San Francisco is Waging War on Homeless People

On April 12th, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and two other ghoulish right-wing organizations filed a lawsuit against 2018’s Prop C ballot measure, citing a California Constitutional amendment that requires a two-thirds majority of voters for any tax increase. Until the case is decided–which might take years–the city can’t release the Prop C funds it has collected. Instead, they’ll sit in a bank account while people continue to die on our streets.

This is a story that plays out over and over in San Francisco, where it’s almost impossible to get new beds set aside for homeless people. There are at least 4,300 people sleeping on the streets every night; the shelter waitlist is currently almost 1,300 long. Yet even small progress toward addressing the unmet need for shelter and supportive housing comes only after an enormous fight.

Look no further than the proposed navigation center in Embarcadero, which would provide between 130 to 200 beds in an area where there are currently few services available for the many people who need them. The Embarcadero shelter made international headlines when it emerged that South Beach NIMBYs had started a GoFundMe page to raise money for a lawsuit against it. Despite widespread outrage, they continue to receive donations almost daily; the campaign has raised over $100,000 as of this article’s publication.

Meanwhile, a host of measures that don’t make headlines continue to erode the safety and dignity of our unhoused neighbors. As the increasing cost of housing forces thousands of people into taking up residence in their vehicles, a wave of RV bans is sweeping the Bay Area, including parts of San Francisco. The City is also looking to implement Scott Weiner’s SB 1045, which gives police power to deprive unhoused people of their civil liberties and imprison them in mental institutions when they receive enough behavioral citations.

Perhaps most damaging of all are the frequent sweeps, which play a huge role in worsening the already massive health crisis on San Francisco’s streets. Sweeps often result in the theft of important medications and survival gear; they destroy communal support structures that can be critical to surviving on the streets; they force people with debilitating health conditions to spend the day wandering aimlessly; and they make it much harder to connect with social workers and others doing street-based outreach.

The city doesn’t publish data on the frequency of sweeps, but folks who live on the streets tell us it’s not unusual to get swept twice in the same week. Police and city workers routinely violate official policy of giving twenty-four hours notice to relocate. In February, they hit a new low when they confiscated tents hours before a winter rainstorm.

The following video reflects interviews we conducted over the course of several months with unhoused people who agreed to share their experiences with us about sweeps and interactions with the police:

Ending criminalization is only the beginning. If we want to systematically address the homelessness crisis, we have to listen to the voices of those who are most affected by it.

There are two topics in particular that came up again and again in our conversations: the need for healthcare and supportive housing. Neither can be fully effective without the other. Both could be funded with the money we’re currently spending on lawsuits and criminalizing people for having nowhere else to go.

We hope that these videos bring home the human reality behind the numbers. Homelessness is not an abstraction or a nuisance. It’s a threat to health, bodily autonomy, and even life for the people experiencing it.

How can you help? Call your supervisor and demand an end to sweeps, as well as more homeless services in your district.

Join DSA SF’s Homelessness working group.