Eye-Witnessing Downtown San Francisco

Downtown 6.19 copsI had 45 minutes before meeting a friend at the Symphony. Bored in downtown San Francisco on a brilliantly sunlit late afternoon, at the Main Library right across from City Hall. Couldn’t go for coffee, because a friend and I were catching a quick dinner in between pre-concert talk and concert. Couldn’t hang out in the library (Duh!!) because I was still drinking my mint tea. Wondering how to entertain myself, I ventured outside, surveyed the scene and found:

A gaggle of police and security types surrounding a homeless lady, patiently explaining to her that she could not be hanging out on the Library steps with a rifle. “It ain’t loaded,” she was saying; “I ain’t pointing at nobody.”Downtown 6.19 Rifle Some friends were vouching for her. Nevertheless, the rifle was confiscated and the lady admonished not to walk around downtown with an assault weapon.

Downtown 6.19 SkateboardersAround the corner, two extremely agile skateboarders were having a contest, enthusiastically applauded by a small audience.

Back on the Library plaza, the now rifle-less lady sat talking things over, with only a few bags of belongings but still some supportive friends. Several of them seemed clearly in need of mental health services.Downtown 6.19 homeless group (In my city’s defense, San Francisco continues to make heroic attempts to address homelessness and mental health issues but the need overwhelms the problem. Thanks a lot, Ronald Reagan.)Downtown 6.19 Seagull

Also on the scene was the traditional errant seagull, surveying other settling-in homeless people, passing tourists and 6:30 traffic.

Eventually I strolled past the Library/City Hall area, a few blocks west to Symphony Hall. As my friend and I were waiting for the house lights to go down and the concert to begin, someone came down the aisle to reach his seat.Downtown 6.19 Symphony guy His evening attire included strips of multi-colored blinking lights. The ladies on either side politely made way for him. Before the conductor came onstage he unplugged himself and all was calm.

Just another twilight in downtown San Francisco. But as darkness fell, calm prevailed — and the symphony was glorious.

 

When citizen cops turn bad

In my small, neighborhood park there is a regular assortment of runners and walkers, picnic groups, dog-walkers, grandfathers pushing strollers, homeless guys and tennis players. On any given day you can hear voices speaking Russian, Chinese, English or a lovely range of other languages. And always there are children — with moms, dads, nannies or other supervisors — stumbling around makeshift mini-baseball diamonds in the meadow or tumbling noisily around the playground. It is, in short, exactly what an ideal neighborhood park should be. Its neighborhood, within a few surrounding miles, is home to the low-ish income, middle income and affluent.

And apparently at least one over-anxious mom. Recently she spotted a man she perceived to be a potential threat. The incident was reported in a San Francisco Chronicle op ed piece by former editor and now columnist/blogger Phil Bronstein, who says he used to take his own son there. (Bronstein is not among the low-ish or middle incomes.)

A worried mom took (the man’s) photo with her phone and messaged it around with a detailed description and a warning. “He does not have children and pretends he does and is there to do pull-ups,” she wrote.

The e-mail, originally intended for a small pool of officials and families, went wide in an expanding spiral onto lots of electronic doorsteps. That’s the way it works on the Web.

“Hope someone goes Woodsman on him,” one commenter wrote.

“There were people who wanted to suspend the Constitution,” investigating police Capt. Rich Correia at the Richmond station told me about some lynch-mob sentiment. “It’s interesting how people feed off the Internet, how fast it gets around and how much people can amplify it. Folks made all sorts of assumptions about (things) they didn’t know.”

In this case, the mix of digital citizen vigilance, child safety concerns and viral networking caused a train wreck with a definite victim. And it wasn’t a kid.

San Francisco blog SFist ran the headline “Potential Child Predator” with the photo the mom took. KTVU-TV broadcast the guy’s easily identifiable portrait and kept it on the screen throughout its story. “Take a look at the picture of this man,” said the reporter. “There’s obviously concern he’s some kind of predator.”

Except he isn’t.

What he is, unfortunately, is a marked man. Tried and convicted in the courts of the internet and public communications. The cops identified him, went to his house, determined there was no danger (he was “unguarded, cooperative and surprised at being the subject of a police investigation”) and that the poor guy was doing nothing but exercises in the park. The blog and the TV people took down his photo, but you have to wonder if the original mom apologized, or if he will feel very welcome in the park now.

