Someone to Watch over Sweeps? Monitors for Homeless Operations Proposed

Human rights monitors should observe homeless encampment clearances to ensure that residents who are being connected to services keep their belongings and City workers follow their own policies, according to a new report.

On June 16, the Latino Task Force released a study based on more than 100 surveys with unhoused San Franciscans in the city’s Mission District. Almost two-thirds of those who responded said they are often displaced in encampment sweeps, but are rarely offered a suitable alternative place to stay. Furthermore, the task force says that residents are traumatized by what it calls the “institutional abuse” of these operations.

The City should focus less on eliminating tents on sidewalks and dispersing encampment dwellers from public view, and instead emphasize identifying residents’ needs and placing them into housing, according to the report.

The task force, which is composed of members of over 40 community-based organizations, said the City should hire independent monitors to watch sweeps in progress and report any improper seizures of property to City oversight panels. 

Latino Task Force Manager Ivan Corado-Vega told media at a press conference that the group is pushing the mayor and the Board of Supervisors to fund the monitor positions in next year’s City budget. 

During sweeps, San Francisco Public Works staff often toss items homeless people use to survive, such as tents and medications, onto dump trucks—despite the department’s “bag and tag” policy of taking possessions to storage so that they can reclaim them later. Task force member Jorge Zepada of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation relayed that experience in a statement from a formerly unhoused resident who chose to identify himself only as Ramón.

“During my unhoused years, I suffered the actions of the City sweeps,” according to Ramón. “Many times, my tent, backpack and medications were taken and trashed by San Francisco Public Works crews. I have to take daily medications to stabilize my life, and when the City crews try to take my stuff, I have a hard time [getting] all of my services back, including my medication to stabilize my health.” 

“The actions from the City were cruel and unnecessary,” he added.

But the pattern is all too common, said Kelley Cutler, a member of the Local Homeless Coordinating Board, an advisory council that has long criticized the tactics of workers conducting the sweeps. Cutler said that adding monitors’ eyes on the streets could check against potential misbehavior. 

“Reports of the City doing sweeps and stealing people’s belongings is not unusual,” she said. “It’s the typical experience for most people who are forced to live on the street. The City should welcome a human rights monitor to assure San Franciscans are treated with dignity and respect and that their basic human rights are protected.”

In recent years, Public Works and the Police Department have come under fire for their roles in sweeps, as well as other participating agencies in the City’s Healthy Streets Operating Center. Media accounts have already shown how Public Works flouts its own “bag and tag” rules. Police officers usually supervise these operations; Homeless Outreach Team members are also on hand, but by the time they can find shelter placements or other services, the camp is swept away, forcing the residents to relocate.

According to the task force, 74.7% of residents report losing personal items in sweeps without a “bag and tag,” 44.3% say they’ve had medications taken away and 57.6% say they were arrested, threatened with arrest or issued a citation.

The task force further recommends that monitors be allowed to video and photograph operations and document any violations with the consent of any unhoused folk involved. Documentation would be sent to the agencies involved, as well as the Human Rights Commission, the Local Homeless Coordinating Board and other relevant City commissions.

Since 2018, the Stolen Belonging multimedia project has been collecting video accounts of homeless people recalling property confiscation and abuse by City workers, as well as watching sweeps in progress. 

“Our Stolen Belonging team has witnessed sweeps, and gotten them on camera. Still SFPD and DPW still take stuff and or trash belongings any way,” the project said. “Our hope is that having more monitors recording what is actually happening at sweeps would help hold the City accountable and eventually would change their unspoken policies of illegally confiscating and stealing their possessions, along with other abuses.” 

Krystale Erickson, an unhoused woman, told the project that Public Works staff engage in brazen theft. One worker ripped her purse from her hands in full view of attending police officers. She lost her ID, medication and phone, as well as her grandmother’s wedding ring.

“They take specific things they know you need,” Erickson said. “Like it will be raining and they’ll come and take the tarps that are covering your stuff and leave all your stuff out in the rain. They make it very personal. It definitely seems like we’ve been kinda left out in the cold and preyed upon by these guys.”   

Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition on Homelessness, which publishes Street Sheet, also hopes that the monitors’ presence would deter the improper seizure of homeless people’s possessions.

“Having the human rights monitors would ensure the illegal confiscation from already happening,” she said. “If the property is taken, then the human rights monitors would be able to assist in the process [of retrieving the property].”

Under its current policy, the City can only take away property that’s unattended or poses a health or safety hazard. Those who have had property confiscated can file a claim with Public Works, and if that doesn’t work, they can sue in small claims court.  

DISCLOSURE: This reporter is a member of the Stolen Belonging project, which has been made possible through a grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission.