The Homeless: an Aesthetic Problem

RICHARD REEVES

December 17, 1991|By RICHARD REEVES

SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco. -- Finally the people have spoken about the homeless. They said: Get them out of our sight!

Mayor Art Agnos was defeated for re-election in the most liberal of American cities last Tuesday -- only a couple of years after being widely hailed as the best and most popular of U.S. mayors. He was defeated by the city's chief of police, Frank Jordan, who promised to sweep panhandlers from the streets. There is a certain symbolism there: Mr. Agnos is a former social worker.

I talked to Mr. Agnos a few days before the election, when he knew he was probably going to lose. He said: ''I made a mistake, I guess. I thought the homeless were a social problem. But the voters think they're an aesthetic problem.''

People can't stand seeing them around anymore. It's been more than 10 years now -- a decade of cutting back on help and compassion, a decade of letting mental cases roam the countryside rather than paying taxes to care for them. The country seems overrun now by the grimy and the grotesque, the pathetic and the panhandlers. And in the places where government has been more decent, more creeps have accumulated.

Art Agnos, the old social worker, was very decent, convinced that with a little time and money, San Francisco could provide shelter, medical help and counseling that would nudge many street people back into the mainstream of society. But few voters or taxpayers thought such things would work -- or, even if they would work, were worth waiting for or paying for.

San Francisco, the majority of its people seemed to say, was too beautiful to be ruined by the ragged. These people were spoiling the view. They particularly spoiled the view -- and the odor -- around City Hall, where Mayor Agnos let them pitch tents while they waited for him to find them shelter. People couldn't stand it -- that was part of last Tuesday's message.

They also can't stand it anymore down the coast in Santa Monica, another beautiful California place that tried to be generous to the homeless and ended up attracting enough of them to turn the city's oceanside showplace, Palisades Park, into a sewer with a view.

Santa Monica, which offered compassion and free meals at City Hall, ended up with at least 1,500 street people. Most of them seemed to be in local parks, a filthy occupying army. Many taxpayers concluded that they were paying these people to ruin their own lives -- keeping families away from park and ocean. Now you can feel the pressure building to run out these ''invaders.''

So the bad has won over the good in America. I do not mean that Frank Jordan is a bad man. As far as I know, he is the salt of the earth. What I mean is that democratic leadership can be judged by whether it brings out the best in people or the worst. For 10 years, people in San Francisco and Santa Monica, in Manhattan and in many other places, tried to do their best, tried to care, tried to be reasonable, tried to be helpful.

But they were defeated by the uncaring -- particularly by two presidents, Ronald Reagan and George Bush, who saw compassion as weakness. They managed to persuade most of us that poverty was self-induced and that the most despicable of the poor were the most representative. There was, it seemed, no difference between a threatening beggar in the park, a criminal and a family that could not quite make it in hard times. All were guilty of the same crime: no money.

VTC So, the caring are giving up or being driven away. People do not want long-term solutions, said Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, an Agnos supporter, after the mayor's defeat. ''They want Band-Aids and miracles.''

That's too harsh, I think. The best of people and the best in people have been defeated. But people are complicated and sensible. Compassion has been defeated -- that's an obvious fact -- and common sense is telling people the choice is now between living with squalor or having it swept away. In San Francisco, the voters decided they wanted this mess picked up, like garbage. I have no doubt that for better or worse, that is what will begin happening all over the country now.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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