Hunting creative survival in San Francisco, one of the richest urban centers in America

It is thus at once swaddled in conspicuous wealth and mired in humiliating poverty.Full of young and skilled newcomers hoping to strike it rich,it's also experiencing a mass exodus
Andrew Lam

Homeless people sit on a street in San Francisco.

A couple of years ago I was invited to a party by a college student at his apartment in the San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. If I hadn’t expected much from someone struggling financially to stay in school, neither was I prepared for the sheer level of poverty.

There were 12 students living in a one-bedroom apartment, six per room, with the living room serving as an extra bedroom. Single mattresses lined three per opposite wall, with barely a foot of space in between. All 12 shared a small bathroom.

“Welcome to our dorm,” the student said as he saw what must have been the dumbfounded look on my face. Young people were sitting on mattresses, drinking beer and eating potato chips. Some were using their breakfast trays to do their homework. “This is how we survive,” he shrugged. “It’s better than being homeless.”

It struck me then that while much has been written about the homeless situation in San Francisco, which has been an ongoing crisis for several decades, not much is written about the population that is barely hanging on and fearful of falling through the cracks.

A few blocks from this student’s apartment is my favorite Vietnamese restaurant. The other day, while eating there, I saw a strange transaction. A disheveled looking Vietnamese man in his mid-60s came in to buy the “off the menu” plate. The owner brought out a styrofoam container of rice and some pieces of stewed pork belly and poured spoonful of sauce on top. She sold it for US$3.

“Well, people kept asking what they can get for 2 or 3 dollars and we don’t have anything like that on the menu,” she said. “But then we thought, ‘why not just sell whatever’s fair?’” The man who bought the “off the menu” pork and rice lost his job recently, the restaurateur told me. “He might lose his place soon.”

Though she asked not to be identified she wanted people to know that “a lot of people are not getting enough to eat. It’s like you want to pay rent or you want to eat, and many people prefer hunger over being homeless.”

The thriving, technology-driven wealth of the Bay Area is the envy of the rest of America, with good reason. According to the latest data from the US Census Bureau, San Francisco tops the list of the 25 richest metropolitan areas by household income.

Meanwhile, according to the SF-Marin Food Bank, 23 percent of San Francisco residents struggle with hunger.

You might say it’s the best of times and the worse of times. I count among my friends a handful of multimillionaires whose lifestyle of private yachts, fine dining, penthouse living and shopping sprees for brand names would make an average American’s head spin. But I also know people who barely scrape by and their primary motivation is simply to keep their head above water — to be fed and sheltered, with no hope of improvement. It’s as if both the Great Depression and the Gilded Age overlap in the city by the Bay.

Twenty-three percent of San Franciscan households make less than US$48,500 a year, which is two times the national poverty line for a family of four. Yet in a city where an average rent for a one bedroom apartment is now about US$3,400 a month, making twice the level of national poverty line is still — well — poverty. After all, San Francisco’s median household income stands at US$112,511.

It is thus at once swaddled in conspicuous wealth and mired in humiliating poverty. Full of young and skilled newcomers hoping to strike it rich, it’s also experiencing a mass exodus.

Many of those who stay and are on the wrong side of the divide find creative ways to survive. Mai, for instance, a Vietnamese woman in her early-70s, collects bottles in the Union Square and Tenderloin. She lives in a single-room occupancy residence and wouldn’t talk much about her situation except to say she could make US$300-400 a month extra on top of social security by recycling bottles and cans. She has been assaulted a few times fighting with others, “fighting over garbage.” Her two adult children have left her and no longer keep in touch. Still she sends US$100 to Vietnam to support her brother’s family.

“I sometimes don’t eat and wait for free food at St. Anthony’s,” she said.

Or else, like many others, she can still bargain for cheap vegetables at the farmers market at the Civic Center every Wednesday and Sunday known as Heart of the City. In the late afternoon last Wednesday, near closing time, many old people lined up at a stall to buy US$1 bag vegetables: onion, squash, potatoes, zucchinis. These were in bruised or slightly rotten, but were available in large quantities. At closing time farmers were more than willing to sell off unwanted stock.

Andrew Lam

An old woman recycles cans in a neighborhood of luxury condos.

Post-modern fairy tale

Shouts of “How about three bags for US$2, OK?” “Maybe US$2.5 for three bags?” “How about 75 cents?” ring out.

One Chinese woman, in her 80s, had a shopping cart full of potatoes and broccoli and bruised apples. She said she had to shop twice a week for herself and another friend who was confined in her one-room housing up the street. “She is old. I take care of her. She can’t walk too far. If I don’t shop, she will starve.”

For many years in the parking lot near where I live, near the Embarcadero area south of Market, where luxury high rises have been springing up lately like mushrooms, there’s a strange sight in the evening. When the the city quiets down after traffic hours, two skinny men in bedraggled clothing quietly push a shoeshine stand that resembles an overgrown upright piano down the street to its spot in a parking lot. In the evening the lot is empty but for a few cars and that shoeshine stand that would be covered under a tarp. But if you listen carefully late at night you can hear conversation. That’s because two men guard it and there’s hollow space that you can crawl into to sleep.

They were a stone’s throw from Lumina, one of the most luxurious condo complexes in the area, where one penthouse was listed for US$49 million a few years ago — even before the building was complete. It advertised that the ceilings are so high that even giraffes have no problem fitting it.

Watching the two men eat from one can one night while guarding the shoeshine stand, with the brightly lit condos in the background, I could not help but think that somehow San Francisco has turned into some sort of post-modern fairy tale, a Dystopia where some are so poor they resort to living in shoeshine boxes and others are so rich that they have no problem fitting a giraffe in their living room, all within the same block.

All the while the city’s middle class population continues to flee.

I ran into the student who invited me to his party recently. He’d found a job in a high tech firm, and now was living in his own apartment, sharing it only with one other person. At least for him there was upward mobility. For many others, living in the richest urban area in America is a day to day struggle, hungry and fearful of falling through the cracks.

Andrew Lam is the author of two books of personal essays: “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora,” and “East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres,” and a book of short stories, “Birds of Paradise Lost.”

Special Reports