By Jennifer Friedenbach
When UC Hastings announced its lawsuit against the city, they put out a letter that gave the impression they were suing the city to solve homelessness. As we have discovered, nothing could be farther from the truth. The powerful institution just wants the tents that are the only modicum of shelter during the pandemic for hundreds of Tenderloin residents ripped away. The people in those tents? Not even a consideration.
Twenty eight Tenderloin community organizations called on UC Hastings to follow basic CDC guidelines to protect the safety and health of unhoused people, in the form of signing a pledge. UC Hastings Chancellor David Faigman refused to honor the basic human rights of unhoused San Franciscans by refusing to sign that pledge. It was this lack of action that revealed their true intentions.
The pledge, called for by by 28 community organizations who serve Tenderloin residents, many of them property owners, asks for a commitment from UC Hastings that their negotiated settlement or any other lawsuit outcome with the City of San Francisco not violate the basic human rights of unhoused Tenderloin residents by displacing, clearing, or sweeping homeless people or encampments without providing alternative housing. These demands fall under guidelines already set by the CDC, the Obama administration’s Department of Justice, and the 9th circuit ruling on Martin v. Boise.
The lawsuit filed on behalf of Hastings College of Law, Tenderloin Merchants and Property Association and four individuals is devoid of unhoused community members, who will not only be impacted by the outcomes of this litigation, but are the main subjects of the lawsuit. While the suit has been touted as community driven, the language that appears in the lawsuit itself raises serious alarm for unsheltered community members and advocates. The suit emphasizes the “cultural diversity” of small business owners and the “existential risk” to their future, but fails to mention the immediate danger and health risks for those who have no other option than to live unsheltered.
Statements from the lawsuit’s plaintiffs are rife with calls to remove people as though they were disposable and cast blame on those who are most in harm’s way. In one recent CNN interview, Faigman stated, “What we want is to clear the streets.” For those unhoused residents in the Tenderloin, almost all of whom are black, have no options, few have been offered hotel rooms, shelters are closed and doubling up in other people’s housing is not viable during the pandemic. To simply tear away their tents and leave them exposed to the virus, and unable to protect their loved ones, friends and community members from the virus if they catch it, instead of demanding that the city provide them with one of thousands of vacant hotel rooms is simply inhumane.
The cruel intent behind the lawsuit has become unequivocally clear following the Chancellor’s refusal to commit to protecting the basic human rights of homeless people. By not signing the pledge, UC Hastings is authorizing homeless sweeps despite their catastrophic impact on the health and safety of hundreds of our most vulnerable residents.
Since the pandemic hit, the number of people living in tents has increased by 285%, bringing visibility to an often hidden issue. Issues that weighed heavily on the neighborhood before have become more crushing and more visible. Community groups and unhoused residents in the Tenderloin are calling for hotel rooms — instead of sweeping homeless people from block to block when they have nowhere to go.
The refusal to sign this pledge is an act of structural violence. UC Hastings is adding to the collective trauma of the people who are living on the streets, who are disproportionately black people and people of color. This kind of structural violence adds to the already huge economic and racial disparities that we see in our city and nation which in turn have long term health impacts. UC Hastings needs to sign the pledge and do right by its neighbors.
Jennifer Friedenbach is executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, one of 27 groups and nonprofits that wrote to UC Hastings Law School regarding its lawsuit against The City.
UC Hastings Pledge Sign-Ons
Coalition on Homelessness, San Francisco
St Anthony’s Foundation
Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation
Do no Harm
Faith in Action
Coalition On Homelessness
Developing Innovations in Supportive Housing
Homeless Emergency Service Provider Association
St. Frances Challenge
Eviction Defense Collaborative
Community Housing Partnership
Harm Reduction Treatment Center
Swords to Plowshares
Project Open Hand
Care through Touch
Episcopal Community Services
Homeless Prenatal Program
Dolores Street Community Services
Project Homeless Connect