A somewhat different go-after-the-bad-guys story was reported today by New York Times writer Dan Frosch, this one about Justin Kurtz, a hapless Kalamazoo, Michigan college student whose properly parked car was towed from its parking lot and it cost him $118 to get it back. Anyone who’s ever had a car towed can identify with the rage that then prompted Kurtz to start a Facebook page called “Kalamazoo Residents against T&J Towing.” But after 800 people signed up in sympathetic outrage, T&J filed a defamation suit seeking $75,000 in damages. I’m rooting for Justin and his friends (having been towed under less-than-happy circumstances myself), but the whole business will likely end up costing another unnecessary load of pain and anguish — and possibly, more than $118.

The question is, how far are we ready to trust cyberspace? In the case of the Mountain Lake Park non-pervert, the hysteria continued despite fast action by the cops.

People trusted the social network far more than they did the seasoned and reputationally impressive police captain. “After 30 years on the force,” he says, “it’s hard to accept that people believe Internet chatter more than they do reaching me on the phone.”

In this case, social media was not a new and improved town crier. Instead, the hysterical tendencies that understandably surround kids’ security led to what Correia called “long e-mails of inference and innuendo like the opening act of ‘The Crucible,”’ Arthur Miller’s play about witch hunts.

As a friend of mine with kids who lives near Mountain Lake Park and got copies of the e-mail from multiple people noted, “It’s often easier to share than to deliberate. Were we deputized, or just weaponized?”

In the emerging world, you can think you’re a citizen journalist, but you’re really a citizen cop. And in the Mountain Lake Park case, people also became citizen prosecutor, judge and jury.

Viral campaigns are hard to undo, but maybe we should try. What if T&J were to return their ill-gotten $118, enabling Justin to create a new Facebook page about what a fine business they are? Their tarnished reputation could then be restored to its former glory, if towing companies have glory, for a pittance.

With the non-pervert, it’s not that simple. But maybe the over-zealous mom will take the trouble to contact him and apologize. It would be a start, although I’m not holding my breath. If I see him, however, I’m apt to be extra kind and pleasant, and then people will probably talk. As long as they don’t put us on Facebook.

‘Pervert’ in the park isn’t what he seems.

Guns, drugs & sit/lie laws: who's got the real rights?

Discussions stirred up by the comments in this space a few days ago (see below) concerning gun rights v public safety rights ranged from the specifically pro-gun and pro-open carry (“citizens use firearms for self-defense between 150,000 and 3,052,717 times a year. The lowest estimate comes to about 410 times a day, and the highest estimate is 8,363 times a day,” says willbill; “How many times has an open carry proponent shot someone? If you use statistics rather than “from the hip” anti gun rhetoric, you will find legal gun owners are not the problem. Illegal gun owners are the problem,” says airtechjr) to the pointedly anti-gun (“Besides looking really stupid, having a gun visible – even if unloaded – is scary! Do you know how fast you can jam a clip into a Glock Automatic? 3 seconds,” says Tom Medlicott.) Emeryville, CA Police Chief Ken James says it’s 1.3 seconds.

In the long run, though, the argument is not about gun rights v public safety rights, says carlfromchicago, because I have no constitutional right to feel safe in public. And this all started because I admittedly did not feel safe while attending a panel discussion on the proposed California Open Carry ban (AB #1934 now in the state legislature) and learning that I was the only unarmed citizen within three solid rows of citizens carrying (presumably legal) concealed weapons. According to Carl,

Whether people are comfortable around guns is a very interesting and relevant social discussion. But this is not a question of two rights pitted against one another. As much as we all want to feel safe, it’s simply a frame of mind. The right you have is to think what you wish, and feel what you wish … but that compels no one, or the government, to ensure what you think or what you wish becomes reality for everyone.

This brings us to San Francisco’s currently proposed sit/lie ordinance. It says (more or less) you may not sit or lie on the sidewalk. It means, please get the drug pushers and increasingly obnoxious defecators-on-front-steppers out of the ‘hood. It arose out of frustrations in San Francisco’s famously tolerant Haight Ashbury (remember the 60s?) neighborhood where things recently have gotten somewhat out of hand.

This space is a strong supporter of humane treatment and expanded rights for homeless. Countless local and national programs, some good, some better, are in place and worth everyone’s attention; I try to make regular, teeny contributions of time and resources. But should I have the right to walk along Haight Street in broad daylight without tripping on a soiled, zoned-out kid whose dog is only loosely tied next to him? That’s the question. And should we now have a law enabling law enforcement officials to wake him up (if possible), move him along or toss him in the paddy wagon to be deposited in a jail cell? That may not be the answer. Either way, it is generating great heat and not a lot of light in my beloved hometown.

San Francisco is not alone in this dilemma. City Watchdog blogger Melissa Griffin, on her Sweet Melissa blog, reports having dug up a report (“Big pdf here,” she warns) on “Homes Not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities.”

