Out in the cold

© 2001 by Tommi Avicolli Mecca


Walking the streets of the Castro these days, it’s hard not to notice the homeless queer youth who call the pavement and the doorways of the buildings and the shops home. It’s impossible not to be aware that apartment rents are astronomical and that chain stores operate where once there were small businesses.    

It’s the new Castro, part of the new San Francisco. A city run by a mayor who once said that if you don’t earn $50,000 you shouldn’t live here. A city that may lose most of its nonprofits and its alternative arts groups because of high rents. A city where thousands have already been forced to leave because they could no longer afford to live here. A city where on any given day of the week hundreds line up outside free meals programs, where the cheapest residential hotel rooms cost $600-1,000 a month, where 183 people have died on the streets this past year alone.

How can such need exist in the queer community, or in the city as a whole, when these are supposedly economically prosperous times? When queer dot-com companies are acquiring queer media, when many other queer enterprises are booming as well, when Megan Smith of PlanetOut is invited to the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, the first out queer entrepreneur to ever get such an invitation?

These days, queers are seen as pretty upscale. Just look at the ads in the queer press or even in this pride guide. Queers supposedly can afford the best vacations, the most expensive jewelry, the chic-est wardrobes. We have the highest disposable income of any group. We hobnob with the rich and powerful, we are among the Bay Area’s elite and San Francisco’s upper crust. 

Yet people in our community continue to go homeless and hungry.  There’s more out in the cold than just homeless youth. Our conscience as a community has been put out to deep freeze as well.

How else do you explain the opposition that homeless queer youth shelters and residential programs have received in the Castro? Neighbors at community meetings have cited everything from property values to concerns about potential damage to their plants and trees as reasons for leaving queer youth out on the streets in the cold. Some have said, “We support shelters, but not here, not on our block, not in our neighborhood.” 

This Nimbyism is not surprising considering that this same neighborhood, which once had a reputation for being a model of caring for those with AIDS, also opposed Simply Supper, a free-meals program at the Castro-based Metropolitan Community Church. That program offers a free meal at its 150 Eureka St. address every Wednesday and Friday from 4-5pm.

The demographics of neighborhoods like the Castro are changing rapidly. As the economic success of Silicon Valley sent hordes of workers into San Francisco looking for a place to live, long-term tenants and working-class people got pushed out to make way for a new class of folks who could pay higher rents. Landlords used owner move-ins and the state’s Ellis Act to evict tenants in rent-controlled apartments. Thousands were displaced.

Queer youth, fleeing here as they have for decades, could no longer afford the rents, even with jobs. Many PWAs were left to fend for themselves, sleeping in cars or simply living on the streets. Those who were lucky received housing vouchers from AIDS organizations.

Real-estate speculators and companies cleaned up; like vultures at a kill, they lost little time in making the best of a good thing. Exorbitant  commercial rents in the Castro kept some storefronts vacant and others constantly changing hands. Apartment rents continued soaring, excluding all but the A gays from the possibility of living in “Mecca.” Only those lucky enough to keep their rent-controlled apartments had any chance at staying in the Castro, let alone San Francisco.

The Castro went from a place where people of different classes could live to a place where only one class could live. It went from a place where nonprofits could afford to operate to a place where small businesses faced spiraling rents they could no longer afford. It went from a place of constant political activity to a place where politics occurs mostly on weekends at the corner of 18th & Castro.

But despite all of its shortcomings, despite gentrification and outrageous rents, the neighborhood remains a refuge for the huddled queer masses yearning for a place to live without discrimination or fear of bashing. A dream deferred from another era perhaps, but still a haven for queer youth, many of whom end up homeless on its streets. 

At its best, the Castro provides a political base for a disenfranchised group, a visible community for all the world to see, a place to navigate to and from like the North Star to a sailor. In the late 70s before rent control was passed by the Board of Supervisors in June 1979, it faced a housing crisis–rents rose and many people were pushed out. Harvey Milk lost his camera store in 1978 when his rent tripled. In the 80s the Castro was devastated by AIDS. The threat to the Castro from this current housing crisis seems insurmountable. Even talk of a slow-down in the internet economy hasn’t stopped the evictions or the displacement. Hopefully, it will all change when real-estate prices level or drop.

But the spiritual crisis remains. Will we rise to the occasion and care for those out in the cold? We need to be there at every opportunity to shout d≤own the Nimbyism, to denounce the anti-homeless sentiments, to support shelters and food programs and protest real-estate speculation.

It’s time to thaw out our conscience, to say to our youth, “we care” and mean it. To find ways to provide enough affordable housing in the Castro, to protect the low-income and working folks who still live there, to leave no one out in the cold anymore.

Otherwise, what legacy will we leave behind?


originally published in the 2001 SF pride guide.