Can San Francisco live up to its reputation as a champion of the poor?

In a city divided, predictably there’s division in the Tenderloin

Sometime in the early hours of Christmas Eve, as the Tenderloin emergency plan was still being debated on, for reasons beyond my understanding, I couldn’t tear myself away from the very un-Christmasy livestream.

Listening as San Franciscans expressed themselves during the public comment portion of the Board of Supervisors meeting, the fright, hurt and anger were palpable, even through virtual space. The divisiveness got to me. And ever since, I’ve been thinking of the San Franciscans on the street for whom heightened emotional states are part of everyday life, as they struggle to stay alive through another season of rain, cold and the pandemic surge.

“Everyone in the TL will tell you resources are desperately needed,” said Kelley Cutler, human rights organizer with the Coalition on Homelessness when I spoke to her a few weeks later by phone. “People are in need of help. We’re all on the same page about that.”

Predictably, the problems have not instantaneously resolved since Mayor Breed announced the Tenderloin emergency order and division remains among residents and service providers about how to care for people with dignity.

In 2018, the United Nations reported the treatment of San Franciscans living in informal settlements like tent encampments was in violation of its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states people have a right to life, housing, health, water and sanitation services. Four years later, the most casual observer can see the pandemic has worsened conditions for people on the streets.

But there was a moment in 2020 when things improved for unhoused folks and their neighbors.

“In 2020, when we got an influx of hotel rooms, we were not having to convince people to take them,” said Cutler. “But there’s a narrative in The City that there is shelter resistance.”

David Elliott Lewis, a community organizer, activist and longtime Tenderloin resident is in accord with those in opposition to the plan that includes increased policing and sweeps, which he sees as inherently inhumane. “The system is broken,” he said. “In the last decade, the huge rise in street homelessness, underfunding of shelters, high cost of housing, easy access to drugs…. got acute during COVID.”

Lewis has hope for new housing in a Market Street building recently acquired by The City, but he would like to see more linkage hubs connecting people to resources in the Tenderloin itself. Lewis was personally in favor of the emergency plan being implemented, and acknowledges there is more polarization between longtime Tenderloin residents and outreach workers, who may disagree on the plan for increased law enforcement and surveillance (though who often agree on the dangers of over-policing).

“The critical issue that divides the two groups is what to do with a homeless person offered housing who doesn’t want to accept it,” he said.

So where does this notion of housing resistance originate? I wonder if experiencing trauma — on all sides of the debate — has anything to do with the seemingly unsolvable problems of Tenderloin life.

Seeking guidance from the Department of Public Health, I was directed to the wealth of literature on trauma-informed social policy. The central focus is to empower and partner with the people living with emotional pain and negative health outcomes associated with trauma — in this case, from living on the street. Avoiding retraumatization is part of the healing process, so it follows that consigning people to live outdoors is in itself traumatizing. For some folks, so is the shelter system.

“When I hear trauma-informed, I bristle,” said Cutler. “The experience of homelessness is compounding trauma. It’s the system that is traumatizing people. We have good folks working on this, and often what gets in the way is politics. It’s frustrating.”

Mitch Orsaba grew up in San Francisco and was familiar with the Tenderloin as a place he said he’d filed in memory under “bad neighborhood.” Today, he’s housed there and works as a carpenter and tenant’s rights organizer.

“The problem so visible to people driving through the neighborhood on the way to Nordstrom’s are the problems of the extremely poor,” he said. “People see drug dealers and drug addicts five feet away on the sidewalk – that’s why it is so shocking. In Pacific Heights, all the drug dealers and drug addicts are indoors.”

Orsaba makes a good point: Addiction does not discriminate, but wealthier and stealthier addicts are often shielded from the kinds of trauma endured by people living on the street.

“The option of a congregate shelter is not great or appropriate for everyone,” said Cutler. “A lot of people, because of trauma, can’t stay in a congregate setting. Still, there are over 1,000 people waiting for that option. I’m surprised how many people, folks who wouldn’t previously consider it, are saying yes to anything for access to clean water and a shower. There is a level of desperation I have not seen over the past two decades.”

Outreach professionals know what works: With the shelter waitlist closed due to capacity issues during the surge, and an intake process that is widely acknowledged to be unnavigable, what if the solution was as simple as providing shelter for the unhoused?

“When we got those [shelter-in-place/SIP] hotels, that was the key element,” said Cutler. “It had such a huge impact, everyone came together. We had daily meetings on the street and worked together to get people safe. It’s in the interest of the community to work together.”

Despite the data on the benefits of providing shelter, there continues to be division on various points of the emergency plan, with its immediate intent to curb potentially lethal open air drug taking, and leaving the housing to be sorted out later.

Can San Francisco live up to its reputation as a champion of the poor? I guess I’d hoped to find out listening to the Tenderloin emergency plan meeting, and was disappointed when a Christmas miracle didn’t arrive. But then, miracles take time — you just have to believe in them.

Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” More at and @4DeniseSullivan.

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