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Powell Street Station, downtown San Francisco. Posters for the Monterey Bay Aquarium show a glorious underwater turtle with the caption: “Hold your breath”. But the pun is not the one the advertisers intended: commuters suck air into their lungs to avoid the smell from the corridors where people are sprawled in various states of consciousness. Above ground, urine has corroded — and even toppled — lampposts; the city urges people to aim at hardier fire hydrants. Addicts inject heroin and toss the needles; the local authorities are considering removing sandpits from playgrounds. It is not unusual to see people defecating; last year the city received more than 15,000 reports of human waste on the streets.
An observant visitor might notice something else: more than half the homeless are black or mixed race but the broader population has become overwhelmingly white — the proportion of African-Americans has halved in a generation to 5.6 per cent. Analyse the census data closely and there is an even more startling statistic: white households in the San Francisco metropolitan area have a median income of $107,000, the highest of any big US city; the median black household earns $47,000. That is the biggest gulf in the country.
San Francisco in 2017 has plenty of futuristic features; driverless cars compete for space on the streets with electric skateboards. But the overall tone is more Blade Runner than The Jetsons.
Starting one chilly night in January, when I joined volunteers fanning out across San Francisco for the biennial count of the homeless, I have spent this year trying to understand the extremes of rich and poor, and the…