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Are San Rafael’s Homeless Spooking Downtown Shoppers?

The city’s homeless population of approximately 900 is hurting downtown merchants, San Rafael business leader says.

Credit: Santa Cruz Patch
Credit: Santa Cruz Patch

San Rafael prides itself for a history of helping the less fortunate that traces its roots to the 19th Century.

But downtown merchants are bearing the cost of the city’s 21st Century compassion, and many don’t like it.

That’s according to a San Rafael business leader, who told the San Francisco Chronicle that the city’s homeless population of approximately 900 is spooking downtown visitors.

San Rafael’s moderate climate, abundance of social services and generally tolerant attitude has made the city a magnet for a homeless population that’s swelled nationally amid a long-term economic downturn.

More than two thirds of the city’s downtown business owners believe the homeless population has hurt their bottom line, Downtown Business Association Director Carol Thompson told the Chronicle.

"People say they don't want to come to downtown San Rafael because they're afraid of the homeless,” Thompson said.

“It's very frustrating because there's very little we can do about it."

San Rafael is doing what it can.

Earlier this year Police Chief Diana Bishop told Patch that homelessness and quality of life issues were her department’s top priorities.

And not all of city’s social programs are handouts. The Downtown Streets Team is empowering the city’s homeless through street cleaning programs that aim to help them develop more stable lifestyles.

But problems persist.

San Rafael homeless encampments have been traced to separate vegetation fires on Du Bois Street in October and earlier this month on Kerner Boulevard.

Christine Paquette, who heads a program at St. Vincent that provides services to the poor, acknowledged in the Chronicle report that she’s witnessed come of the cringe-worthy behavior others have described.

"Some of the homeless certainly cross the line,” Paquette said.  “The pit bulls, the tossing of the f-word when you're walking down the street with your 6-year-old and Grandma - people aren't used to that, and they don't expect it. Especially in Marin.

“For some people, an experience like that can ruin their afternoon."

Does San Rafael’s downtown homeless population concern you? Share your thoughts in our comments section.

