Solutions Not Sweeps

by Brian Edwards

On any given night in San Francisco, there are over 9,000 unhoused San Francisco residents, and as of Wednesday, January 29, there were 937 people on the single adult shelter waitlist. Without an indoor option, thousands of San Franciscans are forced to live outside in public spaces. The City increasingly criminalizes their presence in these places, and forcibly removes them with daily (and nightly) sweeps without offering adequate alternative shelter or services. 

San Francisco has 24 anti-homeless laws, the most of any municipality in California. There are currently over 80 San Francisco police officers tasked with responding to homelessness, and only 40 members of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing’s Homeless Outreach Team. Our unhoused neighbors are the victims of a public health and housing crisis yet under Mayor London Breed, the City’s response to homelessness  — rain or shine — has been overwhelmingly led by law enforcement, with focuses on sweeps and criminalization. These sweeps, coordinated through the Healthy Streets Operation Center and led by the San Francisco Police Department and the Department of Public Works, often result in repeated confiscation and destruction of any and all personal property — including vehicles, tents and other shelter, survival gear and life-saving medications — as well as citations and arrests. 

The City calls these planned sweeps “resolutions,” but with no housing solutions and almost no adequate shelter to offer affected residents, little is being resolved. Police officers aren’t social workers, and Public Works sweep crews aren’t service providers. Mayor Breed frequently talks of using “tough love” when addressing homelessness, but life has already been tough enough to anyone forced to live outside, and constantly shuffling them around while repeatedly taking their shelter and possessions doesn’t feel very loving.

Sweeps aren’t services, and resolutions aren’t solutions unless housing is provided. They’re cruel, ineffective, expensive and incredibly harmful. Sweeps destroy communities, and the resulting scattering and isolation increases the risk of overdose or sexual assault for many of those who have been displaced, and make it harder for outreach workers and service providers to have the kind of productive engagements that ease suffering and save lives. 

That’s why a broad coalition of unhoused San Franciscans and their allies has come together under the banner of Solutions Not Sweeps to demand that the mayor cease the daily human rights abuses committed by the City against unhoused San Franciscans, and adopt a response to homelessness that supports our homeless neighbors’ struggle to secure stability and exit from homelessness. The campaign is drawing attention to the inhumanity of the daily encampment sweeps, including the frequent destruction or loss of homeless persons’ belongings, as well as the ineffectiveness and inappropriateness of having police be frontline responders in the City’s coordinated response to homelessness. 

Solutions Not Sweeps is coordinated with other West Coast campaigns to end the practices of sweeping encampments and towing vehicles used as housing, and launches on the heels of the San Francisco Police Commision’s unanimous vote to replace police officers with social workers on the frontlines of homelessness.  

The Solutions Not Sweeps coalition includes service providers, homeless and housing rights advocates, neighborhood and community organizations and noted individuals, such as Noam Chomsky and Leilani Farha, the U.N. Special Rapporteur for the Right to Housing. Farha made local headlines in early 2018 by calling out San Francisco’s homeless encampments and the City’s response to them as evidence of flagrant human rights violations, and comparing them to similar settlements in Belgrade, Mumbai, Lisbon, Buenos Aires, Delhi, Mexico City, and Santiago. 

“The conditions in tent encampments violate human dignity — the foundation of human rights,” Farha said. “Cities have an obligation to protect the dignity of all of their residents. This means providing basic services to those living in homelessness including access to adequate sanitation facilities. Sweeping people off the streets and thus forcibly removing them from their homes, whether they live in tents on sidewalks or in their cars, is cruel and inhumane treatment. San Francisco, one of the wealthiest jurisdictions in the world, can certainly do far better than this.” 

As part of the campaign launch, a demand letter has been delivered to Mayor London Breed.

The Solutions not Sweeps campaign is calling for the City to:

  1. End the illegal confiscation and destruction of unhoused neighbors’ personal property.
  2. Replace the complaint-driven and law enforcement-led response to homelessness with an evidence-based approach aimed at connecting people with their needs.
  3. End the use of cleaning as a pretext for harassment of unhoused people and establish productive, scheduled, regular, and well-publicized street and sidewalk cleaning where unhoused people reside.
  4. End the towing of vehicles that people are using as their homes.

Please call your Supervisor and the Mayor’s office and demand an immediate end to the daily harassment and displacement of our unhoused neighbors, and that the City remove law enforcement as its primary response to homelessness.

For a complete list of Solutions Not Sweeps members and to add your name to the campaign, visit the website