Homeless but Not Hopeless in San Francisco

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By Christopher Gardner, author of The Pursuit of Happyness.


Some of you may already be familiar with my story from reading my autobiography “The Pursuit of Happyness,” or seeing the movie with Will Smith that was based on one frightening year of my life. Perhaps I’ve even met a few of you at events or walking on the streets of San Francisco. Today you might recognize me, but twenty-five years ago, you probably wouldn’t have given me the time of day. In the early 1980’s I was just another statistic–a homeless man in San Francisco, sleeping in shelters, on park benches, in the MacArthur BART station bathroom, trying to create a better life for my son and me.

Homelessness is an epidemic in this country that does not have a simple cause or a simple solution. Most people think that alcoholism, drug addiction or mental conditions afflict everyone sleeping on the streets or in shelters. While it’s true that these factors play a part for many who are chronically homeless, others, like me, work hard, stay clean, and still can’t make ends meet. And when you have a family to look after, children who are depending on you to keep them safe, it becomes a more complicated crisis. 

A fact not well known is that about 12 percent of all homeless people in America have jobs. In some communities that number may be as high as 30 percent. And studies show that close to 400,000 children under 4 years old will sleep in homeless shelters or on the streets tonight.

One of the greatest blessings of my success and notoriety has been the opportunity to meet people in San Francisco who are struggling to get by–people who, just like me, desperately want to fulfill their dreams and take care of their kids–and give them a few words of encouragement. But seeing tangible help in action is even more powerful. While filming “The Pursuit of Happyness” in San Francisco, Sony hired 250 homeless people to be extras–a day’s work for a day’s pay; no handouts. A man and woman walked up to me and explained, “We both work and have been living on the streets to save money for a house. All we needed was another $500, which we just made working on your film.”

These people also need tangible help from the City of San Francisco, and thanks to Mayor Gavin Newsom, they are now getting it. 

There has been little progress in reducing homelessness among families in San Francisco–the lack of affordable one, two or three bedroom apartments being the chief obstacle. With the federal government abandoning public housing, pressure has increased on localities to come up with creative housing solutions. I applaud Mayor Newsom for recognizing this crisis and for his new initiative of the $3 million family rent-subsidy program that could double the number of homeless families housed in the next year. 

The City of San Francisco is also helping impoverished families by offering job training, pre-eviction and eviction assistance services, and childcare options. The City continues to fund individual shelters and their food and resource services. Glide Memorial Church, which was instrumental in helping my son and me when we were homeless, benefits from the compassion of the Mayor’s programs.

I am so proud of the City and the people of San Francisco. I am also proud to call Gavin Newsom a friend. The work that the City of San Francisco is doing under Gavin’s leadership will become a model for cities across the county. “Care Not Cash” is not just a slogan–it works!


I’ve got just one question for Gavin: “Where were you twenty-five years ago when I needed your help?” Oh yeah, high school.

Christopher Gardner is the owner and CEO of Christopher Gardner International Holdings and the author of the autobiography, The Pursuit of Happyness, a New York Times and Washington Post #1 bestseller. ardner is also the inspiration for the acclaimed movie “The Pursuit of Happyness” starring for Will Smith.  

Always hard-working and tenacious, a series of adverse circumstances in the early 1980’s left Gardner homeless in San Francisco and the sole guardian of his toddler son. Unwilling to give up Chris Jr. or his dreams of success, Gardner climbed the financial industry ladder from the very bottom.

Surmounting acute obstacles throughout his life, Gardner is an avid motivational speaker, addressing the keys to self-empowerment, beating the odds, and breaking cycles. Gardner is also a passionate philanthropist committed to many charitable organizations. He lives in Chicago and New York.

Note: Articles from Act Locally SF are posted for the purpose of generating ideas and honest debate on how San Francisco can live up to its full promise and potential. Posting of an article does not imply an endorsement by the author of Gavin Newsom for Mayor, nor an endorsement by Gavin Newsom for Mayor of the positions set forth in the article.



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