Is there a limit to compassion?

NPR aired a report on Friday October 26th on changing attitudes about the homeless in San Francisco. The question raised was is there a limit to compassion?

The following is the text of the report. To listen click here. To read the article in the San Fransico Chronicle click here.

Attitude Toward Homeless Shifts in San Francisco, by Richard Gonzales

Morning Edition, October 26, 2007 · It’s not hard to find San Franciscans who say they are fed up with the homeless.

South of Market Street, where warehouses and blue-collar workers have given way to new high-rise buildings and dot-com professionals, Mike Lowe and his co-worker, Sara Deneworth, admit they are tired of having to step over a sleeping or drunk homeless person just to get to the office.

Lowe said he had seen a man in a makeshift sleeping bag who had just urinated. “There was a nice little trickle leading to the street,” Lowe said.

Deneworth said the large number of homeless in San Francisco has become overwhelming, and now it’s hard to feel sorry for them anymore. “I think everybody has just sort of had it,” Deneworth said.

‘Enough Is Enough’

Stories like these prompted C.W. Nevius of the San Francisco Chronicle recently to write a pair of front-page opinion columns called “Enough Is Enough.”

“I think San Francisco is known as America’s most tolerant city, I don’t think there’s any question about that. And we still are a very liberal city. But for whatever reason, we seemed to have changed our perception of our tolerance of people on the street, and the mess on the street and the needles on the street,” Nevius told NPR.

Nevius’ columns became the talk of the town and attracted more than a thousand e-mails, many from readers who think it’s time for San Francisco to take a harder line on the homeless.

But that view isn’t universal.

Martha Bridegam, an attorney who has specialized in homeless issues, also lives south of Market Street. Bridegam said the problem is the city’s housing shortage, not the victims of it.

“Why don’t you crack down on the problem of lacking housing, instead of the problem of people being poor and living outside? It’s just the cart before the horse,” Bridegam said. “I just cannot understand the cruelty.”

Bridegam blames the San Francisco Chronicle for stirring up what she calls a “hate campaign” against the city’s poor.

But Nevius says that’s just not true.

“This is not a case of us stirring it up,” Nevius said. “We don’t start the trends. We follow the trends. Right now, we are mirroring the discontent.”

‘Compassionate but More Aggressive’

For years, that discontent has appeared in surveys of the city’s residents conducted by pollster David Binder. Binder says the city has long been divided on what to do with the homeless. But recent polls show fatigue even among the most compassionate.

Liberal residents — whom Binder pegs to the political right of progressives — “are the ones currently saying we do need to be more aggressive with getting the homeless off the streets. Still compassionate, but more aggressive,” Binder said.

Voters have already approved anti-panhandling laws and every year, police issue thousands of citations to the homeless for so-called “quality of life” crimes: sleeping in the park or urinating in public. Most of the charges get dismissed.

“Ultimately, there’s no room in the jail,” said Randy Shaw, who runs the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which manages hotels for the recently homeless. He says getting tougher won’t solve the problem.

“There is a core group of people who have no income and need to be in a supervised mental institution, and that’s where our society has decided we do not want to spend the money,” Shaw said.

Shaw says the irony is that San Francisco spends more money per capita to house its homeless than any other city in America. And the mayor’s office claims things are getting better. But that may not mean much to someone who has to step over a homeless person or dodge an aggressive panhandler.