Polk Street Homelessness
Text by Joey Plaster. Copyright (©) by C. Joey Plaster, 2009. All rights reserved.
Drug addiction also led to increasing homelessness. In a 1992 field note, ethnographer Toby Marotta wrote about a “network of men, straight and bisexual as well as gay, who were in the down-and-out homeless crowd” who lived on GA and SSI and SSA – “what one respondent called ‘the welfare circuit.’” Many were “middle class and well educated men” who “thanks to their years of methamphetamine use and their current heavy usage…were homeless.”
San Francisco’s homeless population grew dramatically during the 1980s, on Polk Street and elsewhere. In 1990, Mayor Agnos cited as the causes of homelessness “the critical shortage of low-cost housing, along with mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, unemployment and family breakups.”
Agnos allowed the city’s homeless to camp in Civic Center while his administration planned a series of large, multi-service centers to serve the population and “stabilize their lives.” Homeless gay men, many from the Polk Street area, created “Camp Camp” at Civic Center as an AIDS memorial and protest. In 1990, Agnos ordered police to “sweep” the Civic Center when the City opened two large shelters – one of which was placed on the southern end of Polk Street, against merchants’ wishes.
“It brings upwards of 600 substance abusers into the neighborhood,” Marvin Warren said in 1997. “Businesses around here went bankrupt right and left.” It also changed the street dynamic. The shelter opened and “all hell broke loose,” said one 27-year-old gay hustler in 1991. “They are more like parasites…as opposed to community mind[ed] and productive parasites [sex workers]….We sit there and we make our money and those people that are just walking up the street saying, ‘you got some change? You got some spare change?’”
While the homeless shelter was a symptom and not a cause of the homelessness on Polk Street, the influx of new street populations may have accelerated the breakdown of the street’s social and safety nets.
“What really made [the street] scarier was the type of drugs,” Coy Ellison said of the early 1990s. “And then you were also getting straight and gay drug addicts mixing in there that were basically hating each other.” In the early ‘90s, when a heroin dealer threatened Ellison while he was working at a Polk Street bar, and the bartender – a client of the dealer – refused to call the police, “I realized that Polk Street really has changed and it really broke my heart,” he said. “The bartenders would all have each others backs, the bar owners used to work with each other. They stopped doing that.”
A bartender interviewed in 1992 said he had left the employ of a Polk Street bar where the majority of the patrons and staff were using speed, because it “got so rough and the manager didn’t care. He didn’t keep the place free of violence.” He went to work at another bar where management “told me to do everything with a soft touch. They want their customers to come back….He turns his back on [drug use]. He’s making his money from the bar customers. Unless it’s blatant, they want the customers to come back.”