Thomas Fuller returns to the US after nearly 30 years abroad, mostly in developing countries. He is shocked by the in-your-face poverty of San Francisco.
Of course some of what I’ve encountered has been less alluring. 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.
One possible reason for this is the lack of continuity in rich countries. There are fewer gaps to fill, so a person is either in the system, or completely outside it.
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.