Richard Raznikov December 03, 2013 at 03:23 PM
Such vast ignorance. The greatest 'handouts' in America, by far, are those granted major corporations who outsource jobs, pay no taxes, and distort national priorities so severely that in the richest country in world history real unemployment continues to rise while the stock market reaches record highs. Sorry, Mr. Smith, if you feel that treating people with respect even if they don't drive BMWs requires such a Herculean effort. We do not 'coddle' the poor, we give them crumbs, then reduce the crumbs. In the past two years, 97% of new wealth has gone to the richest 1%. Food stamp allocations have been cut by both major parties even though nearly half of its recipients are children. The "public commons" Smith writes of belong to everyone, not just the entitled rich. This bleating about how 'taxpayers' money' is being wasted on those undeserving poor or on those who don't comport themselves with the fake dignity of the newly-rich is nauseating. In America today we have the highest percentage of poor and near-poor we've ever had, even considering the Great Depression. People are hungry and cities pass ordinances prohibiting feeding them in public. People are weary and cities dispatch extra police to guard vacant buildings to make sure no one without money gets to sleep in them. Mr. Smith, you are not a better person or more deserving of respect than the people you denigrate.
Maggie December 03, 2013 at 04:01 PM
Too bad we aren't as intelligent as you Richard.
T McDermott December 03, 2013 at 06:31 PM
The question of the article 'Are homeless spooking shoppers and keeping them away from San Rafael?' My answer is yes, I am not judging nor condemming the homeless. I neither chase them down the streets demanding they clean themselves up nor do I rail against the wind with 10 million reasons why they are scary to me. I can only choose where to spend what money I have and I refuse to be bullied into being ashamed of my own feelings. I'm sorry for you who try to clean the sands of the sea, your work is never done. I will shop where I feel safe, comfortable and appreciated for my business.
Pekupandropov December 03, 2013 at 11:33 PM
What downtown shoppers?
Pekupandropov December 04, 2013 at 02:01 PM
Perhaps the ones who shop at the liquor store at 4th and B and then spend the afternoon on the corner howling at the moon or whatever and harassing passersby…. them? Being "spooked"? Don't be silly
laney bizstein December 04, 2013 at 11:31 PM
Honestly I can't deal. I have a baby and a toddler and I feel totally vulnerable in downtown San Rafael. I just moved here from San Francisco where I felt much less nervous.
Clayton Smith December 05, 2013 at 03:30 PM
Given how San Rafael exemplifies the "tragedy of the commons," is it any wonder that the privately owned malls have become the places that most folks want to be? The city's government expresses it actual priorities in this regard by its tolerance of those whose discomfort of others is sanctioned by public policy. In fact, given the current favorable legal status of disabled versus non-disabled people, the "normal" folks coming to downtown San Rafael are at a disadvantage in acting in their own self-defense. This disproportionate liability incurred by people who have assets to go after and the surplus of advocacy litigators in our State, gives one caution. Exposing oneself to not just psychological and physical harm, but to potential financial damage, adds strength to the negative consideration as to go to downtown San Rafael, or not. The notion that uncouth people deserve a superior sympathy to others is certainly a novel, and I would think self-destructive, way of seeing the world. The mother, who has moved from San Francisco to San Rafael and finds herself precluded from enjoying the public commons by virtue of these street people, is at least deserving of the same sympathy as they are. Is she not being harmed? Of course she is. But we have forgotten her, because our sense of priorities has been clouded and misinformed by those who would want us to exchange the peace and tranquility the general public desires for the urban spice, edginess and danger these street people bring with them.
Clayton Smith December 05, 2013 at 03:47 PM
Allow me to provide a little rational perspective on all of the negative comments on the numerous "big box" stores in San Rafael, and their negative effect on the local retail businesses located in the downtown corridor. By allowing the downtown to become an increasingly rough and distasteful place to be, driving out the very people who might be capable of supporting these retail establishments, the city government is deprived of sales tax revenues to pay its bills. The only way they can compensate for this loss is to permit the development of additional retail away from the city's center as an offset. This has happened all over the country. Most city centers in the US are ghost towns after dark. Many city centers in the US have been essentially abandoned. As Marin continues to age, expect this trend of avoiding harms to continue. The counter trend against the open expression of behavioral pathology in the public commons will likely arise from mothers, who decide that the welfare of their children and their rights to safe access to the public commons take precedence over those who contribute nothing to the benefit of others and whose behavioral toleration sets a very bad example for their children.
Maggie December 05, 2013 at 04:26 PM
