Inequality in America: Pictures From The San Francisco Frontlines

The story is as old as America: the haves and the have nots.  Mention “homeless,” people’s eyes glaze over, “can’t we talk about anything else?” But here we are.  San Francisco.  Visiting for work.  We have been here numerous times over the past two decades for various work-related trips.  There has always been a homeless problem in San Francisco, LA, San Diego.  The temperate weather, decades-long failed government policy, are two of many reasons for the problem, but this last visit we felt things have gotten worse.

The city felt like a refugee camp of tens of thousands of mentally ill and addicted people roaming the streets. seeking shelter, while millions stepped over the bodies with their eight dollar artisanal lattes and $15 chia oatmeal on their way to work in the gleaming towers along Market Street and the Embarcadero.  

Every American city has this problem, but instead of stepping over the bodies, we stopped.  We looked.  When we could, we asked their names.   When we know a person’s name, our chances of forgetting them lessen.  They become real.  They are human, just like us.  They are our fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers.  We know this, but we don’t want to be reminded.

This problem is too big to ignore.

#Hotel. Two blocks from my Union Square hotel is a neighborhood in #sanfrancisco called the #tenderloin. It is an area devoted to harm reduction to contain the massive army of the tens of thousands of mentally ill and addicted people on the #sanfrancisco streets. Police leave addicts alone to smoke crack and shoot dope without fines or getting arrested as long as they stay in the #tenderloin. In the decades of visiting this city, the homeless situation is the worst I’ve seen it. San Francisco feel like the canary in the coal mine. Is this the future of U.S. cities? Extreme poverty and extreme wealth with nothing in between? Astronomical housing prices (close to $3,000 rent for a studio apartment in trendy #Dogpatch) and walking through what feels like a refugee camp for the mentally ill and addicted have turned this utopian city into a dystopian shadow world akin to Blade Runner. The Bay Area has some of the wealthiest and smartest people on the planet but no solution is at hand. Some people argue these people are so sick that if they were given a place to live or a job, they would lose it within six months. I don’t have an answer, but looking away, pretending it doesn’t exist and hoping things magically “go away” has never worked for me. Welcome to the #tenderloin.

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Video Interview with Tanya Dove, mother of seven, grandmother and former crack addict for more than 30 years.

Bolo, 62, originally from Birmingham, Alabama, has lived in #sanfrancisco for most of his adult life. He is the father of 10 daughters and has more than 30 grandchildren and great grandchildren, most of whom he has never met. He is in touch with a couple of his daughters. He said the only thing that is going to get him out of #sanfrancisco is getting killed by an earthquake. He loves it in the #tenderloin; food, doctors, shelter, he has everything he needs. He stopped smoking cigarettes in 2000 and doesn’t do hard drugs. #Weed is his thing. When someone next to him told him to stop talking to me because I am a stranger, he said, “I’m gonna talk to him. I loved that he asked me my name. No one ever asks me my name.”

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“Red Sneakers.” Her face. Ravaged. Haunted. Blows me away. I follow her down the block. She crumbles to the sidewalk holds her pipe and five tiny plastic bags of white powder. “Hi. I’m Jay. Can I take your picture?” “Jay,” she says. She lights her pipe. I take that as a yes. I snap with my #iPhone. “What’s your name?” I ask. “Ja-a-a-y. Getl,” I think I hear her say a German-sounding name between tokes on her pipe and sips of beer. I snap away. Her eyes smile as she says, “Ja-a-a-y.” I see a man from the corner of my eye, yelling as he runs toward me. I think on what the photojournalist, Robert Nickelsberg, told me in Kabul before I went to shoot in the central market: “be polite, be fast, always keep moving.” There are some places around the globe that are advisable to keep moving. #afghanistan and #tenderloin are two. Suddenly I understand what she is saying. She is not telling me her name is Getl. She tells me to “Get lost,” as her friend runs toward me. I move. Fast.

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I was taking a wide shot of the street when I hear, “You take my fucking picture I’ll kill you!” She walks toward me. I slip my phone in my pocket and show her my empty hands. “No pictures,” I say. “What’s your name? I’m Jay.” “Chocolate Chip.” “How old are you?” “37.” “How long have you been on the streets?” “Since I was 15.” “How have you survived for so long?” “I tell it like it is. I tell the truth.” “Can I take your picture?” “Why do you want to take my picture?” “You have a great face. I like your blond hair.” “Okay.” I take a couple of pictures as she eats an egg burrito. “Let me see.” I show her. “No more pictures until I’m done eating. And don’t take this side (pointing to the right side of her face) I don’t like it.” “Okay.” She finishes her burrito. I take her picture and show her the results. “I told you you have a great face. This is a nice picture of you.” “Yeah.” She nods, gets her bag and walks away.

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