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My Return to the Land of the Homeless

A Modest Proposal

By Betsey Culp

I’ve been out of town, and oh, what I missed! A stellar same-sex court ruling, for starters, and a good old-fashioned anti-war demonstration. I’m still catching up.

But travel is always educational. A few days ago, when I was staying near the Grand Canyon, the Arizona Republic newspaper reminded readers that tourism was down. The Copper State has been losing out to Nevada in its efforts to market the canyon. 

The solution: a theme park.

A group called the Grand Canyon Northland Amusements and Entertainment LLC is proposing to create a 1,000-acre park in the tiny town of Williams, just south of the actual canyon, which will include “a Route 66 strip of shops and sock hops, roller coasters, bumper cars, a Navajo learning center and a concert hall.” Clear Channel has weighed in, promising a vigorous PR campaign.

The land in question is presently owned by the U.S. Forest Service. But that’s not a problem. The Navajo Nation, which is also part of the group, is willing to work out a trade for some of its land that the U.S. government has its eyes on.

The proponents are, of course, out to make a buck. But so would the State of Arizona. Part of the proposal is a special 9 percent sales tax, to be added onto existing state and local sales taxes and to be paid only by tourists visiting the facility.

What a brilliant idea, I thought. It might be the salvation of San Francisco as well.

When I got home and learned of Mayor Gavin Newsom’s plans to spruce up U.N. Plaza, I was sure I had hit pay dirt. For once, the city’s crusading mayor has been overly cautious.

I can see it now: Homelessland.

The trick is to enlist super-lobbyist Darius Anderson in the cause. Anderson, who’s part of the firm negotiating to develop Treasure Island, is a longtime associate of former mayor Willie Brown and other Democratic bigwigs, as well as a fund raiser for the present mayor. He also has several fingers in the Indian gaming pie, including the casino on the edge of San Pablo Bay proposed by the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians.

The San Pablo casino plans have been plagued with obstacles from the start, including the recently announced opposition of Senator Dianne Feinstein. Why not bring the Pomos into the San Francisco deal and engineer a land swap? San Francisco makes good use of its property outside city limits — the jails in San Bruno, for example, are bursting at the seams and would benefit from a supplementary site. And just imagine the excitement of a casino in downtown San Francisco. Many people have. The senior senator from California might quickly change her tune if she knew that her hometown was in line for a hefty windfall.

But the casino would occupy only one corner of U.N. Plaza. The rest of the space would be devoted to the city’s best-known feature, its homeless population.

I can see it now.

There would be a roller coaster where the steepest descent hurtles riders past dioramas depicting financial disaster; at the end, the track bottoms out and travels through a trash-lined street, where hairy unkempt figures leer menacingly on both sides.

And an odorama, where passengers are transported through a darkened tunnel and assaulted by the overpowering smell of sweat, feces, rotting food, and the like. And of course, pot.

Instead of benches, visitors would rest on cement curbs, painted to look grimy and spat upon, or mats and cots stenciled with the name of a shelter. Replicas, complete with small action figures, would be available at the souvenir stands. Food — the usual amusement park fare — would be given exotic names like Food Stamp Burgers and Glide Memorial Pizza.

But the highlight of any visit would be an actual conversation with a real live homeless person. Mayor Gavin Newsom has been energetically recruiting volunteers for his Connect project. The Chronicle reported yesterday that the most recent monthly event attracted all of 144 private citizens. Not exactly a wave of support.

In appealing to the finer instincts of local residents, the mayor and his cohorts have been approaching the problem in the wrong way. They need to frame participation as a once-in-a-lifetime, not-to-be-missed experience that can only be found in San Francisco. Visitors from Des Moines will shell out big bucks for the privilege of “escorting homeless men and women to food lines and booths of social workers.” And even more if a photographer is on hand to record the moment for posterity.

For many people, it will be a soul-stirring moment. They will go home, confident that at least they truly understand what homelessness is all about, and reassured that it really has nothing to do with them.

For San Francisco’s homeless population, it probably won’t make much difference.

But it will allow the rest of us to pretend that we are doing something to address the problem, and to ignore the misguided policies — housing, employment, and healthcare, to name a few — that spawn poverty and its younger sister, homelessness.