Recently I was going to my bank on 4th and A (Bank of Marin) and this kid, maybe 18, hanging out on the corner at high noon, asked me for a buck. Not being in the mood and fed up with people on the street asking me for money, I shot back at him in front of he and his friends, that he ought to be ashamed for asking a woman for money, and that there was no way in hell I was working my butt off so that I could give him cash for whatever he was going to ingest with the begged-for-money. His friends said, hey take it easy on him. I am thinking, and said to them, take it easy on him? I told him and his pals that he was a young, able bodied man and he ought to get his rear end out and look for work instead of begging from hard working people (there was nothing wrong with this boy, mentally or physically)instead of just hanging out all day doing nothing. Go to McDonalds, go somewhere instead of mooching off of people trying to go about their business. Last week in the parking lot of United Market, at night, and out of nowhere (and I am an observant person) came this man on a bike, riding right up to me while I getting into my car and asked me for money. I must say it took me by surprise and thank goodness he wasn't hostile, though a bit perturbed. These guys aren't going to keep me away from downtown or anywhere else. But there are folks out there that are elderly, innocent and unused to this type of activity. I can handle myself but there are those that can't. If this was my mother or someone I care about and they are being harassed, well…that is another story. Thus, I stand by my statement above.
Clayton Smith December 05, 2013 at 05:20 PM
There has been lot of criticism concerning the closure of the State's mental health hospitals during the Reagan governorship. It should be noted that this was done not solely on the basis of cost savings, but also because at that time a movement had formed looking to change the mental health treatment paradigm from one modeled on incarceration to one of community involvement. For reference, just remember Ken Kesey's, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." So, many local people started up psychiatric halfway houses in the various towns of California, including San Rafael, to take advantage of the financial incentives the State provided. Additionally, it was thought that the then-new medications available to treat severe cognitive disorders would preclude the need for the constraints the hospitalization model provided. I personally managed one of these facilities for a couple of years in the early 1970s. Needless to say, the expectations did not meet the realities. And so you have what you see today on our city streets. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ It is obviously a value judgment as to whether to re-incarcerate these very disturbed people. It is also a political decision. If we want to do it, we can. I think it can be argued that the expense is worth it. However, the civil libertarian questions are there and need to be vetted. This is where the rubber meets the road. No one is willing to spend any political capital on this issue. Our elected officials just kick this can along with all the others down the road, judging correctly that without a greater amount of public outrage, it is not in their interest to take it on. In my opinion, this will continue until a better kind of mental health facility is conceived of, one that actually addresses the core origins of the individual's dis-function and is not just a human warehouse, dominated by cost efficiency as in the past. New therapies into early mind disturbing traumas have evolved along with treatments for PTSD. The previously inaccessible interior of the mind is now available for healing, but this will require overcoming the drug oriented prejudice of the psychiatric profession, which seems to seek only to medicate and maintain their charges.
T McDermott December 05, 2013 at 07:14 PM
Kate that is not a factual link it is an opinion. Seriously the rag tag hanging out in downtown do not want to work and could not hold a job if offered one. To see their encampments and think if only they had a home is ludicrous, the same trash and abandoned refuse would soon fill and surround their 'home' as it does their campsites now. There are people who need homes, like my sister who is single supporting a disabled son and although she has a 'good' job cannot afford to live in Marin where she works. So The argument by Mr. Friedman is especially irritating to me that his priority is to hand out homes to people who need supervision just to maintain a clean environment and not burn down the house but not to people who are actively involved in life, society and pay the taxes that pay for the bums.
Jack December 05, 2013 at 10:51 PM
Hey Clayton. Hey Maggie. Been outside tonight? Temperatures are in the 30's and dropping as I write. Freezing outside. All night. Sidewalk's like ice, only harder. Going to be a long night for those military veterans, those mentally ill, those suffering from substance abuse, those wracked with pain, those who've been economically marginalized, those who've lost their self respect, those who've given up hope, those men and women and children with mothers and names, those freezing and crying, those pets without pedigrees, those saints. Those bums. They're your neighbors. More and more of them every day and every night, Clayton and Maggie. Freezing. Freezing. Freezing.
Pekupandropov December 06, 2013 at 06:48 PM
Very poetic, Jack. It is tempting to ask what you or Richard or the other bleeding hearts have DONE to improve the situation. Blaming Ronnie isn't helpful. Neither is writing stuff. Neither is contributing to a charity that has 80% overheads. Take a couple of 'em home with you and warm them up.... Really? Why not?
Pekupandropov December 06, 2013 at 07:00 PM
Want to see what downtown should be? Go to Petaluma
Veracity December 06, 2013 at 07:15 PM
Jack - and your point is?
Syrah December 06, 2013 at 08:00 PM
Uh-huh, you had to go there. Petaluma. *shakes head.
Jack December 06, 2013 at 08:19 PM
