"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, August 12, 2022

When Bleeding Hearts Stop Bleeding–Welfare, Homelessness, And A Happy Return To Nantucket

Mary Falmouth felt a pang of guilt whenever she saw a homeless man on the street – they were most always men, she noticed, and bag ladies were nowhere to be seen.  After years living in San Francisco and despite having to step over homeless people, steer clear of their shopping carts, and avoid their stinking clots of shit, she never became inured or indifferent to their misery.  Only by the grace of God, she thought, go I, sheltered, albeit in a shabby walk up on Guerrero Street, expunging by a deliberately deprived existence her former notions of privilege and opportunity. 

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After graduating from Brown where she had been sensitized to the plight of the poor thanks to her courses on transgression, social monopoly, and racial elitism and thanks to the enlightened camaraderie of her fellow students, she applied for and easily secured a job  with the San Francisco Department of Human Welfare as an outreach worker.  The Department had long been the repository of ward favors – walkin’ around money, promises, and votes.  No one had anyone’s interest in mind other than their own.  The ratty streets where they had come from could continue to pile up trash and garbage for all they cared.  Punch in in the morning, punch out at quitting time, make the obligatory trips back to the old neighborhood to hand out welfare bonuses and sign up their sisters for food stamps, child support, and ‘emotional disability’ payments, the newest initiative of the City Council as an expansion of the idea of poverty alleviation into the realm of wholeness and complete well-being.

The City had offered Mary a job because the new Department director, a reformer who wanted to revitalize welfare programs by adding elements of personal responsibility, fiscal prudence, and good sense.  He was impressed by her academic performance, campus activism, and heartfelt but intelligent letter accompanying her job application.  She would be the first woman to begin to right the ship; to help pump, dump, and blow the bilge that had sloshed below decks for decades.  She would be the Jackie Robinson of San Francisco welfare, sure to take abuse from the hangers-on who would try to spit out this pretty white girl before she caused trouble, but necessary to stay the course.

She was impressive on her job interviews, first online and then in the City offices.  She had that combination of commitment, steadfastness, and desire that would give her the moral authority which had been so lacking in the Department.  It would be a tough haul for her, coming as she did from her particularly well-off background, but the Director knew right off that she was the woman for the job.

Of course the Director was as naïve as they come.  His reformist zeal also came from the outside, University of Chicago graduate school in community development, heir to Saul Alinsky and Paolo Freire, drawn to the Bay Area because of its liberalism and the thorny issue of homelessness amidst the skyscrapers of the Internet boom; and because his parents had been Haight-Ashbury hippies, first class dopers and dropouts who had him ironically in a lean-to on Capp Street, now the homeless heaven of the Mission. He had been hired because his predecessor had been found out with one hand in the till and the other up the skirts of his employees; and because no one else wanted the job under the new conditions of official scrutiny. 

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The two of them, Mary and the Director, made a handsome, intellectually suited pair.  They shared a belief in doing something not only for the homeless but for all the socially and emotionally unsheltered residents of the city, and their work ethic was tireless. The made field trips to the most ragged, unkempt, and undesirable neighborhoods of the city.  A recent investigation by an investigative team of a major news outlet had found trash on each of the 153 blocks surveyed, the vast majority of which were littered with heaps of garbage, food, drug needles, and more than 300 piles of feces throughout downtown.  “This is what I’m talking about”, said the Director to his new hire on a visit to one disheveled area.  “This is why we are here”.

Of course, they were able to do nothing.  The bureaucracy of entitlement was too entrenched in city government, the powerful liberal lobbies insisted on programs of ‘tolerance, forgiveness, and compassion’.  People in such dire straits as the drug-addicted, alcoholic, penniless homeless should be beneficiaries of the largesse of the well-to-do.  Asking them to man up, pull up, and stand tall was insulting, insensitive, and inhuman.

It was the perfect storm – an immovable bureaucracy, in-for-life bureaucrats for whom change was ipso facto harmful to their health and well-being, and a claque of progressive activists for whom nothing short of a Homeless City would do.  No city had such a triad of influence.  Most cities like Detroit, Baltimore, and St. Louis just staggered in dysfunction, let the worst of the worst kill themselves, and dump money down the sluice gates without a thought in the world where it would end up.  San Francisco had principle, moral fiber, and political commitment.

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Week after week, Mary commuted downtown to her shabby, dark, airless office shared with five other employees there thanks  to incarcerated cousins out on bail who did favors for ward heelers and low-level political hacks.  She sketched out ideas for a more dynamic community approach, one that sang with verses of ownership, opportunity, and dignity.  She took ‘outbound’ field trips to fact-find, picked her way through needles, garbage, and piss-stinking drunk men, and came up with little.  The problem grew every month, not only counted by the number of homeless and the piles of rot and shit, but by the increasing diffidence of her department whose workers fiddled and played cards while the streets overflowed with stink and refuse.

She canvassed Berkeley student radicals, old Huey Newton cadres, city politicians, and the residents of the slums.  She wrote authoritative policy papers, submitted proposals to the City, pled for national notice; but was ignored.  No one seemed to care; and sadly, ironically, and predictably, neither did she.  As in everyone, there is an emotional level beyond which individual enterprise will not go.  Slowly but surely she began to think destructive thoughts.  Why don’t these people get it together, end their derelict, irresponsible, and pitifully self-absorbed ways, and get off the fucking street? Was personal responsibility, rectitude, and moral discipline only for the well-off? 

Soon she got tired of stepping over stinking, homeless men, dope addicts, and drunks. She was sick and tired of garbage, shit, flies, and trash.  She was fed up with indifference, disrespect, and the parasitism of the welfare-dependent.  It was time to leave.

After two years of this, she went back to Boston, went to law school, summered with her parents on Nantucket, and after a notable academic sojourn, joined a Wall Street investment bank.  “We told you so”, said her parents, relieved that she did not sink in the mire of the Tenderloin and returned home.  They had been right, of course, an apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, especially those in Old New England, where roots are very deep.

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Everything from that point on was predictable – a good marriage, homes on Beacon Hill and Marblehead, children, private school, and good porcelain.  Mary Falmouth never looked back.

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