Virtually everyone in San Francisco has had a stranger ask them for money at one time or another. With some 7,754 people sleeping in sidewalk tents and shelters and underneath overpasses, plus tens of thousands more barely hanging on, the need has arguably never been greater.
But the intensification of San Francisco’s homelessness emergency has coincided with a number of other trends that unhoused people say mean fewer of the once-reliable dollars from passersby and less positive interactions more generally.
While the declining popularity of cash certainly plays a huge role in why Bay Area residents appear to be less willing to give money directly to those in need, the changing face of homelessness also plays a significant role. The stereotype of the guitar-strumming hippie has given way to the stereotype of the screaming window-smasher engulfed in multiple overlapping mental-health crises, making people less inclined to give.
The Standard spoke to several people living and working on San Francisco’s streets, asking about their experiences, past and present, with busking, panhandling and whatever else they do to get by.
Often, when hit up for money, people give with a smile and without asking questions. Other times, though, they fiddle with their phones, avoiding eye contact and murmuring an apology that trails off as soon as they walk past—assuming they didn’t simply pretend not to hear anything. According to some unhoused people, this is happening more.
“People aren’t as willing to help,” said Vinny Vizgaudis, who lives on the street in SoMa. “There’s a misconception that we’re fucking lazy, you know?”
At 37, he’s been homeless for the last nine years, some of which were spent as a commercial fisherman in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. It’s dangerous work: He was crushed by a crab pot, and once went overboard and “died in the drink” from hypothermia before his shipmates revived him.
Still, working is a point of pride, theft a source of shame. After stealing a $100 roll of copper wire from a Home Depot in Southern California, Vizgaudis said he hasn’t boosted anything since. These days, he makes much of his living by recycling cans and bottles, collecting roughly 30 pounds of recycling a day. By his reckoning, that amounts to removing 9,000 pounds of waste from city streets every year. So he’s struck by the intensity of anti-homeless sentiment.
“I recycle every fucking day,” he said. “This is my day off, and I still have a bag of recycling, right? And the reason for that is because it's something to do. It passes my time. It keeps me out of trouble. It gives me money.”
There are plenty of unhoused people just like him, Vizgaudis insists. But they don’t get noticed because of what he calls “the bad apples, the 25-year-old kid who can obviously work.” People in crisis who spread trash around have spurred many property owners to lock up their blue bins, which, in turn, makes Vizgaudis’ own life harder and more precarious.
Even so, he prefers recycling to panhandling—at least in San Francisco. Things have been different elsewhere, as in Huntington Beach in September 2021 when a car accident left him in a wheelchair for a time. He believes he was deliberately struck.
“I was walking five weeks later, because I … had to,” Vizgaudis said. “But during those five weeks I did fly a sign, and I made more money than I ever made as a homeless man.”
At times, that meant hundreds more per day, he said, than he could ever earn here.
“San Francisco has some of the cruelest people towards the homeless I've ever seen. Ever. Period,” he said. “It's rough. It's sad. But, you know, I kind of get it—but I kind of don't, because, like, it doesn't take much to … to help somebody else.”
Sometimes, mean-spiritedness is more than sins of omission. He claims to have seen human feces deliberately covered in plastic wrap to make it look like food. Pranks like that confound him.
“There's no reason to hate me, bro,” he said.
Octavio Martinez is an affable guy who mostly barters with other unhoused people for what he needs and says his superpower is his ability to make $5 worth of drugs last longer than anyone else. He’s lived in San Francisco since 1990 and in a small encampment on Florida Street in the Mission for the last two days. These days, people call the cops on him more than in the past, even though he makes an effort not to place his tent on private property.
Like Vizgaudis, he believes that random acts of cruelty against the unhoused are on the rise. Strangers threaten violence in a way they didn’t previously.
“I was sitting in my tent, and [a guy] said, ‘How would you like it if I kicked you in the back of the head?’” Martinez said.
Only the day before, he witnessed that happen to someone else.
“Yesterday, I saw that shit,” he told The Standard. “I was like, ‘Man, it’s awful.’
“I’m sorry to tell you that,” Martinez added.
Across the street, Jaime and Rose Rios often spend three or four hours busking at a time, playing Janis Joplin, Metallica and Buju Banton on guitar. On a good day, they pull in $80 to $100—but they hadn’t earned much in the prior two weeks as they worked to get off opiates.
