Homeless advocacy begins with listening

Last week was awful, in that gut-wrenching, sick-to-your-stomach kind of way. Midweek started with a Police Commission meeting, during which, in the midst of presenting the recommendations for the very positive work the San Francisco Police Department is trying to do to change use of force from the stakeholders group, a Police Officers Association stakeholder member pompously presented his own very different version that would escalate force beyond what is allowable in the existing 20-year-old policy.

The very next day, in some horrible sacrificial symbol of everything wrong with SFPD operations, there was the police shooting of Luis Gongora, a Mayan-speaking father of three from the Yucatan. Then came the video, which showed a police officer get out of his car, shotgun in hand. The shooting began in less then 20 seconds. On that wet Saturday night, the campers on Shotwell Street, many of whom had witnessed the shooting, were met with police threatening neighbors and slashing tents with knives — all captured on video. Simultaneously, both Supervisor Scott Wiener and Mayor Ed Lee used the occasion to call for the removal of all tents, in the process casting blame on both the deceased and destitute people citywide.

Lastly, a midday SFPD community meeting was held, during which the public learned from Police Chief Greg Suhr about the brutal details of the shooting. In a clear violation of current department policy, Gongora was lying on the ground, presenting no harm or imminent danger to others, when the officer approached and shot him with beanbags. Gongora jumped up only after being shot with the high-powered sacks, which were quickly followed with seven deadly rounds.

We don’t know everything about the incident. But one thing we do know is that Gongora would still be alive if he had been inside. The Coalition on Homelessness, with Supervisor John Avalos as our champion, is calling for a humane response to encampments that truly solves the issue, by ensuring a clear housing relocation plan prior to removal. Earlier this year, a widely publicized removal of an encampment containing approximately 300 people along Division Street received broad media attention as The City reacted to mean editorials in the Chronicle, moved swiftly and provided temporary lodging for just half the residents. The rest ended up on neighbors’ front steps, only to get moved again and again, destabilizing a population that, in the process, has lost its survival gear, medicines and contact with services — not to mention the violation of human rights. The City received a spike in complaint calls through 311, and in the end, these efforts only served to perpetuate homelessness.

Homeless people suffer from sleep deprivation; police and security wake them frequently. As they remain on the streets, they are subject to violence and rapidly diminishing health and, on average, have their live expectancies cut short by more than 20 years. Meanwhile, many policymakers are calling for the status quo. They call for continuing a vacuous policy of sweeps. Homeless people are being displaced with insane frequency already in San Francisco. In our recent study with UC Berkeley, 92 percent of campers had been forced to move, about half were issued more than five citations, and about half had their property taken or destroyed. Director of Human Serves Agency Trent Rhor has said The City’s practice of cleaning out encampments — only to see campers instantly return — has been a “colossal waste of city resources and a colossal waste of time.”

We are attempting to end this sad travesty and set some basic parameters, modeled after the guidelines set out by the federal government’s interagency council on homelessness and an ordinance recently enacted by Indianapolis. The idea is that prior to removing an encampment, The City must have a transparent relocation plan, give notice, ensure basic human rights and, if they have nowhere to move people to, they must give the encampment extensions. It also forces The City to provide services and basic sanitation to those encampments it isn’t planning on relocating, and it ensures property rights are respected. San Francisco did this successfully with the King Street encampment. After moving a group of people out repeatedly, constructing a fence and finding people returning to the site because they had nowhere to go, The City finally decided to work with the campers and meet their needs. The relocation into permanent housing after a brief stay in a church was 100 percent successful.

The voices of those forced to live on our streets have been nearly
eliminated from the discussions currently before elected officials today. Instead, we hear top officials shouting for a failed policy that will lead us nowhere.

As long as The City ignores the voices of those on the streets and continues to respond to this crisis by forcing people to constantly move in circles, our policymakers will have no real incentive to truly address the issue by providing the necessary resources to house the thousands languishing on the streets. They will continue to create a veneer of action, by sweeping human beings along, a lazy tactic lacking substance that is coupled by a housing effort that relies on turnover in current units instead of greatly expanding the pie of housing available for all poor San Franciscans.

We need to provide real exits off the streets with at least another 6,000 units over the next five years — a certainly achievable step. It’s time to end this crisis for real.

Jennifer Friedenbach is the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.

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