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Vagrants in Our Driveway: A Teachable Moment

Vagrants in Our Driveway: A Teachable Moment

6 Mins
May 18, 2020

“I’m calling the police,” my mother said from her upstairs office.  When I ran upstairs to find out what she was talking about, she was on the line with 911, telling them about the partially clothed adult male stumbling around the drive to the terrace where my parents and immediate neighbors live.  I took a video here.  

As my mother recounted to the dispatch officer, the man seemed “quite impaired.”  He was.  And so is San Francisco when it comes to dealing with the rising tide of drug-addicted, increasingly aggressive vagrants who are harassing passers by, breaking into homes and cars in our neighborhood, and defecating on the city streets when not in hotel rooms at taxpayer expense.

Both the man and the city remind me of Ayn Rand’s observation that “Man is free to unfocus his mind and stumble blindly down any road he pleases, but not free to avoid the abyss he refuses to see.”

There’s not a ton of upside when a half-naked, adult man in a stupor puts on a disgraceful spectacle in front of families, including small children locked in their homes (other than the one child who was whizzing by on a scooter in the middle of this episode), but there is this: A teachable moment.

A moment when the abyss stumbles down our road, and each of us is confronted by the increasingly difficult to ignore reality that we have invited the abyss in.

But, no….you can’t really mean that?  What could we, the ordinary people here in San Francisco, have done to invite this situation?  Let me count the ways.  I’ll start with five.

1. By continuing to discuss the situation at hand as a “homeless” crisis.  Whatever it may be -- let’s start by agreeing to what it’s not, which is a “homeless” crisis, because by continuing to discuss it as a “homeless” crisis, we’ve disabled our ability to think about what is truly happening, what caused it, and how to fix it.  

Like in the dystopian novella Anthem, in which totalitarian authorities have abolished the word “I” -- rendering humans incapable of conceiving of themselves as individuals -- by adopting the politically correct term of “homeless” to describe individuals who have historically, pejoratively, and more accurately been referred to variously as bums, loiterers, vagrants, panhandlers, vagabonds, beggars, addicts, etc., we may feel as if we’ve elevated the discussion to a more benevolent plane, when we’ve really only subjugated it to a social justice agenda in which inequality is the driving moral narrative, not individual agency, and government intervention is the default solution. Start by calling a spade a spade.  A is A, and no good will come of claiming otherwise, as Rand warned: “All the secret evil you dread to face within you and all the pain you have ever endured, came from your own attempt to evade the fact that A is A.”

2.  By rejecting the evidence of your senses.  Open your eyes, look at the “homeless” like the one wandering our terrace in my video, or any of those passed out on the streets of San Francisco, and ask yourself when was the last time you saw a “homeless” person who looked sober, sane, or simply down on their luck because of “unaffordable housing”?  I posed this question to a friend and longtime San Francisco resident who said, “I rarely see a vagrant who looks with it and just needs help. It's mostly drug addicts and some mentally ill people -- some of which was caused by drugs.”  

Those who have housing challenges, who aren’t completely disabled by addiction/mental illness find alternatives to living on the street.  I know this from personal experience.  I’ve helped house two long term friends -- I’ll call them Benny and Dave -- who I’ve known for decades, and who at various times needed a place to stay.  

Benny is a published author, a kind soul, who’s chosen a vagabond lifestyle.  He likes to sleep in a sleeping bag under the Malibu stars, and asked if he could sleep in my driveway for a while.  I said sure.  He used to sleep in his van, and would like to have another van to sleep in, but he didn’t want to work the kind of revenue-bearing jobs (when they existed) that would have enabled him to buy another van, preferring to watch videos, read, and write.  He’s no victim; he chooses his lifestyle, and I choose him as a friend, not out of pity, but because he provides value to my life, and he exemplifies some virtues I admire: loyalty, honesty, creativity and benevolence.  Now he’s living in the garage of another friend -- and Benny’s boundless capacity for making friends, gives me the confidence that you’ll never see him sleeping in front of Safeway.  