The report surveyed laws in 235 cities (including San Francisco) and made some interesting findings:

  • 30 percent prohibit sitting or lying in certain public places.
  • 47 percent prohibit loitering in certain public places and 19 percent prohibit it citywide.
  • 47 percent prohibit begging in certain public places; 49 percent prohibit aggressive panhandling; and 23 percent have citywide prohibitions on begging.

At almost 200 pages, the report provides an exhaustive discussion of the legal landscape in 90 cities. Some have definitely used creative methods:

  • In Billings, Mont., it’s illegal to “aggressively solicit” and/or lie about being “from out of town, a veteran, disabled or homeless” while asking for money.
  • In Boerne, Texas, all panhandlers have to buy a license to solicit (like other solicitors and vendors) at a cost of $115. Durham, N.C., charges $20 for a panhandling permit.
  • Las Vegas, briefly had a law that prohibited sleeping “within 500 feet of a deposit of urine or feces.”

I am getting right back on the fence. Public safety does seem to me both an appropriate issue for discussion and an individual right. How far it can be legislated (there are over 20,000 gun laws already on the books across the country, uncertain wrote in) is debatable. I still wish guns would just go away. I don’t know what to do about obnoxious sitters/liers upon the sidewalks. Both seem obstacles to the peaceful communities some of us have in our memories and all of us have in our imaginations.

Homeless & still grinning

President Obama’s proposed budget for FY2011 includes a broad range of programs addressing homelessness, from provision of new services to the “Zero Tolerance” initiative for homeless veterans; I wish them all well. Aside from national efforts, most of us struggle with our personal relationship to the growing numbers of homeless citizens: Look the other way? Drop coins in cups? Buy snacks? Volunteer with the Food Bank? Most of us try to give something.

Occasionally, we get something more. This is such a story.

My friend Kevin left our neighborhood park in December, bound for Bakersfield in California’s central valley. “The Saint Vincent de Paul bought me a ticket,” he said. I worried about who would look after him. In our neighborhood he could sit in the sun and watch the birds on the lake, the joggers and strollers, and children on the playground. On rainy days he could sit on a corner bench inside the library. He never asked for money, but many of us gave him a dollar or two whenever we met. “Oh, I think he’ll be okay,” said one of the dog-walkers who is also among the Mountain Lake Park regulars. “He’ll find a meeting, and they’ll help him. He’s been doing really well with his drinking.”

Turns out it was not really Kevin I was worried about, but myself. Things were not the same. I would finish the hop kick on my loop around the parcourse fitness trail, and Kevin was supposed to be there. Instead, I would encounter an empty bench, or a disinterested stranger preoccupied with someone at the other end of a cell phone line. I missed the “How you doin’?” or the “Where you been ?! I ain’t seen you in a long time!” The occasional pause to sit beside him in the sun and pay attention to the feasts of nature everywhere.  Most of all I missed the wide, semi-toothless grin and the parting “Have a guht one!” that sent me brightly on toward the push-up bars just around the next bend in the trail. I was bereft.

Then a couple of weeks ago, headed from the chin-up station (I wish), I spotted a vaguely familiar figure walking slowly toward me. Decked out in a puffy new jacket (Kevin’s fashion tastes lean toward multiple bulky layers) and a new, bright blue cap, his beard somewhat trimmed, I did not recognize him until the great, toothless grin broke across his face. I ran down the trail, catching myself at the very last minute to restrain the hug I felt – this, I think, would’ve been too much for Kevin to handle – but grabbing both of his mittened hands.

“Kevin!” I said. “I thought you’d left us, gone off to Bakersfield forever!”

“Naw,” he said. “It’s too wahm in Bakersfield.”

So there it was. We were redeemed by the perpetually mild weather of the San Francisco Bay, where it seldom gets too warm and on rainy days one can find refuge in the library.

Did he have a good time in Bakersfield? “Oh, yes.” Did he get to see family? “Mmm.”

I still don’t know all the answers, or whether one day I’ll get to the hop kick station and find him gone again, for good.

What I do know is that for now the universe is proceeding as it should. And that one man with seemingly nothing to celebrate has brought the spirit of celebration back to Mountain Lake Park. It’s a great gift.

The face of homelessness

My friend Kevin told me this afternoon that he will be going to Bakersfield to stay. St. Vincent de Paul, he says, bought him a bus ticket for Sunday. I will be seriously sad to see him go.

