In the San Francisco Library, a City’s Generosity and Its Meanness

Amid the vast wealth and ostentation of the internet boom, San Francisco also accommodates an enormous and growing population of homeless people. The city’s public library, writes Daikha Dridi, perfectly crystallizes the ambiguous attitude of this affluent place toward its least fortunate.

Like an ocean liner of glass and concrete, the San Francisco library indifferently shrugs off the deluge of rain that has splashed down on this city for the past few days. In the occasional moments of clear sky a few rays of sunlight, as fleeting as they are dazzling, pass across the faces of the many homeless who are gathered here. In groups or alone, like gulls announcing from afar the arrival of a ship, they come and go in the surroundings of the library.

Their highwire walkers’ gaits, their absent gazes, their damp and foul smelling clothes, their carts stolen from supermarkets, do not conflict with the majestic architecture and neatly trimmed grass that surrounds them. The homeless of San Francisco are at home here, in the geographic and political heart of the city, Civic Center.

And so here they are in their dozens, as much a part of the landscape as are the tourists in this neighborhood where the immense, baroque City Hall sits facing the Asian Art Museum and the grand main public library; and no one really imagines trying to move them out.

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Photo CC: Shawn Clover.

The library is their harbor, their luxurious Noah’s ark: a jewel of modern architecture, an orgy of refinement, six floors, immense, open, deluged with light. Like the books, the light is omnipresent here. It pours down from on high through the grand skylight that crowns the entrance hall, it flows through the giant vertical windows that look out on the Civic Center plaza, it seeps in through the high walls of glass that interpose with the concrete. Like the books, the light adds to the inherent friendliness of the place.

This place of modern, high tech splendor is the favorite stop for hundreds of homeless people who here find the comfort that is denied to them everywhere else: Clean, calm, warm (or cool during the rare heat waves), books and computers; and above all clean bathrooms and a friendly welcome.

Here, no one has the right to deny them entry, and this creates a particular atmosphere, completely unique in this city, in which people who have lost everything, sometimes even their minds, share in complete equality with the rest of San Franciscans a public space and numerous services.

The entire floorspace of the library is covered in an elegant beige and blue carpeting which absorbs noise, though it is not unusual to hear the sudden eruption of a voice that breaking out in song here. Or grumbling. It is not unusual to see faces, their features worn down by hard lives, asleep on a pile of books. Many come simply to take a break from their nomadic peregrinations.

They arrive in the morning, before the building opens, and wait in large groups for the hour that the gates are opened. As one man, they head first for the bathroom on the ground floor, then take the elevators up. Each now heading for his preferred corner: the grand tables at the center of the floors, where they can use the computers, have access to the Internet, movies, music, video games. Or to the thematic alcoves at the corners of each floor, more isolated and calm: the LGBT corner, or the African American, Chinese or Filipino corners.

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Photo CC: John Catbagan

On occasion, one might be interrupted from one’s reading or work by a Latino man who crisscrosses the floors with a bible open in his hands, his face still retaining a bit of youthful gentleness, his eyes a bit of a happy smile. Perhaps it is his faith that has preserved it. He won’t say more about himself than his first name, Joe, and his age, 42, but he asks many times if God is in you. He is himself neither hobo or homeless he says; he has come from Texas some months ago, and even though he has no place to sleep in San Francisco, he has decided to stick around for a while longer. He has fallen in love with this “marvelous library and all of these beautiful books.”

Sometimes, it is a malodorous draft of air that pulls you out of even your deepest concentration, at the passage of some person who is navigating the aisles in search of a placid spot to set down the giant, filled-to-bursting bags that are his movable home.

There are those who are trying to complete some task on a computer and are having difficulty. You hear them talking to the keyboard, fulminating, typing more and more irritably. Sometimes a ‘shit’ or a ‘fuck’ erupts, but that is quite rare.

On the other hand, it is not unusual to notice mothers coming in after a long day of work to use a computer. Some come in to type up their resumes, meticulously following guides that are provided for them, while others Skype very discretely with faraway parents. A good number of them wear latex gloves to avoid touching the public keyboards.

And, like the murmur of a patient and inexhaustible fountain, there is the background voice of one of the librarians, sweet and endlessly friendly, dispensing answers, advice, and instructions. Hard to believe perhaps, here in this world-capital of modern technologies, but frequently the library’s visitors ask her to help them with something as simple as sending an email.

On the sixth and last floor, among the offices of the library’s employees is that of Leah Esguerra, the library’s social worker. Five years ago, the San Francisco Public Library became the first in the United States to hire a full time social worker. On loan from the city’s health department, she works with a team of people who are themselves beneficiaries of a city program to aid the homeless; they were all themselves quite recently homeless people who came to the library to relax, wash themselves, sleep a little or simply escape from the streets. Their mission is now to assist this social worker who is also a psychiatrist.

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Photo CC: Keith Chastain

Frequently it is the first job they have been able to land. Having drunk from the same bitter cup as the people they deal with, their role is to help the library’s employees interact with the homeless, and to deal with the numerous crises which inevitably arise out of the drug and alcohol consumption, as well as the mental disequilibrium of many of the homeless. In return, the library pays them, and most importantly supplies a substantial work reference for an otherwise skeletal resume.

But because of external pressure, specifically from the mayor’s office, others have been patrolling as well for the past few months: several times a day, uniformed policemen and guards circulate now.

The reinforced police presence in the library is a sign that the choppy civic waters the city has been traversing since the latest real estate boom began to take off in 2011 have reached the walls of the library. Until now, an inviolable temple, a concrete hymn to knowledge and hospitableness.

