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'To Have and Have Not': The Early Days of Bay Area Homelessness

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Once upon a time there were no homeless people in San Francisco. Or California. Or the country, for that matter. Really. At least not in the way we have come to define “the homeless.”

I remember when I first saw homeless people on the streets of San Francisco. It was fall of 1982 and I was producing a local documentary for KQED called “To Have and Have Not” about the growing gap between rich and poor in San Francisco.

Sound familiar?

In the Tenderloin and other run-down corners of the city, my TV crew and I began to notice and speak with people who told us they had nowhere to live. I’d been renting a place in the city for five years. I was accustomed to a few panhandlers downtown, winos and derelicts in the Tenderloin, some runaways in the Haight. But this was different.

Suddenly, St. Anthony’s Dining Hall was swamped with people needing a free meal. Emergency shelters were overrun. At night, people huddled in storefronts in the rain.

“We’re seeing more and more women and children,” Clare Doyle, the director of a Catholic-run soup kitchen in the Mission, told us. “More families. More children who come in here by themselves, sometimes with jars saying, ‘Can I have some soup to take home to my mom?’ ”

A still from the 1983 KQED documentary. (KQED)

This was shocking and it was new. Homeless people in San Francisco. No one was sure how many, but emergency shelters were taking in close to a thousand, while many more eked out a life in the alleys and the parks.


Why was this happening?

For one thing, we were in the middle of a recession. Twelve million people were unemployed across the country, 1.5 million in California, and 150,000 in the Bay Area. Manufacturing plants were shutting down, people were hurting. It was the beginning of what we now know as “the de-industrialization of America.”

Newsweek declared it “The Hard-Luck Christmas of ’82,” saying “with 12 million unemployed and 2 million homeless, private charity cannot make up for federal cutbacks.”

And that was the other reason: cutbacks. Under President Ronald Reagan, who was elected in 1980, the government had slashed federal housing subsidies and poverty programs, including food stamps. Low-cost housing was vanishing, especially in cities like San Francisco, where the housing market was already tight and expensive.

A still from the 1983 KQED documentary, "To Have and Have Not."
A still from the 1983 KQED documentary, "To Have and Have Not." (KQED)

There was at least one more cause of this new homeless calamity: the closing of mental health hospitals without creating an adequate safety net of neighborhood clinics and support services. This process had begun in the '70s but deepened every year. “We have a lot more people with emotional problems,” Doyle told us at her shelter in the Mission. “A lot of people who have been dumped out of the mental health system literally with a handful of Thorazine and dumped on the streets.”

Recession, unemployment, cutbacks in federal support for housing and the poor, and a breakdown in mental health services -- all this formed a perfect storm, and the victims were people we began to call “the homeless.”

It wasn’t as bad as the Great Depression of the 1930s, when a third of the country was unemployed, and sprawling camps of the hungry and desperate – “Hoovervilles” – emerged everywhere from New York’s Central Park to downtown L.A.

But in some ways it had a nastier edge. The homeless in San Francisco in the early 1980s lived in the midst of recession-proof wealth. They were surrounded by those with old Pacific Heights money and the new prosperity of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. In Los Gatos, a Ferrari dealer told me he was experiencing record sales. Sometimes customers forked over $80,000 in cash for a new sports car.

In my lifetime, which began in the postwar prosperity of the ’50s and '60s, this “tale of two cities” clash was the beginning of the long era of “income inequality” that has so divided our country.

There are scenes in “To Have and Have Not” of homeless people and their advocates starting to organize and march on City Hall to demand and receive emergency shelter. There’s also a skirmish in which police drag off some homeless men who refused to leave the temporary sanctuary of a broken-down Muni bus.

In many ways, this is still what’s happening, still the way we treat the homeless: provide services, which are ample but never enough, tolerate a certain level of suffering on the streets, and resort to criminal prosecution and even police shootings when someone feels threatened.

Thirty-four years after I first saw and filmed homeless people in the City of St. Francis, I never expected to see this crisis still festering, still unresolved. And I have the same thought I had back then: We are a resilient, democratic, prosperous society, but at what point does a city, a country, become so economically divided that it tears itself apart?

Stephen Talbot was a staff reporter and producer at KQED-TV from 1980 to 1989. He went on to become a producer for the PBS series "Frontline," but has returned to KQED over the years to produce documentaries like “The Celebrity and the City” about Jerry Brown as mayor of Oakland and the show “Sound Tracks: Music Without Borders.” He just completed senior producing an independent documentary in Indianapolis called “Under the Bridge: The Criminalization of Homelessness.” Talbot now works for ITVS, the San Francisco-based nonprofit that runs the documentary series "Independent Lens."

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