Stolen Belonging

A Brief Introduction

By Leslie Dreyer

If you see DPW, you see that truck, you know that something’s getting got. Yesterday they took my tent and tarp…  Why would you take someone’s shelter in the rainy season? That makes no sense to me. It’s cruel.

I really miss the altar they took. I’ve had that for six years and I’d gotten it the year after my ex-husband’s death. That meant something to me. It had pictures, crosses, things that people have given me that you can’t get. I had a picture that someone drew of me and my mom, and it was weird because I don’t have a picture of my mom whatsoever, and he drew it and it really looked like her.

Of course going down [to the DPW Yard] and asking for it, it’s probably in pieces, and it really doesn’t even make it down to the place that you’re supposed to go to retrieve your stuff. I always found that interesting, like they tell you, “Oh well we’re seizing your property now so you can have it released later.” They want me to use it later? Why, so I get the same ticket? It’s one of these catch 22 things… It’s a slow genocide, is what it is.

– Memphis Lamb
SF resident Memphis Lamb gestures as if he’s looking at his most cherished belonging the city has stolen from him in the sweeps: his altar that he had for six years, which he got after his ex-husband’s death. Photo by Leslie Dreyer

Memphis’ testimony sum up what so many experience every day: the City of San Francisco is targeting houseless residents, stealing their survival gear, all of their belongings and, consequently, their ability to belong in the city. These actions are largely carried out by the Department of Public Works (DPW) and San Francisco Police Department, though Parks and Rec and Caltrans workers are also involved. The orders come from the top down. 

In December 2018, I started the Stolen Belonging project with the Coalition on Homelessness and a team of houseless or precariously housed residents who represent some of our city’s strongest homeless advocates: Couper Orona, TJ Johnston, Sophia Thibodeaux, Meghan Johnson, Patricia Alonzo and Charles Davis. Together, we’ve been collecting videos, photos, insights and personal history interviews, like the one above, from residents impacted by the sweeps throughout San Francisco – highlighting the loss of survival gear, alongside beloved personal items, which can never be replaced. Using the stories and demands coming from the streets, we’re building an arts organizing strategy to hold our city’s decision makers accountable for violating human and constitutional rights, while also trying to draw more ‘housies’ into the fight for #SolutionsNotSweeps.

Through creative actions, public art and story-based campaigns, we’re asking housed folks to consider the questions:

What would you do if someone stole your IDs, medication, family ashes, heirlooms, the last pictures or letters from loved ones, or everything you own, for that matter?

How would you seek justice or hold them accountable?

What if that person was the City?

The project adheres to the guidance and tried-and-true methods of groups like COH, WRAP, and Poor Magazine who know that poor and unhoused people have the solutions to homelessness. In this vein we’ve asked those impacted by the sweeps to share what they imagine compensation could look like and how they think we should collectively hold the city accountable for the violence perpetrated against them.

Their number one demand is: STOP THE SWEEPS. Let them maintain their survival gear and medication. Let them hold onto the only things they have left in the world that give them some sense of security and stability. Let them hold onto their memories and personal history. Let them exit homelessness instead of driving them further into it. They have a right to decent housing in this city. THEY BELONG HERE.

We call on housed residents or ‘housies’ to stand in solidarity with your houseless neighbors. The SF adult shelter waitlist is regularly over 1,000 names long, so the city’s refrain that it offers shelter before they enact a sweep is mere smoke and mirrors. Mayor Breed’s tactic of escalating the sweeps and increasing the criminalization of homelessness is NOT the solution. SF has the most billionaires per capita, the highest rents, and the highest income inequality in the US. Thousands of people endure homelessness here every year, approximately 70% of which were once housed in the city. The numbers are only increasing. Now is the time to TAKE ACTION!

A bit of history and gratitude: In 2016 Scott Nelson, a long-time COH member, uncovered that for the thousands of people swept for the city’s Super Bowl party, DPW had only ‘bagged and tagged’ a handful of items, which meant millions of personal items had been stolen and trashed with no regard or adherence to the law or basic human dignity. This was the key moment that sparked the idea for this project. THANK YOU SCOTT NELSON!!!

It took many years to find funding so that we could compensate the team, assisting artists, and participants. Huge thanks to the San Francisco Arts Commission for supporting this first phase of the project and to Creative Work Fund for helping us continue this year. 

Stay up to date with future art, stories and actions at or on FB and Twitter @StolenBelonging.