As in all of America’s great urban centers, the return of the wealthy to the cities has been squeezing the poorest urban dwellers out. This powerful trend, which has everywhere accelerated in recent years, has attained spectacular proportions in the San Francisco Bay area. The explosion in rent prices, which have risen to meet even the legendarily expensive prices of Manhattan, has been fed by waves of new residents, young and well paid, who arrive to work for the large tech companies of Silicon Valley. In response, numerous demonstrations, some of them quite aggressive, have protested the exodus of the city’s least well off inhabitants.

In the context of this tension, a couple of local newspapers decided to open a new front of debate, regarding the disorder and chaos that the street people bring with them when they frequent the library. The library’s special atmosphere, it should be said, was never really been to the taste of certain of the city’s newspapers, especially their editorialists, and in particular those of the San Francisco Chronicle. It is actually possible to turn back the clock and find articles written in the 1950s, discussing in hostile tones the presence of the impoverished in the library.

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Photo CC: Tony Webster

The library’s head of public relations, Michelle Jeffers, says the local press’s insistent focus on troubling incidents (a fight that got out of hand, an unbalanced person who for some months urinated on books before returning them to the shelves), should be taken in context, given that some 5,000 people visit the library every day.

Nevertheless, the news articles and jeers of the Chronicle got the mayor to show up in person, to order the employees and managers of the library to strictly enforce the library’s code of conduct.

“Mayor Ed Lee has set all of the city’s departments against the homeless,” says Lisa Marie Alatorre, spokeswoman for the Coaliton on Homelesseness, one of the most influential organizations working to defend the rights of the homeless and the very poor in general.

Crowned by a purple mohawk, the sides of her head shaved and dreadlocks tied at the back, piercings stippling a baby face–on which a perpetual smile floats, providing a pleasing counterbalance to the somewhat severe hairdo–Alatorre is graceful in her round body, and takes care to dress herself with elegance, within the constraints of her style.

Rather than be interviewed at the office of the Coalition, Alatorre, who spends her days meeting with the bureaucrats and politicians of the city, prefers to set a rendezvous on the steps of City Hall, where, while waiting for a meeting, she eats a cold sandwich.

She says there is no doubt that “the city of San Francisco’s war on its homeless is a direct result of pressure from CEOs of new companies in the city, as well as tourists and new residents on the mayor, who in turn gives instructions to make life hard for the homeless.”

And so it is that the police have been put to work harassing the homeless with more vigor and zeal. The maintenance department shuts down certain public parks early to complicate the lives of nocturnal squatters. The department of parking enforcement chases off those who sleep in their vehicles (RVs, station wagons, trucks), many of whom habitually park in the industrial zones of the city’s southeast…

“The library is the final frontier of humaneness for the homeless in this town,” Alatorre says.

Nevertheless, San Francisco has long been an outlier of relative humaneness, a city with an image of openness and hospitability in an America after Ronald Reagan. This president slashed social services, particularly those for the homeless, while throwing thousands of the most vulnerable onto the street, into hopelessness and madness. A city profoundly marked by social movements like the struggle for civil rights, the Hippies, and the anti-war movement of the 1960s and 70s, San Francisco has developed a remarkable culture of solidarity and social activism. A history, a culture and a tradition that some however think is dying out under the effects of the repeated tech booms which wash over the city.

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Photo CC: Luca Prassp

The library itself is a pure product of this culture, conceived as a symbol of the city’s egalitarian, social and multiethnic character. The construction of the building, which opened in 1996, was undertaken only after a long citizen’s campaign that stretched out over several decades, culminating in a massive vote by residents of the city to unblock public money, along with an enormous fund drive which collected donations from more than 17,000 individual donors.

Other homelessness activists, like Sam Dodge, however believe that the tradition of openness and inclusion displayed at the main library is not in danger. At 38, Dodge has spent his life working for organizations defending the rights of the homeless in San Francisco and Brooklyn. He has seen the previous booms and hurricanes of tech money pass through the city. Today, he is employed by the city of San Francisco as an expert analyst on the homeless; for him the question for the library is how to arrive at a balanced policy which will maintain the place’s diversity.

“In San Francisco, there are two extremes of behavior when it comes to dealing with people who don’t have a home,” he says, “The first is to act as if they don’t exist, while the second is to conceive of them exclusively as victims, with no individual will of their own.” For Dodge, whose big eyes seem devoured by a perpetual curiosity, it goes without saying that San Francisco is one of the few American cities which have really taken to heart the question of homelessness. One only needs to take note of the remarkable program of constructing subsidized housing for low-income residents, or at the $165 million budget the city dedicates annually to homelessness.

Nevertheless, to really talk about success in resolving the question of homelessness in the United States, it is with a hint of bitterness, as well as a great deal of admiration, that this child of the anarchistic, anti-war, egalitarian West Coast turns his eyes to Utah for a real example worthy of following. It is Utah, one of the most conservative states in America, Dodge says, that has had the political courage to launch a revolutionary program of giving homes to those who have now means to pay for them. No strings attached. The result: many of the formerly homeless there, having found a vital element of stability (a place to sleep, to wash, to feed themselves), are able to find work.

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Photo CC: Tomoe Nakamura

What Utah has decided to do, is not to launch generous programs to aid the homeless, nor offer them a hospitable library, no matter how sumptuous. What it offers is simply the possibility of scratching out the “homeless” part from the identity of its most deprived citizens.

A revolution that avant-garde San Francisco does not even seem able to conceive of.

Daikha Dridi Translated from French by International Boulevard

  • John Mattole

    A great piece of writing about the real America today. It reminded me of descriptions by Ammianus Marcellinus of the plebian rabble in the streets and public baths of the late Roman empire, contrasted with the super- rich Senatorial – rentier class. The tragedy is one see these scenes in every town and city across the United States, while our inept government continues to meddle with and attack weaker states around the world.