Sweeps Do Not End Homelessness

Mayor London Breed released a statement on March 1 reporting on a reduction in the number of tents in San Francisco due to sweeps. While the Mayor’s office credits the Healthy Streets Operation Center (HSOC), which conducts encampment removals, conflicting data indicates that revenue from the November 2018 Proposition C—”Our City, Our Home”—is in fact responsible. On the same day, the Mayor submitted an amicus brief in support of overturning the Grants Pass case, which is being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court. If this case is overturned, San Francisco and cities across the country would be able to punish those forced to sleep outside for using basic necessities like blankets with tickets and arrest. In sum, the mayor wants to be able to not only continue the current sweep operations, which remove encampments three times a day and are widely viewed as ineffective, but she also wants to be able to arrest and cite people without having to offer shelter first. 

Approved by voters in November 2018, Prop. C is a tax on corporate income above $50 million that must be spent on housing, treatment, shelter and prevention. The measure was placed on the ballot by the Coalition on Homelessness. Mayor Breed was one of the few elected officials at the time who opposed the measure. Although Prop. C was delayed in court for two years, the funds have slowly rolled out and the impacts are now being realized. According to the 2022–23 fiscal year annual report, Prop. C housed 2,272 households, and it provided homelessness prevention services to over 13,000 individuals, behavioral health services to 8,686 individuals and shelter to 2,772 individuals in that time period. This is in addition to service expansions since 2021 and more housing and services to come into place this fiscal year. By July, San Francisco’s Prop. C fund should have placed more than 4,000 households in housing, including youth, families, elders, working people and people with disabilities who have had the unfortunate experience of living without a place to call home. Housing is accessed primarily by unhoused people directly in the coordinated entry system. By contrast, the expensive HSOC operations touted by the Mayor account for a limited number of temporary shelter placements. Still, community members are pushing toward actual solutions, said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness. 

“Despite both the Mayor’s opposition to increased homelessness solution funding and a costly and ineffective street operation, community efforts to turn the tide on homelessness are in full swing,” she said. “Homelessness sweeps exacerbate homelessness with lost paperwork, and interrupted contact with outreach workers, while increasing morbidity and the suffering of those forced to sleep rough after having their survival gear confiscated by the city. That said, unhoused people are resilient and they are overcoming great odds and a tangled bureaucracy to access services and housing at record numbers.”

Counting fewer tents does not necessarily indicate a reduction in homelessness and is a poor measure of progress on the issue. Most unhoused people in San Francisco are sleeping rough, in shelters, or other locations not meant for human habitation. According to the latest available figures from the City’s Point-in-Time Count, there were 7,754 total unhoused individuals, of whom 4,397 were living on the streets. In comparison, there are a few hundred tents in SF. The city frequently illegally destroys individuals’ survival gear, as evidenced in our lawsuit against the city.

Several studies and prominent national guidelines stand in sharp contrast to the City’s current practice of clearing encampments with force and without the adequate offer of shelter. HSOC sweeps can involve 15 to 22 City personnel from five different departments, outnumbering the number of people in tents at the operation, who spend most of their time standing around. Unhoused people may move, only to be displaced again as they have nowhere to go. 

The constitutional protection that has been in place since Martin v. Boise provides a slender right that essentially forces local governments to at least offer shelter before they can cite and arrest unhoused people, or threaten to do so. This creates pressure on local governments to address the humanitarian crisis, instead of trying to push people out of sight. Since mass homelessness began in the United States in the early 1980s, local governments have used police to manage the issue. This has backfired because it wastes resources and exacerbates homelessness. Constitutional protection not only prevents cruel punishment, but also moves us towards real solutions to the lack of housing. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on the Grants Pass case on April 22. 

We all agree that homelessness is a crisis that requires focused attention and urgent action. We urge the City of San Francisco to continue to invest in proven solutions like Prop. C, which lead to lasting housing.