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"Sleep when you can get some" by Elliot Margolies. Creative Commons license.

“Sleep when you can get some” by Elliot Margolies. Creative Commons license.

One day when my daughter was a baby, I was walking around San Francisco’s Westfield shopping center with her in a baby carrier when we passed a man dozing on the rim of a large potted plant. He was older, a bit disheveled, sitting in a wheelchair with his head resting on his arms like a pillow.

Seeing him, my body vibrated with sympathy. My daughter’s early months were a long slog of sleep deprivation as she woke me every hour or so to nurse. Some people cope better with lack of sleep than others; I’m definitely one of the others. When I don’t sleep, I’m achy, queasy and completely frayed. Like the man in the wheelchair, I craved sleep. I wanted to lay my head down right where I was and rest.

The Bay Area recently hosted the 50th Super Bowl, including a football-inspired theme park in downtown San Francisco. City leaders told local homeless people that they would have to leave the streets during the festivities. But where were they supposed to go? Last year, the homeless count tallied 6,686 persons, but the city only has 1,500 shelter beds available.

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Partly because of this quasi-eviction and partly because of the heavy winter rains, they relocated. They slept in the city’s subway stations, particularly Civic Center, and they erected a mile-long tent city under the umbrella of Highway 101. They curled up on public transit, dozed in doorways and stretched out in bus shelters, tarps for blankets, hoping to sleep.

The tents themselves created controversy and highlighted many locals’ lack of compassion. Some San Francisco residents complained about their presence. Supervisor Scott Wiener said the tents needed to “go away” but didn’t propose any alternatives. The city attempted to make them go away by slapping homeless tent-dwellers with $100 citations for blocking the sidewalks; never mind that these folks have no way to pay that much money.

It’s a fair guess that most homeless people, including those in temporary shelters, aren’t getting regular, restful sleep. Bad weather, noise, the discomfort of sleeping rough — all of these things disrupt proper rest. Some are disabled, fighting illness or infection or dealing with mental health issues, all of which can increase the body’s need for restorative sleep.

The Geneva Conventions ban torture, and sleep deprivation is specifically called out as forbidden. If we have created a society where our poorest, most vulnerable citizens are left on the streets like garbage, deprived of ways to get enough sleep, what do we call that?

The San Francisco Chronicle ran a front-page article before Christmas about the death of a well-known homeless woman, Vina Villegas, from a drug overdose. It was written by reporter Kevin Fagan, who has spent time living among the city’s homeless, and it was a well-written, sympathetic portrait of this woman’s life. After Editor in Chief Audrey Cooper tweeted about the piece, I said the Chronicle should run such articles daily until San Francisco gets better at caring for its homeless.

“She was taken care of by the city, if you read the story.” (I had.) “She just couldn’t help herself. That is the tragedy of the story,” Cooper responded.

“It sounds to me like she needed more than shelter, and I can’t tell if she was getting it,” I tweeted back.

“The head of the [homeless] department tried to get her into rehab several times. For years. She tried, too,” Cooper said.

“Yes, I know,” I said. “I’m saying we need a more innovative approach than, ‘Tried to get her into rehab ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.’”

She didn’t respond.

Our culture is based in individualism and self-determination, in the belief that everyone can make it if they try hard enough. It’s an incredibly hopeful, optimistic belief, but it’s also toxically wrong. Nobody gets anywhere without help, and plenty of people need lots of it. But it gets tricky trying to help people who are addicted or mentally ill, because many will refuse, even if that’s the only way they can hope to get better. Most homeless don’t choose to be homeless. But some will reject the very things that could get them out of it. How do we help when doing so might mean making choices for someone else, even if they don’t want us to? I don’t know the answer. But it’s a question worth asking.

More recently, Justin Keller, the CEO of San Francisco startup commander.io, wrote an “Open letter to SF Mayor Ed Lee and Greg Suhr (police chief)” in which he described several recent run-ins with homeless people and told city leaders that he “shouldn’t have to see the … despair of homeless people.” Keller, like his predecessors-in-privilege Peter Shih and Greg Gopman, was quickly skewered for his entitlement and lack of empathy. But it’s notable that screeds like Keller’s are met with more venom than is directed at the problem of homelessness in San Francisco. Could that anger, directed in a more useful direction, create change?

San Francisco has struggled with its homelessness problem for decades. Although it’s long been thought of as a destination spot for homeless folks who come from elsewhere, a recent study shows that 71 percent of the city’s unhoused population used to have a residence here. That’s up from 61 percent in 2013, a period in which rents have skyrocketed and many have been evicted from their homes to make way for people with higher incomes. Meanwhile, the city spends $167 million per year on programs intended to help the homeless, but the population has not decreased. There are plenty of passionate, hard-working people addressing the issue, but either it’s not enough or the whole approach needs rethinking (or, possibly, both).

We live in a land of incredibly smart, enthusiastic innovators. But their drive to create cutting-edge technology that makes people’s lives more easier and more comfortable hasn’t extended to those who arguably need it the most. Granted, it’s a population that can’t pay big bucks for the services they need, but California’s tech culture also prides itself on its philanthropy. If the state’s innovators and homeless advocates could work together, what real solutions could they come up with? If nothing else, the region’s homeless — including children, the elderly, the disabled, the veterans, the mentally ill and all the others — could start getting a decent night’s sleep.


Bay Area-based journalist, author and a senior editor for Wear Your Voice. Featured in The Guardian, The New Yorker, Wired, Mother Jones, PopMatters, the San Francisco Chronicle and the SF Weekly. View total badassery at her website, or follow her on Twitter.

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