Thanks Pek (Who's Ronnie?). Thank you for asking. There's plenty we can do (and writing is effective) to help our less fortunate brothers and sisters. As for me, I make it a point to converse with them, get to know them. You'd be amazed at how much you can learn from a person when you realize their similarities. Ignorance breeds fear, which breeds anger, as we can see in some of the writing here. So, you see if you learn about the plight of the people, they become people and there's less to fear. I can't imagine being angry with these people now that I know them. Sometimes I give money. Sometimes (even better) I invite them to lunch with me. Sometimes they hug me (that's way cool) and offer gratitude and tell me truth like nobody's business. They look me in the eye, and it's common for me to realize a tear welling up - sometimes from them, and sometimes from me. This actually happens a lot. Sometimes we share a laugh when parting and always we share best wishes, and they're genuine. I learn a lot by listening to their stories. For example, I've recently learned that DPW trucks come by (in SF) when they're asleep and purposefully blast them with water. Think about it. That about wrecks the day before it gets started. Anyway, some share the most sparse of housing, and some you see on the street are helping people even less fortunate than them back "home." One mentally ill and physically beaten woman to whom I've taken a liking expressed gratitude from five of her friends I've never met because that $20 I gave her the day before provided them with a chicken dinner. Yum. There's another guy from New England who's struggling with some personality issues that I ask to join me for a beer every once in awhile. Giving them money can be very rewarding, especially if you know that it can make a difference. It does. Here's an example. I gave a guy a few hundred dollars one night after hearing his heartfelt story about missing his home and his peeps and there was an opportunity there... Last I saw him, he was racing up the middle of the street, literally clicking his heels with joy, screaming out to anyone within ear-shot, "I'm going home! I'm going to Seattle! I'm going home! Ya-hooo!" That was cool. Anyway, how about you? Merry Christmas!
Syrah December 06, 2013 at 08:23 PM
I never give cash to panhandlers, EVER, but I do offer to buy people food if I'm entering a food establishment though. I've worked in soup kitchens and I buy/hand out blankets to street people in the winter time. I don't have the answer to the problem, but the above mentioned are some things I do when the mood strikes....
Clayton Smith December 07, 2013 at 12:15 AM
Jack, I was raise in downtown Cleveland over 60 years ago and 30 degrees was just the beginning taste of Winter. We had economic volatility back then, as we do now. Additionally, middle class living standards were quite a bit lower then than now. Although we had the poor, somehow we did not have the street people we do today. What we did have were fully functioning private social service organizations, largely religious, who sent folks out onto the streets to collect the vagrants every night and bring them in for a meal, some prayers and sermons (not therapy), a shower and a cot to sleep on, breakfast in the morning and more prayers before they were sent on their way. It was done voluntarily. What we did not have was this army of angry entitled and often violent bums, who show a contempt for society and its standards and are ever ready to bite the hand that feeds them. Marxist social theories had not gained hold, and class was not the issue it has become today. We also lived in a less litigious society where one's good deeds did not open them up to untold liabilities for acting in a compassionate manner to others. Religion was a constant part of almost everyone's life and informed the general conscience of the populace as to its obligations, as well as the proper response (gratitude, not resentful entitlement) to the sacrifices of the helpful. We now live in a morally degenerated time, when these prophylactics against this cycle of fear, contempt and indifference are no longer widely present. Breaking this cycle is another topic to go into, but at another time.
Jack December 07, 2013 at 01:44 AM
Nice one, Syrah. Thanks for sharing the way you've chosen to share with others. Yes, the word on the street is that food and blankets (and more blankets) are most welcomed and appreciated by our neighbors in need right now. Warm coats, gloves, socks and even pillows too. Thank you for your kindnesses. Clayton, get ahold of yourself. While you've escaped Cleveland, there's still time to escape classism, ignorance, fear and religious sermons. I heard Nelson Mandela say that sure he was angry, but mostly he realized that he was given only so much time on this earth, and why spend it on anything other than loving? Go on down and say hello to Sam and Janet. Nice folks, and I promise they won't bite your hand or sue you if you offer them a sandwich. Have a good time.
Gina December 09, 2013 at 07:51 PM
There but for the Grace, go I...
eric January 27, 2014 at 02:10 PM
Without trying getting into the large picture of what to do about homeless, how to get them motivated to work, etc.. ..I must say that the last time I took my two small sons (4 and 6) to San Rafael was not a fun time. We had to endure profanity and public alcohol/intoxication while just walking down the street. We decided to grab a quick bite at an Xtreme Pizza restaurant on a corner which was a HUGE mistake. The 3 of us sat down to enjoy our lunch, a group of homeless came in asking for money, I gave a few bucks. They got some food and sat down to eat. They were incredibly inpolite, again swearing, walking in and out of the restaurant swearing. I didn't feel safe, especially with my 2 small boys. These people seemed incredibly unstable and possibly on drugs. I feared they could act violent at any moment because of the way they were acting. I left, that was several months ago and have chosen to avoid San Rafael as an afternoon destination. I'll visit Novato, Petaluma and Corte Madera instead.
