In San Francisco’s trendy Marina District, a homeless man walks into the local Safeway, grabs a bulk package of toilet paper, rips out a roll, lowers his pants, squats, and defecates in the aisle. The act is both symptomatic and emblematic of the homeless problem in San Francisco, and it takes place just over a mile from the walled mansion of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
The San Francisco poop index is what social psychologists might call an unobtrusive measure of a growing problem. In 2011, San Francisco recorded some 5,500 poop incidents. In 2018, that number soared to well over 28,000. San Francisco now has a poop patrol and poop hotline to deal with the issue.
With its halcyon climate and prideful politics of tolerance — the tolerance of deviancy at the expense of everyone else — California draws homeless from all over the country and across the border.
Where the homeless come from, of course, is a matter of anecdote. There are lots of stories but little in the way of systematic data. Homeless advocates will tell you the homeless person on the streets was once your neighbor and just out of luck. To some extent that might be true, but anyone who has interacted with the homeless sees a lot of people in need of mental health and addiction treatment.
Moreover, shelters, such as they are, are often underused. The advocates for the homeless might not want to call attention to the homeless’ mental health and addiction problems, but the homeless themselves know that they can be robbed in a shelter or stabbed by someone having a psychotic episode.
Even among the homeless of Chicago, a population with which I have some experience, on a cold winter night, many will prefer a grate or doorway to the personal safety problems associated with a shelter.
No governmental entity can coerce people into treatment or into temporary shelters. The law prohibits it, which is one of the reasons we have the kinds of problems that we now have with the homeless population.
We arrived here through the law of unintended consequences. During World War II, some religious conscientious objectors did alternative service in mental institutions. After the war, they brought to the public’s attention the terrible conditions that existed in those places.
Public outrage brought an end to these institutions without either the appropriation of resources or the construction of alternatives to help the patients. The mentally ill were saved from the inhumane conditions of the institutions only to be discarded on to the streets to fend for themselves.
Those altruistic groups and individuals that serve the homeless have only enough resources saved to make a dent in the problems. And bond issues to deal with the problem in California were siphoned off to fund other concerns. California’s Proposition 63, which was ostensibly to raise money for the mentally ill, saw the money go to yoga classes and palliatives that had little to do with serious mental illness.
Meanwhile, both the human problem and its environmental impact have ominous consequences for the rest of us. People living and eating in the streets of Los Angeles have caused a sharp increase in the rat population and with it a vector for diseases like typhus, which has affected people who work near Los Angeles’ largest homeless encampment.
Disease does not remain in one place, just as San Francisco’s poop gets tracked all over the city and the discarded hypodermic needles that litter the sidewalks of mid-Market and the Tenderloin are there for anyone to step on and spread disease.
There is no policy on the table to solve the homeless problem and its effects. Nancy Pelosi, who should have this issue on her front burner, has spent the last 22 months obsessed with the impeachment of President Donald J. Trump. Even now, this so-called important set of articles is being withheld from the Senate as the charade continues and the real problems of her constituents and, ultimately, the rest of us are neglected.
It will probably take an outbreak and spread of a medieval disease for Pelosi to respond to this problem. By then, thousands will die.
The picture of a homeless man defecating in the aisle of a Safeway near Pelosi’s walled mansion is symbolic, for it represents the way in which Pelosi and her party are treating the rest of us.
Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science and a distinguished fellow with the Haym Salomon Center.