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Homeless haven rethinks tolerance

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It takes only a few blocks to realize that street people and panhandlers are as much a part of this gilded hill city as the Golden Gate, the Presidio, or the striking views of Alcatraz from Russian Hill.

San Francisco belongs to them as much as it does to the scions of Pacific Heights or former dotcomers now working in temp jobs. In this tolerant city, politicians who have sought to remove them from street corners have long been labeled callous - and often rousted from office. Here, urinating in public is a cherished right.

As the problem grows, however, San Francisco appears to be reaching its breaking point. According to some estimates, it has roughly the same number of homeless people as New York, even though it has one-tenth the population. Two years ago, nearly 200 people died on the streets - twice as many as in the state of Florida.

Now, a city politician is again attacking the issue - but this time, people are listening. While his proposals may not be as hard-edged as those of former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, they represent the most serious attempt at reform in more than a decade, and San Franciscans' receptiveness is telling.

This issue, perhaps more than any other, has in recent years defined San Francisco's sense of itself as a liberal-minded haven for all humanity - from immigrants to anarchists, homosexuals to the homeless. Yet as the scope of the problem becomes overwhelming, this culture of tolerance is being tested by a practical desire for peace and safety.

"The homeless problem has become cataclysmic in San Francisco," says Gray Brechin, a historian at the University of California in Berkeley. "Now, people really want something done about it."

Where the problem abounds

Since 2000, the homeless population of San Francisco has grown by more than a third, totaling some 7,300 people. In places such as the Tenderloin district, streets seem little more than galleries of "Checks Cashed" signs, strip clubs, and wobbly shopping carts packed with worn clothes, trinkets, and trash. Sidewalks double as sleeping quarters, and the smell of stale urine is rarely far away.

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