Mayor London Breed speaks after taking the oath of office at City Hall on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

‘Tough love’ continues to be an excuse for criminalizing homelessness

Mayor Breed needs to acknowledge the suffering caused by city sweeps

Mayor Breed isn’t listening to homeless people.

On Wednesday, Breed held a press conference to announce that she will meet her campaign goal of opening 1,000 additional shelter beds by the end of 2020.

But the same day she ignored a letter from Solutions Not Sweeps, a coalition of 26 service providers and allied organizations, about the brutal conditions homeless San Franciscans face at the hands of the city.

In a sweep, homeless people are asked to pack up all of their belongings at a moment’s notice and move. They’re also subjugated to illegal property confiscation at the hands of the city.

Sweeps are conducted regularly by the police and the Department of Public Works (DPW) in response to neighbors’ complaints about encampments. Homeless people’s belongings, including their tent and whatever items are within it, are thrown in the back of a DPW truck and confiscated. And while these items are supposed to be “bagged and tagged” as evidence, homeless people report that when they try to retrieve them, the items are usually broken or have been lost inexplicably.

People have lost life saving medication, their parents’ ashes, and their only form of shelter to this brutality.

Mayor Breed herself has routinely denied that sweeps are happening, but they are well documented. The SF Examiner, SF Weekly, and viral videos have all captured sweeps happening on camera this year.

What Breed announced at her press conference this week is that the city will be opening a tenth, 200-bed navigation center in SoMA. Navigation centers are shelters that come with extra services. Unlike traditional shelters, they’re open 24/7 so people aren’t turned out on the streets in the morning.

Additionally, navigation centers come with the promise of placing people in permanent housing after their stay. According to the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, however, only 46 percent of navigation center exits have actually been to permanent housing.

But in her inaugural speech, Breed said the opening of more shelters would be paired with “tough love.”

“Tough love,” Breed told the Chronicle, is about “not letting them continue to do what they want.”

This is exactly the problem.

When The City opened a navigation center at the Embarcadero amidst complaints from nearby condo-owners, Breed promised neighbors that they would place more police in the area.

In other words, if you don’t get a spot at the navigation center? Tough luck. Now you’ll be subjected to even more harassment at the hands of police.

The opening of these shelter beds is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. San Francisco has a dire shortage of shelter for the 8,000 homeless people in our city—today’s waitlist for shelter is 871 people long.

But while Breed refuses to acknowledge this city-sanctioned violence against people living on the street, the opening of new shelters will continue to be used as an excuse for more enforcement.

Peddling a narrative that homeless people need “tough love” also furthers the myth that homeless people have found themselves on the streets because they’re delusional or “service resistant.” This gives the public cover to ignore complaints about illegal property confiscation and violence at the hands of the city.

The launch of the Solutions Not Sweeps coalition last week is inspiring. The 26 organizations, led by the Coalition on Homelessness, have written to Mayor Breed with four asks:

1. End the illegal confiscation and destruction of unhoused neighbors’ personal property.

2. Replace the complaint-driven and law enforcement-led response to homelessness with an evidence-based approach aimed at connecting people with their needs.

3. End the use of cleaning as a pretext for harassment of unhoused people and establish productive, scheduled, regular, and well-publicized street and sidewalk cleaning where unhoused people reside.

4. End the towing of vehicles that people are using as their homes.

The City would need to comply with all of these for their homeless response program to be in compliance with federal and international law.

To read more about each of these bullet points, check out solutionsnotsweeps.org. Please contact Mayor Breed to let her know that shelter cannot be a pretext for more sweeps!

Sasha Perigo is a data scientist and fair housing advocate writing about the San Francisco housing crisis. You can follow her on Twitter at @sashaperigo. She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.

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