The Dark Side of San Francisco

You may think of it as the world’s capital of technology, a centre of innovation, surrounded by exciting landscapes and looking through the spectacle of the Golden Gate Bridge out over the Pacific ocean. Many things spring to mind considering the city and its wider metropolitan area, home to Google, Facebook and 7.6 million people; many of these things were on my mind as on the last day of my recent business trip to America my plan was to spend an afternoon and evening exploring its steep streets, eating some quality Mexican food and having a drink with some other tech startup types. What I got was not the view most people have of this famous city.

My journey seemed condemned to failure when my flight to North California from Minneapolis took almost 6 hours to take off, due in small part to snow and in larger part to the airline’s lack of preparation for such a yearly event - showcased as every other plane still seemed to be taking off. The delays meant we arrived into San Francisco not in the afternoon as planned, but in the evening. 11pm is hardly an ideal time to be sightseeing but after the trip I’d had, and bearing in mind the big city I’d just arrived in, I decided to go and see what sights I could by street and moon light.

Unlike some US airports it’s fairly easy to see how to get into town from SFO; the city’s BART light rail system leaves from the central departures area of the terminal, and an $8 ticket later I was on a quick under/over grounds tram into town. My destination was the Mission District, recommended by a friend for it’s authentic atmosphere and Mexican food. That authenticity proved to be more than I was expecting; as I emerged from the subterranean station at 16th Street I entered into what could have been mistaken as some sort of informal meeting of local homeless, but in fact this was more like their adopted reception room. Every bench or flat surface around the small gardens encircling the subway exit was occupied by someone sleeping or a few sitting talking. A number had large suitcases or possessions in a shopping trolley, many hadn’t managed to scrape a bench and were next to a wall, in a corner or behind a bin under a duvet. I’m no stranger to cities and the harsh realities of life but I think standing by that crossroads I saw more homeless people in 360 degrees than I have in any week in Manchester.

Looking around at the locals I was nervous about continuing to try and find a place to eat or drink, but gave it a go. Walking down one of the streets I immediately noticed someone was following me, and a guy across the road was shouting something at me. I progressed for a very short while longer when I realised that the road ahead had large patches of unlit street and that the doorways nearby still had people sleeping in them. Crossing the road to avoid the person following me, I wandered casually back to the station and hurried inside. Most likely I over-reacted here. I was judging when I possibly shouldn’t have and jumping at shadows; however I wasn’t prepared for what I saw and the fight or flight reaction was quite predictable. Deciding I wouldn’t give up I went back to the platform and headed further into town.

Emerging once more from the underground, this time at the central/civic centre stop I was relieved to see a wide pedestrianised boulevard, a big Christmas tree and relatively quiet streets. This difference didn’t last long however; rounding the next corner once again the street, this time surrounding an on-road bus terminal, was again occupied with homeless people, along with groups of youths who may or may not have been homeless themselves. At night in a UK town I might have been worried about a group of drunk lads, but there was no party atmosphere here - in fact I couldn’t even see any bars, open or otherwise. Resigning myself to maybe not seeing quite what I wanted I headed into a large fast food burrito bar on the corner to get some food all the same.

Having asked the security guard if he knew any open restaurants in the area (he didn’t) I got some food and sat down, across the aisle from a woman who just seemed to be sitting there. She struck up a conversation, asking where I was from; I told her the UK and she said she’d like to visit some day - not quite considering her circumstance I rather foolishly piped up with “you should definitely go on holiday there some time” but she seemed to find it amusing. We began talking about how she’d ended up homeless - everyone has their story. Hers was one of abuse by her husband and friends, abandonment by children & family, and what may have been a corrupt judiciary siding with her husband, and their friend, as they presided over the subsequent divorce. She’d been left further south in California with nothing, and had headed to San Francisco to try and find work, as she was a trained nurse. She’d had no luck and resorted to living on the streets with occasional nights in homeless shelters, though she’d experienced violence in some of those too. She spoke about homelessness, the weird sort of half trusting half fearful community of people, some of whom looked out for each other, others who tried to get ahead - sort of like any community I guess.

Most strikingly her next place she’d like to visit after the UK was Israel and I found she was a Christian - truly amazing in light of all that had happened to her. She’d been to a church before her troubles had started, and very disappointingly they seemed to have done little to help. Fortunately she’d found a church recently in SF who were aiming to help homeless people, and I pray that they’ll be able to do something for her. She also spoke about talking to other’s in shelters or on the street about her faith, and whilst some had hostile reactions many were encouraged by what she had to say - and to see that trust in spite of her situation, that she’d even continue to tell others about her faith, is a brilliant example and encouragement for all Christians in the west. I’d hope that anyone, hearing her story, would think twice the next time they complained about not being able to afford a new TV.

We spoke for over an hour in all, even going over a few passages from the Bible together, before she headed off to find somewhere to sleep and I decided to continue my mission to see SF by night. Strangely after talking with her I no longer felt scared about the streets and the people on them any more. Obviously I felt pity from the beginning but now I had a better understanding of what should have been obvious - that these people were really just like me. Sure maybe some got into drink, drugs or gambling and ended up that way, but so many will have been let down by employers, family, the government or even grew up on those streets after their parents ended up the same way. I resolved that rather than being afraid I’d try and talk to anyone who might otherwise have made me nervous - though as it as now much later most people I encountered from then were asleep.

Following that I walked for nearly an hour north from the city centre, ending up on the famous Lombard Street, the steep road which from the top has a view all the way to the pacific coast, and the famous windy Russian Road coming down the east side from its highest point. From there I headed to the docks at Fisherman’s Wharf where I finally found bars and restaurants - but all shut and the streets all but deserted at this point.

So it was that I ended up in the most surreal of situations, sitting on a kerb, my feet resting on a sandy beach, looking over a dark bay at the lit up Golden Gate bridge, the only sounds that of lapping water and nearby but unseen seals calling to each other, thankful that I’d taken this weird trip around town to have my eyes well and truly opened. Those with money, the corporations and the governments may wish that these issues would remain in darkness, unseen by the populace, but turning a blind eye won’t fix them; pretty soon they’ll be too big for the night to hide.