My other friend, Dave, is a victim -- in particular of a corrupt criminal justice system that I believe framed him for a crime he didn’t commit, and thwarted his appeals for justice.  When he was finally released and living in a half-way house with dangerous ex-felons, I invited him to stay in my guest room for a few weeks as he dealt with health issues and got himself back on his feet.  

My point is not to present myself as an exemplar of altruism -- far from it, as helping two loyal friends was unequivocally in my rational self-interest.  My point is that individuals who are having housing challenges, who are not a danger to anyone, and who have not alienated everyone else in their life through malevolent behavior, are not what you typically see on the streets of San Francisco, and Malibu, for that matter, not because they are “lucky,” but because they are lucid, and in whatever limited fashion, want to try to live productive lives.

3. By embracing the ideal of self-sacrifice as a moral virtue.  It’s not a sacrifice to protect your family.  It is a sacrifice to tolerate meth-heads and other ne'er do wells in the space where your children are playing and your elderly parents are out watering their plants.  On a practical level this means taking action to deter threats to your security, as comprehensively laid out in Greg Shaffer’s book Stay Safe and discussed with him in my interview here.  

On a political level, think about your support for politicians such as the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who unanimously voted to require the city to rent 7,000 hotel rooms to house its entire “homeless” population -- at a cost to taxpayers of over $100 million.  Connect the dots between those politicians, their policies, and effects on the security of your family -- but meanwhile don’t rely on the local government to protect you.  Do what you can, with what you have, to protect yourself right now.

4. By blaming rich people for creating this dangerous situation.  If you really believe affluent tech employees driving up housing costs are responsible for the “homeless” crisis, then rejoice….because they are leaving.  

Atlas will shrug.  Raise taxes on gross receipts in the name of addressing “homelessness” at a time when companies realize they don’t need bricks-and-mortar headquarters to conduct business, apply economic pressure in the form of reduced revenues from a shrinking customer base, and watch the mass migration of tech companies and their workers out of San Francisco, to cities and states with less punitive taxes and lower costs of living.

Oh, and since we’re all familiar with the concept of the “second surge,” wait for the second exodus of non-tech employees -- of all income levels -- to flee the Starnsville that will ensue as infrastructure and public safety continues to crater as tax funding evaporates.

5. By incentivizing panhandling.  Instead of giving money to beggars on the street, consider taking your “bum budget” -- say $25 a week -- and pouring it into tips for people who are trying to get a leg up (or simply on their feet) by gigging at such unglamorous jobs as food delivery, or working at whatever small businesses are open.  

Yes, I’m serious.  That $5 you usually give to the guy who loiters outside of Walgreens?  Why not give it to the person who’s ringing up your sundries.  Do it with a smile, and say something like, “I appreciate the hustle.”  Sure, I know you’ll be sacrificing a bit of self-esteem you’re buying by handing out cash to able-bodied adults (or dysfunctional addicts), but think of it as helping the hardworking person behind the counter, who works for a small business whose prospects are not enhanced by the presence of vagrants outside their establishment.  

Sure, it’s a suggestion that might strike some as extreme in these altruism-addled times, but think about the common sense premise that what you reward, you get more of -- whether sloth and iniquity, or hard work and responsibility.  But above all, just think.

Jennifer A. Grossman
About the author:
Jennifer A. Grossman

Jennifer Anju Grossman -- JAG-- became the CEO of the Atlas Society in March of 2016. Since then she’s shifted the organization's focus to engage young people with the ideas of Ayn Rand in creative ways. Prior to joining The Atlas Society, she served as Senior Vice President of Dole Food Company, launching the Dole Nutrition Institute — a research and education organization— at the behest of Dole Chairman David H. Murdock. She also served as Director of Education at the Cato Institute, and worked closely with the late philanthropist Theodore J. Forstmann to launch the Children's Scholarship Fund. A speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush, Grossman has written for both national and local publications.  She graduated with honors from Harvard.