“I don’t want the money going to my death,” Jaime said.
Technically, the couple are still fianceés, but Rose considers them to be “spiritually married,” and after three years in San Francisco, they recently found transitional housing. They busk around the city, and occasionally play in the Tenderloin simply to soothe people’s spirits. There have been days when they’ll only make a few bucks, which Rose attributes to changes in people’s wallets.
“People carry less cash than they used to,” she said.
Conditions are a bit different across town in the Haight. Zombie, a 33-year-old digital artist originally from Washington state who’s been coming to San Francisco for the last 11 years, described himself as a tourist attraction, a living custodian of six decades of the counterculture.
“I like to draw people in,” he said. “People used to come in from all over the world to buy drugs from us at this corner, so I built my business on being the one you want to see. This is my mecca. I came here as a pilgrim.”
Calling himself “an old-school traveler, a hobo kid,” Zombie has his name tattooed on his left forearm in the style of a 1930s bridge tag. He and his friends haven’t experienced overt meanness the way Vizgaudis and Martinez have, and the cops leave them alone, but the neighborhood is changing around them, with $100 T-shirts crowding out the thrift shops. They feel actively pushed out.
“Gentrification is real here,” Zombie said. “Cash money is going to go away within the next seven years. There’s a lot less money out here than there was before.”
Kaylyn Beckford, an East Oakland resident, was walking around the Haight with her friend Tianna Young, who was visiting from New Mexico. Visible homelessness has always been a fact of life in Beckford’s neighborhood, and she’s always been sympathetic—but sympathy sometimes collides with the way people pay for things today.
“I’m definitely a big giver, but recently I found that I don’t really carry around cash, so I don’t really give anymore,” she said.
David Carr, who has owned the nearby boutique Kimono Dave’s since early 2022, is more forthright.
“I personally never give anyone money, but I buy the homeless food sometimes,” he said. “I’d rather just provide food for you. I’ve given clothing before, too. It’s just my preferred method.”
Outreach workers have taken note of this, though they note that conditions on the streets aren’t as desperate as they were during the early phase of Covid, when people ventured outside less.
Glide Foundation’s Felanie Castro was one of the few harm-reduction case managers who kept up with clients through the lockdown.
“Folks that panhandle around certain intersections around the freeway went from having an amount they could reach per day, to zero,” he said. “It got people more desperate.”
Today, people are out and about again, but many simply aren’t as inclined to give change or a dollar. They’re more guarded, Castro said.
But the amount of money required to survive is not a fixed number, either. For example, during and after getting pummeled by atmospheric rivers, many of San Francisco’s unhoused residents were physically depleted and battling various ailments, meaning some needed more nutrition than usual. That, in turn, means hustling harder in order to feed themselves in spite of feeling ill.
“It seems a little more desperate out there to be,” Castro said. “I’ve been here since 2016. It was a really rough winter for folks, really cold and really wet. We go out four, sometimes five days a week, doing outreach. There’s a huge need.”
Rizzy Spoer, another outreach worker with Glide, declined to comment on how her clients make their way, but she agreed that the city’s reputation for limitless largesse isn’t entirely accurate.
“From my own personal experience, as someone who grew up in Oakland and has spent most of my life in the Bay Area, there is coldness there,” she said.
She rode freight trains around the country in her youth and learned that the most money you could make would be in working-class neighborhoods, because everyone there knows someone in trouble, or maybe they’re only a paycheck or two away from peril themselves.
As a 19-year-old cis white woman, Spoer could make $100 outside a Walmart fairly quickly.
In affluent areas, the problem can feel remote, and many residents don’t grasp how it’s possible to work full-time and still be unhoused.
“I do see mutual aid a lot,” Spoer said. “I see people go in and buy people water or food [because they aren’t carrying cash]. But I would say San Francisco is a little tough.”
San Francisco street life also operates on a massive bartering economy, much of which doesn’t involve theft. Sometimes, it even comes from San Francisco’s most famous example of a culture of bartering and self-reliance.
“After Burning Man, people wreck their bikes a little bit and throw them out. There’s nothing wrong with the bike, but it got a little sandy or it doesn’t run the same way,” Spoer said. “So this super-resourceful person gets all these bikes. They’re not doing anything illegal, and they fix the bikes up and make quite a bit of money that way.”
Astrid Kane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org