The Open Sky Blues

There is an insoluble quality of warmth and tranquility in returning to a space that is yours. I’ve been at Pomona College a year now. It is this feeling—of ambling through the brush and tangle of the backcountry or cruising through the lunar landscape of the California desert only to come home again—that gives me an indescribable jolt of gratitude and incredulity. But on this particular Sunday, I couldn’t shake the silt and grime and settle in so smoothly. My weekend had been idyllic by college standards: warm beer and chance encounters, buck dancing to bluegrass on the lip of the Pacific, endless photographs of flushed faces and bay bridges, the light frosted over with smoke and the dust kicked up by moccasins and bare feet. 

Yet what struck me above all was the eccentric, heterogeneous community of festival-goers; from affluent nuclear families, to Claremont college kids in Birkenstocks, to street kid drum circles, the nearly 750,000 attendees of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival nearly equals the population of San Francisco—roughly 10.2 percent of whom are homeless. 

Hardly Strictly markets itself as one of the only non-commercial, free music festivals that remains accessible to the public. From die-hard bluegrass aficionados to curious passers-by, all are free to enter and leave Golden Gate Park at will—with the exception, perhaps, of those who call it home. Although the homeless population of San Francisco is under more scrutiny than ever after recent efforts by city officials to clear encampments in local parks, many people still live in the park and its surrounding areas. Most peculiarly, much of the vagrant population of San Francisco live in homeless encampments or communities of like-minded individuals who do not live in conventional systems of housing. Nearly half of the homeless in San Francisco are youths between the ages of 18 and 29. 

In light of recent changes in the macroeconomic sphere, the label of homelessness, along with its pragmatic implications, is begging for a clear and concise definition. Citizens in our country with no fixed, legal address are conventionally regarded as struggling through a disadvantaged position. However, although many were driven to living in the community spaces of San Francisco by economic conditions, inter-familial abuse, substance problems, and an insurmountable number of other factors, a small yet significant percentage of these kids will discount the stamp of homelessness. In fact, over half of the unhoused in San Francisco refuse to seek out shelter or assistance and some actively affirm their choice to pursue a vagrant lifestyle. Many also express a feeling of solidarity with one another, and with the historical vagrants of San Francisco: the flower children of the Haight-Ashbury Summer of Love. The allure of a utopian, socialist and free-loving community attracted thousands of youths from around the country during the summer of 1967 and this legacy—love, music, and marijuana on the bay—is still an acutely prevalent characteristic of homeless youth culture in San Francisco. The city has been called the homeless capital of the United States, in part due to the homeless population density but also due to the prevalent homeless culture. 

Homelessness is, as most other socio-economic labels are, far more complex than is readily admitted. A variety of factors other than available capital come into play, such as familial arrangements, unsatisfactory living conditions, and, sometimes, preference. Although it is often ascertained that homelessness is the observable manifestation of poverty, or an example of the deficiencies in the American welfare system—the proverbial cracks through which individuals fall—it is in fact a multi-faceted notion. The condition of being homeless does not necessarily imply poverty. And although it would be inconsiderate and unreasonable to claim that vagrancy is a matter of choice, if we are to properly acknowledge the presence of the homeless in urban areas it is crucial that we recognize the heterogeneity of socio-economic conditions. 

Vagrancy in the Bay Area has always been a contentious topic, in part due to the northern California welfare system that subsidizes cash payments for homeless individuals. San Francisco spends an average of $500 million a year on homelessness-related programs.      

In light of the recent government shutdown, the question of government-allotted welfare benefits is coming to a head; many citizens of San Francisco are encouraging the government to scale back on funding for such programs. As of now, most social benefits for the homeless operate on grants or yearly budgets and will not be affected by the government shutdown. However, the question remains as to what might be the best method of dealing with such a heterogeneous homeless population. Perhaps a more thorough system of identification of homelessness and its causes might better equip local and federal governments to deal with an issue that raises important questions about private and public affairs, as well as fundamental human rights.

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