San Francisco Confronts Homeless Problem

In America's most expensive city, which promotes itself as compassionate, the debate over what to do about homeless people has become particularly bitter, divisive, and political.

Gavin Newsom, a candidate for mayor, advocates taking away most of the cash support the homeless get and replacing it with services and vouchers. He also wants to make panhandling illegal in parking lots, on medians, near schools and bus stops and at ATMs.

"The fact is, San Francisco is failing," said Newsom, the city supervisor. "San Francisco is not that compassionate city, as it leads itself to be, in terms of our approach in dealing with panhandling and drug addiction and mental illness."

This care-not-cash program was supported by 60 percent of the voters. But a court said the city's governing board of supervisors, not the voters, must decide on government aid to the poor.

Restaurateurs: Hurting the Tourist Trade

San Francisco doesn't know how many homeless it has. Some say 8,000; others think as many as 14,000. It depends who's counting.

But the campaign to curb the panhandling has now been joined by San Francisco's hotel council, which says it is hurting the tourist trade, on which this city relies.

"If you go to any other city in the country, you'll never see it as bad as it is here," said Jim Bril, a restaurant owner. "People from Europe, everywhere, they just are amazed at how many panhandlers and how many homeless there are here."

The hotel council has put a series of provocative slogans on cabs and buses. One says, "Today we rode a cable car, visited Alcatraz, and supported a drug habit." Another says, "Today I did Tai Chi, donated some change and helped spread sexually transmitted disease."

Sister Bernie Galvin, of the organization Religious Witness with Homeless People, has worked with the poor in San Francisco for more than a decade. She says too many people in San Francisco just want the homeless out of sight.

"It is inhumane simply to keep chasing people from one end of this city to the other," she said. "Exacerbating their suffering, doing nothing to meet their needs — it's simply wrong to do that."