In a city with a homeless crisis declared “cruel and unusual” by the UN, crueler efforts to displace them — alongside politicians and real estate developers pushing for increased surveillance and policing — are putting LGBTQ+ lives at risk.
reprinted from them.us
June 18, 2019
One June night in 1966, a few dozen young dykes and queens gathered in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district for a symbolic act of defiance against police and property owners. In what historians consider one of the earliest queer protests against cops and gentrification, the youth marched holding brooms, sweeping the streets as they went. The establishment considered them to be trash; the broom-pushers, who were members and collaborators of the early queer liberation group Vanguard, obviously begged to differ. And just in case anyone failed to get the symbolism of the sweep, they carried handmade signs reading the cops and landlords, with messages like ALL TRASH IS BEFORE THE BROOM.
Their protest came two months before a Vanguard collaborator, Dixie Russo, would break a sugar pot at a Tenderloin coffee shop, setting off the Compton’s Cafeteria riot. The Stonewall riots wouldn’t ignite New York City’s West Village for another three years.
Today, the month of June is still a mess in San Francisco. In preparation for the West Coast’s largest Pride party, the city enacts sweeps of homeless people — with a disproportionate number of queer and trans people among them (30 percent are LGBTQ+, according to the city’s 2017 count) — off the same streets where Vanguard activists pushed their brooms in 1966. Carried away from any community they’ve formed, it’s an attempt by the city to ensure that San Francisco’s ongoing housing crisis is placed well out of sight of the oncoming flood of tourists, who more than double the city’s overall population during Pride weekend.
For low-income queer people, the Vanguard action is even more relevant than it was 53 years ago. The city doesn’t save its anti-homeless sweeps for events like Pride; in 2019, they’re a year-long effort. Today, real estate corporations use words like “gritty” and “urban” to describe the Tenderloin in ads; they also fund campaigns that effectively make being poor a crime, like the one for the ableist “sit/lie” law that makes it illegal to sleep or even sit on the sidewalk here.
At the same time, the Tenderloin has been the epicenter of San Francisco’s queer and trans life for decades; the city even turned a large chunk of the neighborhood into the world’s first official “Transgender Cultural District” in 2018. But on an average night, entire blocks are eerily quiet. Police cars have a special low-register horn to disperse people who linger on the sidewalks, and their new neighbors have a highly efficient weapon, the city’s 311 “quality of life” hotline (a.k.a. 911 for gentrifiers), which dispatches city workers — usually cops — to harass homeless people via a simple call, text, email, or tweet. Today, an area that used to harbor dozens more queer and trans bars than the more-famously gay Castro District has just one, Aunt Charlie’s on Turk Street.
Organizations representing real estate corporations and hotels, like the Civic Center and Tenderloin Community Benefit Districts, are campaigning to raise taxes for more surveillance cameras around their neighborhoods, which they say will make them safer. But as homeless queer people know all too well, “safety” can mean very different things to different people, especially when it involves surveillance and police.
Homeless sweeps are especially brutal to queer people working in the underground economy, like sex workers, or for anyone who sleeps in tents, vans, or generally lacks stable housing in a city with a 1,000-plus nightly waitlist for shelter beds. Restaurants affordable to low-income people have closed, and their shells remain empty, like the 24-hour Carl’s Jr. at 10 United Nations Plaza that went dark in 2017 and offered a warm place to go for the price of some waffle fries. “For lease” signs gather dust in its windows at the edge of the formerly busy plaza, where police now patrol the area from a permanently stationed Winnebago.
Tommi Avicolli Mecca works at the local Housing Rights Committee. In 1971, the homeless and tenants rights activist came out to his family and left home when his dad couldn’t accept his queer son. Mecca got into housing activism while working at the now-closed A Different Light Bookstore on Castro Street, which welcomed queer homeless youth who had no place to hang out. One day, someone from a local business group, the Castro Merchants’ Association, showed up at the bookstore with posters demonizing homeless queer kids as “bad for business,” and asked the store to tape up the flyers in the windows. “Absolutely not,” he remembers saying, shocked at their cruelty.
Some of the wealthy gay Castro residents who benefited from the radical activism of a generation ago “had no sense of history,” Mecca says. They were actively working to label homeless queer and trans youth as “less than human,” in a calculated campaign to sweep them out of their neighborhood.
Mecca, an atheist, eventually teamed up with Reverend Jim Mitulski at the LGBTQ+-centered Metropolitan Community Church, which gave out pot straight from the pulpit to people who were hurting from AIDS-related illnesses in the 1980s and early 90s. Landlords who valued profits over people didn’t have a problem with evicting tenants with HIV in order to raise the rent (which is still a problem). Mecca remembers working with ACT UP to present two gay realtors (and evictors) with the ashes of someone who’d died of AIDS. Businesses and neighborhood associations didn’t love that kind of attention, but went full-on “ballistic” when activists later turned a Castro rec center into a youth shelter.
