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What San Francisco says about America


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For the New York Times, Thomas Fuller writes about the harsh realities of San Francisco, namely the city’s unbridled homelessness that stands in stark contrast to its newly minted tech millionaires and the luxury services that target them as customers. Fuller has just moved from Bangkok to the US after spending decades in Asia. Read him in partial below, in full via New York Times.

During all my years in Asia I constantly grappled with the perniciousness of poverty. Yet somehow I was unprepared for the scale and severity of homelessness in San Francisco.

The juxtaposition of the silent whir of sleek Tesla electric vehicles, with the outbursts of the mentally ill on the sidewalks. Destitution clashing with high technology. Well-dressed tourists sharing the pavement with vaguely human forms inside cardboard boxes.

I’m confounded how to explain to my two children why a wealthy society allows its most vulnerable citizens to languish on the streets. My son, when he first encountered a homeless man, asked why no one “wanted to adopt him.”

It seems a terrible statement about my home country that my children will encounter homelessness and mental illness much more vividly in the wealthiest nation in the world than they did in Thailand, where we previously lived.

During a trip back to Bangkok I spoke about this paradox with Nopphan Phromsri, the secretary general of the Human Settlement Foundation, an organization that assists the homeless there.

Greater Bangkok, a sprawling metropolis with more than 10 million people, has 1,300 homeless people, a survey this year found.

San Francisco has less than one-tenth Bangkok’s population but six times as many homeless people. I’m sure you could fill a book with the reasons for this. Ms. Nopphan believes that homelessness is more intractable in rich societies. “In wealthy countries there are systems for everything,” she said. “You’re either in the system or out of the system.” There is no in-between in America. In Bangkok, by contrast, rich and poor coexist. There are vast tracts of cheap, makeshift homes and a countryside where people in the cities can return to if they lose their jobs or hit hard times.

On most days Asia feels very far away.