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We share their sidewalks

I JUST got home to Colorado after five days in San Francisco. The fish was fresh and the city was beautiful, but I can't forget the scores of troubled, homeless people I saw each day on downtown streets. I'm a walker, and San Francisco is a walker's city, so I did my exploring on foot. Walking personalized the misery around me and made it more troubling.

I can't forget the vacant-eyed woman drug addict hustling change in front of the post office, the Mohawked beggar in Army fatigues on Market Street, the old man with soiled clothes who wore a ``U.S.A.'' cap each day, and the native American on crutches in front of the bus station. I still see the alcoholics passed out in doorways, the angry and mentally ill in their screaming and shouting matches, and the poor crowd-ing in lines for free meals.

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I've traveled and I've been a big city police reporter, so I'm no stranger to despair. But a news story I read while I was in the city defined my impression of these tragic street people.

The story noted that five Bay Area counties, including San Francisco itself, are among California's six richest. As the troubled, the hungry, and the homeless let me share their sidewalks, the story reminded me where I was -- in the commercial and financial heart of the richest region in the richest state in the richest country in the world.

San Francisco's reputation for tolerance and compassion makes this counterpoint between gutters and grandeur more poignant. Perhaps so many desperate and tragic people are on the streets there because it's better than being on the streets in a lot of other places.

But how can this hopelessness and despair exist in the midst of unparalleled wealth? Why doesn't someone help these people? Task forces and position papers can supply dry, technical answers, but not moral ones.

It's easy enough to look at San Francisco's glittering department stores, imported cars, and million-dollar condominiums and declare that someone should help the troubled and homeless. It's harder to look at the trips and investments and presents I write out checks for and ask myself what I should do.

Back home, in my comfortable house with its view of Pikes Peak, I haven't been able to feel smug about the clean and tidy streets of my hometown.

How could I see those people on San Francisco's streets, witness a little of their pain, give out a few quarters, and walk away? I didn't go to San Francisco looking for questions, but now I can't get rid of them.

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