Supervisor Scott Wiener sent tempers flaring with an official inquiry addressed to the chief of police, along with the head of Department of Public Works, heads of Mayor’s Office of HOPE, Department of Public Health and Department of Human Services, calling for enforcement of the anti-camping law. He stated “I am writing to officially inquire about the City’s efforts (a) to transition those living in the growing number of tents in our public spaces into housing/shelter, and (b) to enforce the ban on tents in public spaces.”
The timing of this letter was not only right before the Super Bowl City was set to be constructed, but also in the middle of several El Niño storms that were drenching homeless people. For those who work on these issues, a dose of reality added to the frustration. There are, if you include youth, over 7,000 people accounted for in the last one-night count. Even if the city opened up all the 1,100 emergency shelter beds they identified in the Chronicle, there would still be thousands left out. At this point, at the worst of the rains, at most 500 extra beds are opened up. The ones that have extra beds are those that open for one or two nights and then close again, because it is almost impossible to get the word out to homeless people. The St. Anthony shelter, and the expanded beds at current service centers that stay open, are all turning people away. The city has opened up an additional 20 beds that will expand eventually to 150 beds at Pier 80 and our assumption is that once word gets out, all those beds will be filled up. (Contrary to recent SF Chronicle report that only 20 people showed up – the site was referral only and capped at 20 beds until further notice.) So while folks appreciate the inquiry about more shelter, they were awfully frustrated that Supervisor Wiener jumped right to the enforcement of a ban on tents. If his letter had read something like “If you are able to expand the shelter system large enough to hold all the thousands of homeless people out there, I would like you to then enforce a tent ban.” However, that is not what he said at all.
The inquiry went on to say “Tents in our public spaces are a public health and safety hazard for those living in them and for our neighborhoods. They are neither humane nor acceptable. Their growing prevalence in San Francisco represents our city’s failure to provide adequate housing/shelter and assistance for those who want help, as well as a failure to make clear to those who refuse help that tents on our sidewalks and in our public spaces are unacceptable. “
Probably the most popular urban myth around homelessness is that folks out there are refusing help. This myth can only be beat by the “homeless people flock to SF for the services and the weather.” Both ideas are frequently waved around by policy makers. Just think, the person is living outside in the cold, sleeping on concrete, no bathroom or shower, their health is deteriorating by the minute, they have nowhere comfy to relax, they are harassed constantly, having to move their belongings over and over again, ticketed, and worst of all have no sense of safety from whatever evil is lurking outside waiting to attack them. Policy makers would have us believe that the city is offering wonderful help to them, and that they are refusing. Somehow, a lot of people end up believing this.
Of course, there is some help being offered. For example, the individual may be offered a night in a shelter bed, but they must get rid of their survival gear, separate from their safety network, kiss their pet goodbye and sleep apart from their partner. They must sleep in a room full of strangers, and then have to leave the next day after losing everything they have left. If they say no, they are refusing help. When folks are offered safe, decent, affordable housing they jump on it, but those offers are far and few between. If someone does refuse services, it means our system is failing the person, not that the person is a failure for turning help down.
Many people think there has been a mass distribution of tents, however with El Niño, of course a lot more homeless people have bought tents in order to survive and stay dry. It would also be surprising to many San Franciscans, that the people they see out there most likely were San Franciscans before they became homeless. Every city thinks they are a magnet for homeless people, and every study done shows that is simply not true.
When Supervisor Wiener appeared on KQED TV, he stated that he wants to have people in shelter. However, when we take a look at his legislative record, we see a very different picture. For example, he calls for more navigation centers in his letter, but has not as a Supervisor offered up a site for a navigation center in his district. He has however, authored a number of bills designed to criminalize and push people out of his district.
In 2012, Wiener introduced legislation to effectively bar homeless people from Jane Warner Plaza and Harvey Milk Plaza. This legislation was eventually gutted, but it called for among many things, no camping and no shopping carts. Both of these plazas, being across from each other at the intersection of Market and Castro, serve as major transportation hubs. They are next to a grocery store. It was not only impossible but ridiculous to attempt to ban shopping carts, as most housed or unhoused use them frequently. The ban on camping was actually weaker then current law, and ineffectual as are all anti-homeless laws of reaching their goal of eliminating the presence of impoverished people from public plazas. Previous to this legislation, the Supervisor played a key role in getting the seating areas removed from Harvey Milk Plaza, as poor people of color, impoverished queer youth and other poorly healed citizens had the audacity of frequenting the seating area. Supervisor Wiener was also behind the park closures at night in 2014, a bill he said was to stop graffiti artists and mutilators of children’s equipment from having their way with the park at night. When we offered an amendment to simply close areas near structures at night instead, we were denied, and the true intention of the bill became clear. Supervisor Wiener wanted homeless people out of the parks at night. Each of these, along with this letter, are all “Donald Trump” moments for Supervisor Wiener, he gets some controversy and his name is in the paper, helping him with runs for office. Since he can’t go after the usual suspects in SF, like gays, immigrants, Muslims, women or blacks, he goes after homeless people.
While public space should be welcoming to those of every class, none of these places are places where people should have to live. Homeless people’s lives are being shortened by virtue of a lack of a place to call home. They are, however, forced to live out their private lives in public because of sheer neglect by policy makers. Many would say Supervisor Wiener has been effective in pushing his agenda, which mostly represents financial and real estate interests. However, he has not applied his skills to pushing forth an agenda to actually end homelessness. Sure, he supported efforts to jail people for being poor and sitting on the sidewalk, but he has not championed budget efforts to prevent homelessness, or to house homeless people. He has championed housing for the middle class, however, and mostly those units have come directly from homeless people. In the past decade, about 40% of affordable housing went to homeless people, now only 20%, and the remainder has gone to those with higher incomes. Supervisor Wiener has pushed that affordable housing should even go to people up to 140% of median income, or $140K for a family of four getting government subsidized housing. He has championed their needs, certainly.
So when Supervisor Wiener says he wants to not only enforce the tent ban, but have more shelter for people, what he really means is, let’s tear up these tents and let people sleep in the pouring rain, because tents are ugly to look at. We all can see through the talk and see he does not care about the people.