"American Calcutta" by Ralph Peters
August 2, 2008 --
ONE of the best ways to see a city's bones is to take a long jog in the hour before dawn. That's what I did in San Francisco this week.
The city reminded me of Calcutta.
By day, the camouflage of color and crowds makes the multitudes of homeless less apparent. At the chilly end of the night, though, they lie strewn on the sidewalks like plague victims, wrapped in filthy blankets and abandoned.
New Yorkers have no idea how bad a homeless crisis can be.
I didn't even run in the rougher sections, where old garbage fills the alleys and druggies prowl. My course ran from the slopes of Nob Hill, south of Union Square, down to the Embarcadero, up to North Beach and back. That's the better part of downtown.
My new symbol of San Francisco is a man with ulcerous calves exposed, head and torso thrust into a cardboard box in front of a Prada boutique.
What I saw as I sidestepped bodies wasn't just the failure of social policies, but a collective flight from responsibility. Shrugging our shoulders and declaiming The homeless deserve the right to make their own choices! just lets us all off the hook.
I refuse to romanticize the homeless - unlike those who live in San Francisco's multimillion-dollar Victorians and idealize the homeless from a distance, then cross the street to avoid giving a deranged beggar a quarter.
When it comes to the capable-but-unwilling homeless, John Stuart Mill's rule applies: The individual is entitled to the maximum individual freedom compatible with the freedom and well being of others. As long as he or she poses no criminal, health or aggravated-nuisance threats, the rest of us just have to suck it up.
My problem lies in our moral cowardice regarding those who aren't capable of making sane decisions. When we write off a man or woman who is clearly disturbed, incapable of basic sanitary practices and living at a level below that we accord our pets, we shouldn't pat ourselves on the back for giving him or her a handout now and then.
We're avoiding the hard moral choices, the questions whose best answers still leave us uneasy: We worry more about stray dogs and cats than we do about stray humans.
God may help those who help themselves - but it's left to the rest of us to help those who can't help themselves. Abandoning the incompetent to the streets helps no one.
Can't we have the moral integrity to admit that deinstitutionalization of the "nondangerous" mentally ill has been a disaster? Why is it more humane to let a badly disturbed individual sink into disease and squalor than to provide him or her with a structured existence?
For the left, it's all about the cruel fantasy of the cuddly homeless (as long as they don't actually have to cuddle them). For the right, abandoning the incompetent to the streets trimmed state and county budgets. Everybody wins - except the helpless.
I didn't just compare San Francisco to Calcutta for effect. My pre-dawn runs through the City by the Bay really did conjure morning jogs past huddled families and the occasional corpse in India.
But the comparison's unfair - to Calcutta. Bengali economic refugees staking a claim to a bit of crumbling sidewalk are seeking jobs; they have hope. San Francisco's homeless have no future beyond platitudes and handouts.
There are other similarities between the two cities: Left-wing traditions and governments; splendid cuisine and an artsy scene for the fortunate; quirky bookstores and a coffee-house culture for poets and musicians. But Calcutta's underrated, while San Francisco's overrated (and dirtier each time I visit).
The greatest difference between the two isn't the greater wealth of San Francisco, but the sense of the homeless as fellow human beings in Calcutta. From its asylum policies for violent illegal immigrants to its dog-biscuit "generosity" to the homeless, San Francisco's a city of ethically oblivious hypocrites: 6,377 homeless, 776,733 heartless.
As I walked the streets in the light of day, foreign tourists dodged the meandering, muttering homeless. I was ashamed of the image those visitors would take home.
I wished those tourists had chosen Manhattan instead. Or even, God help us, Washington, DC. The only thing San Francisco ever gave this country was bubonic plague.
Ralph Peters' latest book is "Looking for Trouble: Adventures in a Broken World."