The Imperfect Host, Part Four: On The Edge In Super Bowl-Occupied San Francisco
With its four-figure average ticket prices, Super Bowl 50 is unmistakably and even proudly a luxury event. Life outside the walls of Super Bowl City is different.
Photo by Tarin Towers
This feature is part of Super Bowl Week at VICE Sports.
If you get hungry while you're visiting Super Bowl City and spent all your money on airfare, tickets to the game, and $30 t-shirts, there is still hope. This handy Free Eats Chart can tell you where the closest soup kitchens are.
Most of your nearby choices for a free lunch are in the Tenderloin, one of the most densely populated residential areas in San Francisco, not by virtue of its few skyscrapers but by the sheer accumulation of 4- and 5-story residential hotels and apartment buildings built following the 1906 Earthquake that decimated the neighborhood. In contrast with both the wide-open (if also fenced-off) spaces of Super Bowl City and the tall office buildings around it that empty out at night, the heart of the Tenderloin holds 5,000 people over six city blocks. That density, combined with a neighborhood propensity for drug and alcohol use that goes back more than a century, has blessed the Tenderloin with an above-average rate of crimes against persons—robbery, assault, murder. It is the sort of neighborhood that would have a lot of soup kitchens in it, but it is not only that.
The Tenderloin comprises a befuddling mix of high and low—fancy hotels and theaters with mirrored lobbies, and also single-resident occupancy hotel buildings, also known as bedsits, piss-in-the sink hotel rooms, or roach motels; even these can cost you up to $1,000 a month. Bathroom's down the hall, and maybe a kitchen, too, but most SRO dwellers have a hot plate, a microwave if the wiring is up to code, and a mini-fridge if they're fancy. (This is setting aside the several SRO buildings renovated by the City for permanent affordable housing for the recently homeless.)
The Tenderloin, just spitting distance from Union Square and mid-Market, is also a minority-white neighborhood. If you were able to afford a restaurant meal, you'd have your pick of dirt-cheap soul food, tandoori chicken, or Vietnamese pho.
If you need free dinner while you're in Super Bowl City, you can stroll a mile up the hill to North Beach and get a sandwich at Sts. Peter and Paul on 666 Filbert Street—or walk half a mile and spend $2.25 to find and catch a bus that hasn't been rerouted for the event. Keep in mind you have to get there between 6:00, when they start serving, and 6:30, when they stop. There are some great parks nearby where you can sit for a bit before you head back to the virtually seat-free brand oasis of Super Bowl City. (Restaurant customers can sit on actual chairs, but most of the other flat surfaces are concrete.)
Or if taking the MUNI underground two or three stops down to the Tenderloin is easier, stop by Glide Memorial Church to stand in a long line for either meal; for dinner, make sure you get in line by 4 p.m. Glide is the only site in the Tenderloin where you can walk in and reserve a shelter bed. While you're in there, you could drop into the free medical clinic to get that gout looked at or the legal clinic if you've accumulated some loitering tickets. (You want to avoid those, but more on that later.) Glide's world-famous Glide Ensemble gospel choir will be closing down Super Bowl City on Sunday at 2pm. Their performance ends right before kickoff.
Most likely, whether you're going to the game or not, you can afford to eat at one of Super Bowl City's restaurants. I'm not talking about the fancy food stalls selling lamb tamales and seafood chowder, though; I mean the 24-hour Subway restaurant on Justin Herman Plaza, where your SNAP (food stamps) card will buy you a (non-toasted) sandwich for between five and 10 bucks.
Outside the exit, a good bet is the 7-Eleven on Drumm Street, where a half hour's panhandling money can buy you hot taquitos ($1.49 each or three for $3) or a hot dog ($1.99). You can also use your SNAP card at the Walgreens. It's not just beef jerky and Tootsie Rolls: the Drumm Street Walgreens has a wall of fresh food, from vegan lentil salads to chicken club wraps to sushi. Regardless of how desperate your circumstances, perhaps take a moment to consider whether you have ever seen or heard of anyone eating sushi from Walgreens. While you're in there, if you're slick you can get away with boosting some popular items like safety razor refills, laundry soap, and batteries, which are easy to turn around near where the Army-Navy surplus used to be on Market Street on your way back down to the Tenderloin. (Such essentials get snapped up quick because they're both expensive and not covered by insurance or food stamps.)
