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A more ‘just and compassionate’ approach to the homeless is needed

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(Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

In response to the sweeps to confiscate tents without adequate shelter beds in place: Winter is here in San Francisco, with its heavy rains and pervading chill. All around the City, we see people who are experiencing homelessness carrying their soaked belongings, and taking shelter anywhere they can to find a dry moment away from the torrential downpours.

We also hear the voices of people who have witnessed the confiscation of tents and wet-weather gear from those suffering homelessness. In the harshest weather, it is difficult to understand why these items would be seized without a completed shelter infrastructure in place. Without room for each and every person in need.

We are encouraged that District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney is calling for a hearing to investigate the City’s response to homelessness during record-breaking storms and cold temperatures. During a particularly harsh weekend of weather, only 75 extra mats were supplied for an estimated 4,000+ people in need, while 1,200 people are still on the waitlist for shelter beds.

In that same period of heavy rain, the San Francisco Police Department and the San Francisco Department of Public Works continued their assigned confiscation sweeps, at times using harsh language and rhetoric that seemed to boast of taking tents and personal belongings from people living on the streets. Anyone who works with homeless people knows that that sweeps and seizures of encampments actually increase when rain is forecasted.

We understand that the City is working towards building better infrastructures for our unhoused brothers and sisters, but that support and infrastructure is not yet in place. Those beds are not available tonight, and will not be for many nights to come.

We know that skyrocketing rents have attributed to the loss of affordable housing even among the middle class, and we know that this has pushed our very poorest neighbors out onto our streets. Once there, tents are literally their only option and, in light of our housing inequities and lack of shelter, we see this as a rational response to an irrational social crisis.

St. Anthony’s calls for a more just and compassionate approach by police, public agencies, and policymakers. An approach that cares for and protects our neighbors, without leaving them more vulnerable and deeper in suffering. We ask City leaders to partner with organizations like St. Anthony’s, where our principles of compassion, dignity, and respect guide emergency response protocols. Providing shelter, not seizures of tents. Offering warmth, not condemning them to cold. Welcoming, not rejecting.

As the Bay Area braces for yet another set of cold and rainy storms this weekend, we ask the leaders of our beloved San Francisco to be realistic about where we are in the process of creating an equitable and affordable city for all. There is a very real sea change in this the greatest of cities, a compassionate tipping point for our business community and civic leadership. We embrace this coming together of community to support our most vulnerable neighbors and rejoice at the building of a new narrative of inclusion that proclaims, it’s up to us.

Barry Stenger is the Executive Director of St. Anthony’s, an organization that provides meals, health care, clothing, shelter, addiction recovery, social services, and tech access to homeless and low-income people in the Franciscan spirit.

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