as 30 different agencies will set up shop in the centers to help the “guests” with all manner of problems, from addiction to mental instability, chronic unemployment and the need for assistance in obtaining various forms of welfare.

The cost of running the two centers will total $2.2 million a year. An additional $8 million is earmarked for completing construction. San Francisco officials hope to come up with enough money to open a drug detoxification center and rebuild several decrepit hotels to house many of its estimated 6,000 homeless.

“I know we’re not in the Hilton. But I’m not putting it down. I’m glad it was here for me,” said Harry Stephenson, 39, taking a break from reading a paper on his cot.


Proud that he has been clean and sober for several months, Stephenson told of attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting the night before at the Pierce-Arrow shelter.

“This isn’t jail,” he said. “It is voluntary. I sought the help.”

Mike Jefferson, 30, arrived in San Francisco from Chicago last year hoping to find work. His money soon ran out and he was on the streets. By the time he found shelter, his feet were so infected that he could barely walk. The sores since have healed and one of the doctors who visited the medical clinic for the Pierce-Arrow guest gave him a new pair of sandals.

The center gives him a base from which to look for work. Prospective employers have a phone number to call.

“I want to accomplish something here. I don’t want to leave here a failure,” Jefferson said.

Despite the plans and all the hope, the shelters have their critics among people who have fought on behalf of the homeless. Several activists challenged the crackdown in San Francisco Civic Center this week, and were arrested for attempting to sleep in the park.

Paul Boden of the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness declared that Agnos is promising more than he can deliver. That will breed distrust in people who already are alienated, he said.

“They didn’t increase substance-abuse programs. They didn’t increase job opportunities. They didn’t increase low-income housing,” Boden said, convinced that Agnos swept the Civic Center of its homeless because of political demands.

“Instead of looking at the state, which is cutting . . . the mental health budget, people are kicking the people they’re stepping over,” he said, charging that Agnos rushed the centers into opening to placate voters and business leaders.

The homeless sweep came in time for a carnival this weekend, and in time for the summer tourist rush. But Agnos scoffed at claims that he was pressured into acting.

“If I were moved to act in the tourist season,” he said, “I would have done it my first year as mayor or my second.”

Whatever Agnos’ motivation, Dale Hess, spokesman for the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau, couldn’t be happier with the result. Managers of Civic Center convention centers were finding them tougher to rent out. Local businesses that wanted to put on business and trade fairs feared that customers would not want to put up with panhandlers.

“Let’s just say it didn’t make it any easier to convince people to use it,” Hess said of the convention center bordering Civic Center Plaza.

In the past week, office workers began reclaiming the plaza at noontime, while police officers patrolled to ensure that vagrants moved along.

“I don’t miss those people,” said Jack Maready, eating lunch with a co-worker. For two years, he steered clear of the park and the “professional bums” who hung out there. “You couldn’t come in here,” he said. “It smelled.”

FRANCISCO ACTS: Art Agnos writes that when alternatives are provided, the right to sleep on the streets disappears. B7