A tale of two homeless sweeps

After a very long and chaotic week for the campers on Division Street, they were finally forced to move, with The City putting up barriers to prevent their return. During that time, the destitute and displaced were threatened with arrest, given unclear timelines, had their area sometimes cleaned and at other times their property was confiscated by the state. All this occurred in the midst of a swirl of confusion and misinformation.

There are federal guidelines outlining how localities should address encampments, and they encourage municipalities to have clear and transparent communication with campers, timelines and relocation plans, that include housing before the sweeps take place. In 2012, San Francisco did just that with the King Street encampment. The City spent several months trying to connect residents with services after Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol called for their displacement. It started out with the more typical moves. Campers were pushed out only to return shortly thereafter; they had nowhere to go and simply disappearing not being one of the things human beings have mastered before death.

Then serious planning took place by Bevan Dufty, the mayor’s former homeless director. Dufty reached out for counsel from community members of the camp alongside folks who work on these issues, took that input and formulated a plan. The plan included securing a church where the residents could relocate en masse, stay with friends and partners and keep their pets. The City provided a storage container for property and, most importantly, created an exit plan for the church.

Folks in encampments naturally develop very human connections with one another after living together in adverse situations. After a short stay in the church, residents were relocated to housing, and the entire endeavor was 100 percent successful, with careful considerations for keeping their support systems intact.

Ian Smith, who was a contributing writer to the Street Sheet, developed cancer behind his eye and was able to spend the rest of his very young life in housing, surrounded by friends who took care to preserve his writing and shower him with love in his last days.

Throughout this process, there were no protests, no defiance of orders to leave and nary a TV camera, because it was done correctly and with dignity. After all, homeless people and their allies are not advocating for humans to stay miserable on the streets. We are fighting for exits off the streets. In the meantime, we think it is not only cruel but a waste of resources to simply punish and push people, who are already in crisis, from sidewalk to sidewalk.

That is exactly what happened with the Division Street sweeps that had a markedly different trajectory.

While on King Street, they created new resources for the encampment instead of taking away already overwhelmed current resources. On Division, they took away the El Niño rain shelter beds, promised to homeless people at Pier 80, and dedicated it to folks on Division Street. Many of the 700 people on the waitlist for shelter in The City were hoping to get access to Pier 80, but they can only secure beds for one night at a time if there are vacancies.

Division Street had no relocation plan. The City did not seek input from homeless residents, and there was no transparent communication.

There was confusion and constant harassment, illegal property confiscation caught on video, protests and uproars. A notice was given, but no one knew what would happen at the end of the period. There were shelter beds offered, but misinformation about that shelter happened regularly.

Unlike King Street, there is no exit plan for Pier 80 when it closes, which would simply send residents back to the streets. The entire endeavor ended up being a reactionary move to an endless number of calls from columnists and the editorial pages of the San Francisco Chronicle that twisted community positions. They called for the vicious tearing away of tents, which simply leaves survivors to sleep rough on concrete. In the end, with only about half the needed beds, most Division Street residents relocated a block or so away.

A few days before the sweeps, at a hearing held on the issue of homelessness at the Board of Supervisors, hundreds of merchants and homeless people came out and asked for concrete solutions. They want bathrooms and garbage service. They want real resolutions not bandages. It was noted that people are simply moving nearby, and no one blames them for having tents for a modicum of shelter and a little privacy. But living in tents is not viable in the long term. A collective call for justice went out inside the People’s Palace, but was met with largely deaf ears, and the morally barren mass dislocation moved forward.

San Francisco is housing 6,000 homeless people now. With turnover and new-planned units, it can house an additional 250 to 500 people a year. That is not bad, and it would work if it wasn’t for the thousands of newly evicted San Franciscans adding to the numbers. We need to keep San Franciscans in their homes and we need to create a progressive, sustainable revenue source to ensure we have the resources we need to put a serious dent in this issue.

The federal government is neglecting this issue and we can’t continue waiting on them to take on the 7,000 victims of homelessness in our city. Meanwhile, The City should halt the wholesale persecution of a people who are suffering on our streets and address their needs in a humane way. In truth, it is our humanity as San Franciscans that is at stake.

Jennifer Friedenbach is executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.

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