I will never forget how excited I was about moving to San Francisco, all the way from little Norway. As an exchange student I would be living a half year in the city about which I had only heard good things. San Francisco is a conglomeration of different cultures, liberal attitudes, great cultural offerings, restaurants with food from all over the world as well as beautiful architecture. It is said to be the most European of American cities. Maybe that is why I feel so much like home here. But there is one factor that makes me realize the big difference from little Norway to big America, and that is all the homeless people.
San Francisco is a relatively small city of around 800,000 inhabitants. The housing market is amongst the most expensive in the world, which forces more and more people out of the market and out of the society[PDF]. As of 2013, there were around 7,450 homeless people in San Francisco[PDF]. If Norway had as big share of homeless people as San Francisco, as many as 46,000 people in Norway would have no home.
One evening, as we walk out from the restaurant, full after the nice dinner and a bit giggly after a couple of glasses of wine, we remark how amazing it is that we had such a nice meal for only $30. In Norway this would have been at least 80 dollar. It feels cheap to us.
A couple of doors from us, someone lies on the ice cold ground under a blanket. Wrapped up so that it is hard to tell the whether or not the person is alive. A little further down the street a man stumbles in circles, haunted by demonic voices. From the other side of the street we suddenly hear someone shout ”I’m gonna cut your knees off, you better watch out!” He shouts this out in the air to nobody. We pretend we didn’t hear it; others walk by as if nothing happened.
The contrasts between rich and poor in San Francisco are dramatic. There is simply not enough housing for everyone. As the tech companies move in downtown, the poor is getting poorer – as in the rest of America. David Vossbrink, the city’s communications director, said in a New York Times article: “It is one of the paradoxes of our region’s economic success, this housing shortage”. 48% of homeless people[PDF] in San Francisco cite their inability to afford rent as the main reason they have to live on the streets.
One of my first impressions of the homeless people around here is that they are louder than I am used to. In Norway there are a few drug addicts and in Rome people sit quietly with an arm stretched holding an empty coffee cup hoping to get a coin or two. There are some of them here too, but also here many of them are shouting out in the air. Screaming. Shouting for people. Shouting for help.
One-third of the homeless people in San Francisco suffer from severe mental illness, according to various studies. In the 1960s and 70s, when Ronald Reagan was governor of California, many mental hospitals were shut down. This forced people out on the streets. Many of these people need treatment just as much as they need a home. Why won’t the politicians and the state help them?
In 2010, when Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare, was enacted, one of the promises was that the poor was going to be able to buy insurance. Government owned-and-operated healthcare systems, a more united support system that gives people equal rights was on its way.
As Dean Baker wrote for the Huffington Post, ACA “not only insured millions of uninsured people, but it freed tens of millions of workers from dependence on their employers for insurance. This is especially important for workers who have serious health conditions or have family members with serious health conditions.”
This is an important step in the right direction.
But having equal rights also means having the same possibility of going to school. In this way young people can get an education and a job. But what if the family can’t afford to send their kids to school? According to San Francisco Chronicle “of the 54,000 students in the system, one in 25 — or 4 percent — is homeless”.
Norway is built upon different principles. It is less individualistic than the United States and Norwegians happily pay far higher taxes. In fact, amongst advanced social democracies, the USA is unusual in its attitude to taxation, as the Washington Post reported:
“The United States has by far the most progressive income, payroll, wealth and property taxes of any developed country. Scandinavian social democracies like Denmark, Sweden and Norway have quite regressive direct taxes, as do the Netherlands and Switzerland.”
Norway has a system of welfare that gives everyone the right to free education, maternity leave for a year, sickness benefits and free health care. Sometimes, I think that things are too easy for Norwegians. It’s relatively easy to become lazy when you can just lean back and get money from the Government. Having all the possibilities in the world can somehow also lead to negative consequences such as the extremely high prevalence of depression amongst Norwegians. But at the same time it is this support system that saves us from the homelessness problem I encounter here in San Francisco.
Some people argue that the welfare system model we have in Scandinavia would never work in a big country like the United States, but I disagree. With political will, everything is possible.
The housing prices in Norway have also sky-rocketed the last years, just like in San Francisco. When I see the negative results in San Francisco, I worry about my home country. In the western part of Oslo, which is known as the richest part of the city, the average person lives 10 years longer than on the east side of Oslo, where there are more immigrants and low-earning people. Even with the famous Scandinavian safety net, these troubling differences arise. What then about the countries that don’t even have a wealth system?
Like with Obamacare, what’s missing here is not knowledge but political will. Leaving an untreated person alone wandering the streets, searching for food and stalking doorways for shelter is not an acceptable definition of freedom.
As I now sadly have to return to Norway, I know I will miss San Francisco. I will miss all the great things I’ve loved about this city: the people, the food, the opportunities, the architecture. But most of all, I will appreciate anew the Norwegian welfare state.