Jack January 27, 2014 at 08:18 PM
Hi Eric. Thank you for writing. Don't give money to drunk people. Alcohol is drugs. Call the SRPD non-emergency line. That'll do it.
Elvis January 29, 2014 at 05:17 PM
Just FYI: the corner that Xtreme Pizza is on is a bit rougher than the rest of San rafael, if you venture up towards the west end it is a lot more friendly, including kid friendly. there is the Red Hill Pet center and Locks and Lolipops as well as the Comic book store and Rebound Books, Lotus Chaat has nice lunches and dinners as does Whipper Snapper and the Red Dragon Yoga Studio is kid friendly too....
Alex Dixon March 26, 2014 at 01:12 AM
Long past time San Rafael did something about the homeless problem downtown and in the canal. Today, in broad daylight, someone upset that we declined to be the free water source for the entire transient population (we shut off the outside spigot) doused my car with a bucket of old urine. After a thorough scrubbing, it now smells only like an alley in San Francisco, rather than the inside of a porta-potti Dozens of calls to the SR police reporting arson, grand theft, vandalism, drug dealing, graffiti, prostitution, pollution, and general mayhem have been met with total indifference. They say some soothing words and do nothing. This has been going on for YEARS. Last week, after cleaning up the previous nights mess, our neighbor had the pleasure of scooping up several used condoms. Apparently our industrial park is the perfect place to turn tricks after dark. This is the parking lot of a gym school, with about 100 kids on any given day, mostly 6-10 year old girls. Great place to have junkies and hookers. The solution is patently obvious: there is a semi-permanent encampment of about 20 individuals in the marsh between Mariner's Cove and Kerner blvd. Camping on public property is illegal. The perps need to be cited, their camp demolished, and we need some damn security down there. If anyone else is tired of this, IM me and lets put our heads together. I know Im sick of the cops doing nothing, it might be time for some political action. Nothing gets politicians attention like a group of pissed off voters.
Jack March 26, 2014 at 09:23 AM
Got any ideas on how we can most practically help our increasingly marginalized brothers and sisters, Alex? I can 't imagine the misery they're suffering enduring this long cold rain. Soaked, chilled to the bone, shivering, hungry, hopeless...
T McDermott March 26, 2014 at 11:41 AM
Jack it's all a matter of choices, yours mine and everyone else. Homelessness is just a cleaned up way to say BUM. If they are your brothers and sisters then take them home to your house where they can leave trash everywhere, write on your walls, go through your dresser while your out working to keep your dwelling and food, urinate on your couch when they pass out, have no self respect let alone respect for anyone else. I believe there is a great network to help anyone who is in need but there are rules to live by. The marginalized brothers and sisters you speak of don't want anything other than free money, food, shelter, clothing and their contribution is to leave a giant mess for the marginalized surrogate parents to clean up. The choices these people have made have them exactly where they want to be. Maybe if you went to their homestead and tidyed up for them, clean up their used condoms, bottles, plastic bags, human waste, they would all love you and you would feel better for it.
RJM March 26, 2014 at 11:58 AM
I don't shop downtown because I can't find a parking space. Tried for the longest time to pay a meter in the garage and couldn't figure it out. Only allowed me to pay for 2 hours when I only wanted 30 minutes. T Mcdermott doesn't seem to have an ounce of compassion and doesn't want us to make him feel guilty about it either. Good for you McDermottt! So happy for you that you don't have friends or family that have money or addiction issues. You are one lucky guy and I fore one am jealous.
T McDermott March 26, 2014 at 12:45 PM
RJM You make assumptions that are based on your own failures. I have compassion for the many who decide to make a change in their life and seek the agencies, programs, relatives and friends that can and will help them. People who decide within themselves to respect themselves and others. If there was a 'homeless' encampment that did not throw all their trash on the ground, kept their campsite clean and safe, didn't burn down their camps or houses they squat in, looked out for each other, had respect for the rest of the world. Then we would never hear about these problems because they would not exist. The city gives free money to the people on the street, Ritter house gives them a place to bathe and do laundry. Sir there are millions of 'Homeless' in the world that do not get as many services and yet they manage to be clean, work jobs others deem beneath themselves, band together and secure housing that enables them to grow even more. We need assessment of the homeless individuals mental capacity to take care of themselves and we need those truly unable to cope with life to be committed to mental institutions. It's good enough for convicted people it certainly is good enough for mentaly ill homeless people.
Jack March 26, 2014 at 03:50 PM
Here's a handy guide: @ 1/3 of the people you see are mentally ill, @ 1/3 are substance abusers, and @ 1/3 went economically sideways before they knew what hit them. I know some of each.

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