Kevin lives somewhere, he’s never explained and I don’t press, in the rich-man/poor-man city of San Francisco. Wherever he spends his nights, he spends his days, mostly, on a bench in Mountain Lake Park near my home, watching the seagulls and ducks on the water, the pigeons on the grass, children on the swings. The par course which functions as my personal gym loops around the park, leading me past Kevin’s bench just after the hop-kicks and before the newly replaced (thanks, Park & Rec!) push-up bars. Kevin finds my exercises highly amusing.

Kevin has skin like polished coal, a bushy Afro usually tucked under a leather cap that would work well in Moscow, and a grin that displays a wide row of crooked, gap-filled bottom teeth. He has few. if any, top teeth. His wardrobe, which also includes an outsized leather jacket and very heavy boots, seldom changes, nor does his mood, which is sunny with occasional fog.

Many months ago I introduced myself, mid-workout. Kevin has never asked for a handout, but I took to offering him a dollar for a cup of coffee and it’s never been refused. Once recently, while he was dozing in the sunshine by the playground, I stuck a folded dollar bill into the same pocket occupied by his large, square hand, hoping it wouldn’t fall out and disappear. The next day he confirmed, with a huge guffaw, that it had been found. “And I knowed it was you come around!!” he said, pleasing me immensely.

Sometimes, when the weather has been cold and rainy or the fog too oppressive I do not see Kevin for a while. “I been going to the liberry,” he tells me later, a testament probably more to the warmth of the nearby building and its inhabitants than to our educational system — but with Kevin you never know.

When I am not constrained by time and the cares of the world I join Kevin on his bench. We talk about the water birds, the golfers far across the small lake, or the construction going on farther across and to the west, where the Presidio Trust is spending your tax money to convert the old Veteran’s Administration Hospital into apartments which will have drop dead gorgeous views. Kevin, on my recommendation, once walked up there to see what it is like. That was about the time when, on a beautiful, balmy San Francisco day I remarked to him that I thought I was the luckiest person in the world. He said, “I be lucky too.” That is a comment to take to the bank.

Because he is of indeterminate age and mental agility, I would worry about Kevin going off to the far country of Bakersfield. But he says he has family there, is looking forward to the bus ride and thinks it will be swell. I just hope they have a park with birds and children to entertain him, and perhaps an occasional jogger to join him on the bench.

Still, I will feel his absence. Never once has Kevin failed to say, as I pass on to the push-up bars, “Have a guht one!” Coming from behind an unfathomable grin, from a man presumably alone on the mean streets of urban America, who considers himself lucky, that is a blessing one doesn’t always get in the middle of a fitness course. And a blessing one can always use.

Housing, homelessness & other inequities

Today’s Sonoma County (CA) Press Democrat features a front page story about Joe Montana’s digs near Calistoga, available for $49 er–million. It is right above a photo of homeless vet Jack Saltzman reading in his hatchback, the juxtaposition of photos hard not to notice.

Others vets don’t have hatchbacks. Press Democrat feature writer Jeremy Hay reports that according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, approximately 400, or 12%, of Sonoma’s 35,000 vets are homeless, which fellow homeless vet Don Bridges says is “just the tip of it.” Some 131,000 of the nation’s 24 million veterans are homeless on any given day.

Hay details some of the measures being undertaken to alleviate the problem, including $3.2 billion recently pledged by the V.A. to be spent over the next five years toward getting veterans off the street and keeping them from falling into homelessness. But returning vets have been part of another world most of us only see in the extreme abstract and can’t possibly comprehend; fitting right back into mainstream America can be harder than anywhere they have served, where at least, another vet explains, “you’ve been part of your tribe.” More vets will return, and more will wind up on the streets.

None of this is the Montanas fault.

Another Press Democrat front page story, a New York Times article by Andrew Martin and Lowell Bergman, mentions a 91-year-old Florida woman who got a letter from Citibank last month advising her that her new credit card interest rate was 29.99 percent, up 10 points from the previous rate. Haven’t we been reading about Citibank lately?

These bits of information are being digested by those of us who elected Mr. Obama and now feel sad and frustrated because our expectations were, perhaps, too high. Some of us are wondering why he ever wanted the job in the first place.

We don’t have an answer to homelessness. We may not make an offer on the Montana estate — even though, with a Tuscan-style mansion, equestrian center, full-sized basketball court, gym, pool, etc, etc it is probably worth that matching 49er price — because with 20% down and a 30-year 6% fixed rate mortgage the monthly payments of $235,023 would be a stretch. And we are not planning any credit revolt, despite the fact that it is the responsible credit users who are being penalized by the likes of Citibank. What we are doing is just trying to comprehend the surreal nature of today’s news as covered on one front page.

And keep the faith.