“I am Worthless,” I paused and asked what her name was again. “I am Worthless, not anything to take a picture of.” She went on to say that she was homeless, and had been in San Francisco for the past four days. We talked for a half-hour, then at the end she said, “Marlana.”
In 2022, half of all the unsheltered people in the United States were in California where official figures recorded 115,491 people sleeping in streets, parks, vehicles, and abandoned buildings, figures challenged by some experts who maintain that there are twice as many.
“Let’s call it what it is. It’s a disgrace that the richest state in the richest nation… is falling so far behind to properly house, heal and humanely treat so many of its own people. Every day, the California Dream is dimmed by the wrenching reality of families and children and seniors living unfed on a concrete bed.” [Governor Gavin Newsom of California, February 2020]
Since the 2008 recession, I have been documenting the spread of poverty and the crisis in homelessness. The state of California, with an economy ranked number five in the world, has one of the highest poverty rates fueled by high housing costs. Just a short distance from the campuses of Apple, Google and Facebook are clusters of homeless people in encampments. “The Jungle” in a wooded area of San Jose was one of the largest encampments in the country and was home to 350 people. In 2014, it was bulldozed by the city authorities, but more and more encampments have been popping up in cities across California.
Then came Covid-19, with shutdowns and mass layoffs, exposing and compounding the crisis of homelessness. In the plaza facing San Francisco City Hall an official encampment was opened inside a chain fence, just one of several on vacant lots around the city. And for Covid-related health and safety reasons, California suspended the recording of numbers of homeless people. By 2022, when counting resumed, homelessness in California had increased. Of the five cities with the highest rate of homelessness in the United States, four were in California: Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, and San Jose. In the entire neighborhood of Skid Row, every sidewalk has tents, makeshift cardboard shelters, and shopping carts loaded with personal belongings. High-rise buildings loom over the largest concentration of homelessness in the country.
Ever since the Gold Rush in the 19th century, California has been seen as lucky, as a land of opportunity for the American Dream. Behind the old San Francisco Stock Exchange building, beside the marble walls built during the Great Depression, a man is lying on the ground next to the recycling bins, while above him a street sign reads: “End - Century.”