While you're down at mid-Market, since it's Wednesday, you can use whatever's left on your SNAP card to get tokens for the Heart of the City Farmer's Market—the cheapest one in town by a long shot—and spend them on fruit or cheese, as long as you buy in round numbers: You can't get change back from food stamp tokens. You can also offer to fold boxes, stack crates, and sweep stalls; many a farmer will pay you in produce and maybe even some Washingtons. Since you're in the neighborhood, I could tell you where you can buy a $50 Oxy or a bag of crank to go with your apples, but that would be reckless of me.
Anyway, this is academic. You, dear reader, can afford to eat at the Woodhouse Fish Company or the Southern Comfort Kitchen within the fenced-in range of Super Bowl City. You're reading this on your iPhone while you're standing in line for—something or other, it made sense when you started standing here. Then again, your iPhone is no longer a reliable indicator of economic status; several homeless people in my acquaintance have one. Although most people have forgiven Syrian refugees for traveling through Europe with their smartphones, a fair portion of America still scoffs at the idea of homeless people carrying cellphones at all, and some of those people are very angry about it indeed. The government program that provides them carries on anyway.
Should you need pointers on how to get your own Obamaphone, as well as other benefits and services for homeless and at-risk people, you can stop by the Everyday Connect office on 25 Van Ness, a short walk toward City Hall from the farmer's market. (City Hall is also a good place to use the public restroom if you can deal with going through security; the Main Library is also nearby but their bathrooms are pretty hectic what with all the people freshening up and changing their clothes. The Main is a great place to take a load off, though.)
But back to the food. Why are you always so hungry? Is it the diabetes from eating a diet that's so sporadic and heavy on junk food? Or maybe the hunger is from the constant walking in ill-fitting shoes that leaves your feet dry as bones, with inch-thick calluses? Or the fact that it hurts to eat because you had more of your teeth pulled but can't get a referral for dentures? If your body is bothering you, you can go to the Tom Waddell clinic if you want excellent medical care in the Tenderloin-Civic Center area, provided you don't mind waiting for a drop-in slot to open up.
But food. Right. Maybe there's a food pantry you could visit? But what are you going to do with a bag of rice and a 35 pound box of canned goods? And without ID for the right ZIP Code? You might try calling the United Way hotline at 211, but they don't guarantee an up-to-date list. Call them anyway, though. They can refer you to a lot of things. There's a lot to keep track of now that you're living on the street.
Ticket to Ride
To save costs while you're in town, try not to sit down for too long in the wrong place. If you "offend the senses" of the passersby, you're a public nuisance, which is a misdemeanor under the California penal code carrying a fine up to $1,000 and/or jail time up to six months. Be careful not to Obstruct Free Movement by blocking a sidewalk or Obstruct Business Operations by hanging out too close to a doorway, too. Those are similar misdemeanors. And don't loiter near a school: this is a vagrancy charge, which is another one-grand misdemeanor.
Behave yourself on the bus, too, because disturbing people on public transit is a $400 infraction. If you feel hassled by all these citations just for hanging around, and you hassle the cops back, a Disorderly Conduct misdemeanor can cost you another $1,000.
Of all the loitering infractions on the books in local San Francisco law, the infamous Sit-Lie law, passed by 54 percent of the voters in 2010, states that between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m., it's illegal to sit or lie on the sidewalk. Both Nathan Ballard of the Host Committee and Sergeant Andraychak of SFPD confirmed that possible enforcement of Sit-Lie was on the table inside the perimeter of Super Bowl City.
You're also prohibited from hanging out near a nightclub or a public toilet in San Francisco; going into a public bathroom in pairs is similarly prohibited. So be careful near the Fan Wall, and don't talk to your friends too long near the Official Port-o-Potties of Game Day, which near as I can tell somehow don't have corporate sponsors. (Don't worry too much about peeing or pooping in the wrong place if all the public bathrooms are locked up at night. That's illegal, too, but that's usually charged under San Francisco police code, not state indecent exposure laws, which could be elevated to a sex crime.) If you're a visitor to our merry streets and a first-time offender, each of these civil infractions could cost you $50, but subsequent offenses can rise to as much as $500 for shitting or sitting in the wrong places.
I spoke to a 49-year-old man last week near the 7-Eleven on Drumm Street. He asked me not to print his name, but said I could call him the Invisible Man. He was inspired by another homeless man who called himself that on his cardboard "begging sign," and explained to me that so many people walk past panhandlers like him that the sign was both sly and redundant. A veteran, the Invisible Man was waiting until his General Assistance check was deposited into his account so he could buy a $20 BART ticket and spend Super Bowl week in Berkeley, laying low and "hopefully staying out of trouble." BART Police are actually the worst, he told me, and explained how some homeless people liked to use the BART elevator to get high in, so any time a BART cop saw a homeless-looking person taking the elevator, they might hassle them or even arrest them.