“People need housing that’s free or cheap for everyone,” says Tommi Avicolli Mecca — not non-solutions like 311 calls and police harassment.
These neighborhood associations continue to lobby and win the backing of the city’s politicians, like San Francisco’s current mayor, London Breed. During her campaign, Breed stressed that she grew up in public housing and bootstrapped her way into City Hall; at the same time, she promised to hire hundreds of new police officers to plump up a department with a disgrace of a record dealing with homeless folks, disabled people, and Black and brown people. Breed later opposed a tiny one-half-of-a-percent tax on corporations that make over $50 million a year to fund homeless services. Voters passed it anyway.
Meanwhile, San Francisco’s Black population has bottomed out since it began to decline in the 1960s, when the city began a plan that Black queer writer James Baldwin dubbed “Negro removal.” Of the Black San Franciscans who are left, thousands are homeless (the city’s 2017 count found 34 percent of homeless San Franciscans are Black, even though they make up just 5 percent of the city’s total residents).
Against this backdrop, the United Nations specifically called out San Francisco’s homeless situation as “cruel and inhuman” in 2018 — and also really hard to understand, given the massive loads of tech and real estate money flowing through the city.
Gay California legislator Scott Wiener hasn’t helped. When his reign in local politics began in 2011, Wiener made clear that one of his missions was to wipe out homeless people from the Castro. He soon removed benches in the district’s Harvey Milk Plaza, spearheaded efforts to add ableist “defensive architecture” to block people from sitting in public spaces, and closed a recycling center that provided a way for homeless people to make a tiny income. Wiener’s now pushing a housing deregulation bill, SB 50, which urban planners say will make problems worse for lower-income renters and homebuyers, while pushing for cities to fund SB 1045, his bill to lock up people who are homeless, disabled, and/or use drugs under a scheme called conservatorship.
Like Vanguard, groups like the Coalition on Homelessness, Gay Shame, LAGAI — Queer Insurrection, the Lucy Parsons Project, and the coalition behind Services Not Sweeps in Los Angeles fight the powers that rule California during its worst homeless crisis ever.
Their message: Housing instability isn’t safe. Fancier surveillance cameras won’t make the lives of homeless queer and trans people safer. The effects of global warming are just beginning; the San Francisco Department of Public Works’s dumpster-ing of houseless peoples’ tents during last winter’s record-breaking rainfall and dangerous smoke from last fall’s Camp Fire, the worst fire in California history, won’t make people safer. Hosing down, herding, and moving people without doing much of anything to get low-income people into stable housing: clearly not safe.
The shelters that houseless people are meant to turn to, it’s well worth noting, are also notoriously anti-trans. Activists like Mecca have managed to make 24 beds available for trans and nonbinary adults at Jazzie’s Place, America’s first LGBTQ+ adult shelter. Larkin Street Youth Services has about 250 beds for youth across the city, but some of those are in buildings owned by transphobic and queerphobic landlords. And these places are just temporary places to land, not permanent, stable housing.
Politicians like Breed and Wiener say San Francisco can just build its way out of homelessness, which probably sounds like a magic cash register to the real estate developers who funded these politicians’ campaigns. But as Mecca notes, you can’t build luxury condos “and expect that it’s going to trickle down to the people who need it. We learned that from President Reagan,” who refused to help during the beginning of the HIV crisis, and then created another crisis by turning much of Roosevelt-era public government housing over to private developers and making housing insecurity great again.
“People need housing that’s free or cheap for everyone,” says Mecca — not non-solutions like 311 calls and police harassment. Something that has worked for houseless people with HIV/AIDS and veterans is government-subsidized public housing systems created in the 1990s and 2000s.
In a crisis, solutions might even mean squatting, as one of England’s highest-ranking politicians, Jeremy Corbyn, suggested after the 2017 fire in London left hundreds of people homeless. Mere meters from Grenfell exist hundreds of “ghost condos,” a name for homes that sit empty because they’re owned by investors waiting for prices to go up, or by people who are rich enough to, in many cases, never actually see the properties in real life.
In March, the mortgage dot-com Lending Tree did the math around “ghost condos.” In pricey cities like Los Angeles, New York City, and San Francisco, the number of ghost condos make homeless populations seem relatively tiny. Los Angeles County, for example, has about 270,000 empty housing units, while its official homeless count is 53,000.
With more billionaires per capita than anywhere in the world, non-wealthy queer and trans folks in San Francisco — especially those of us at the intersections, who are disabled, and Black, Latinx, or Native American — are living precarious lives.
This May, a Mayor’s office spokesperson revealed that San Francisco’s homeless crisis jumped 17 percent over the past two years. The sweeps that have dumpstered thousands of people’s possessions haven’t cut the number of people with housing insecurity, but they have exposed the cruelty of 311 speed-dialers, real estate speculators and the politicians they fund, and city departments like the SFPD that brutalize young queers.
As a Vanguard member’s sign put it so eloquently back in June 1966: ALL TRASH BEFORE THE BROOM.