"You see anyone getting out of line down here or having a little too much fun with all the money people—tourist, vagrant, whatever—they might just lock you up for the rest of the week to keep you out of the way," said the Invisible Man. "The judge will throw out the case, but you'll miss the festivities and probably the game."
Whose Park Is It Anyway?
If you're headed to Super Bowl City, you probably fit one of a handful of descriptions: out-of-town tourists who flew here with pocket money and official NFL clothing; Bay Area tourists taking long BART or car rides into San Francisco, dressed casually or for the club; impatient San Franciscans just trying to get to work; and curious locals who don't mind crowds and want to watch tourists attempt the bizarrely close-quartered video games and ride the zip line with the all-day wait list.
You're probably not homeless. You might even have at least three places to live: The home you left your car parked in front of, the hotel you're staying in, and the seat at Levi's Stadium that costs between one and 100 months' rent, depending on the seat and the apartment. You may have paid $3,000 a night to rent out someone's home in Santa Clara or $900 plus a $300 cleaning fee to sleep in a one-bedroom in San Francisco.
I looked at Airbnb's Super Bowl Rentals pages for apartments and condos in San Francisco the other night, and the cheapest thing going was a sublet of a $500-a-night hotel room—technically, a furnished condominium—in Club Donatello, an "owner's club" on Union Square that's a bargain timeshare from $1,400 a year. That one night of sleep is a couple bottles of Veuve Cliquot more than the $378 maximum General Assistance a workfare recipient can receive per month in San Francisco; they get less if they get offered a shelter bed, even if they refuse it. As of September, 1,296 GA recipients were enrolled in a program that provides SRO rooms that come out of their (slightly larger) check.
Even in San Francisco's rental market, where the median listed studio apartment costs $2,722 a month and millionaires by tech or by birth are willing to spend a million dollars on a one-bedroom condo, these prices are outrageous. And the real outrage isn't just over gouging over special event rates at hotel listings or on Airbnb. That's just capitalism, just as market forces explain why it's such a punishingly expensive hassle to live in San Francisco. Owners of multiple homes in San Francisco, tempted by Airbnb money and abetted by city law, are keeping units off the market that could be rented to the thousands of people moving to town each year. The price of a good night's sleep keeps going up in San Francisco, whether you're housed or hosed.
Last night, I ran into the Invisible Man at 7-Eleven again. I was back there to fact-check the price of taquitos, and he was hanging out inside estimating how much longer he'd have to panhandle to get enough money for a pack of cigarettes. The Invisible Man was heading to Berkeley tomorrow, he said, and he wasn't sure what side of the Bay he'd stay on come Monday. He knew something of the different shelter systems and social services here and in Berkeley, and the pros and cons of each.
The Invisible Man told me about a woman the other night, "an old lady, at least 65, long gray hair, wild wrinkles, and she's peeing outside a bar around the corner and a bartender comes out and throws a pitcher of water at her. She wasn't in his doorway, she wasn't even on the sidewalk, she was squatting in the street. This lady, I've seen her around, she isn't all there, and she had no idea what was going on. She felt that water hit her and looked up, pulled her pants back up, and just kept looking around trying to see what had happened."
The Invisible Man talked to the bartender, who "said he had the right to throw water on this woman for disrupting his business. Man, it's not even his business, it's not even the bar owner's business, it's the landlord's business who's smart enough to charge $15,000 a month or whatever for these places, and he doesn't give a shit who's here or not."
The last thing the Invisible Man had to tell me was a long story about how things are "all about appearances." It involved watching a documentary about criminals who are doctors and his own experience with being shaved or not, articulating his speech carefully or not, showing his good, white teeth or not, standing up straight or not. "But I can't shake off being black, of course," he said.
I went inside the Walgreens and when I came out, I walked past a panhandler and tried not to do a double-take. It was the Invisible Man, but instead of looking like himself—a gruff-but-affable homeless veteran telling stories—he'd pulled a blanket up around his head and shoulders and huddled beneath it, bugging his eyes out and holding a cup. In Super Bowl City, it's all about appearances.
If you are in San Francisco and concerned about a homeless person, or if you want to know where there is an open shelter bed available, call 311 rather than 911. The Homeless Outreach Team will be on duty during Super Bowl Week, just as they are all year round.