The inhumanity of homeless ‘sweeps’

by Tiny

No matter how many times you “sweep” me,“arrest me,” or “study me, it doesn’t give me a home.

In 1984, when I was 11 and me and my disabled mama were living on and off the street, in doorways, bus benches, staying in hoopties we scavenged, shelter beds we case mangled, motel rooms, and apartments we would temporarily wrangle, the City of San Francisco had just began to “see” homelessness as a “problem.”

Coincidentally, the federal agency known as HUD (the Department of Housing and Urban Development) and local housing authority agencies across the US were launching a slow bleed to the public housing budget – that is, housing for the poorest of the poor, like me and my mama.

In all of this silent violence, this quiet war on the poor, an anti-poor-people public relations campaign was also being crafted which resulted in the launching of a series of hygienic metaphors used to describe unhoused peoples bodies on the street. Exposed for all to see.

“We need to clean up the homeless problem.”

“We need to clean up the neighborhood” (referring in coded language to poor, working class folks and communities of color).

“Homeless people are crazy, lazy, dirty, messy…”

“The Mess on Market Street” (referring to an entire part of Market street in the Tenderloin as a Mess.

“My houseless body was “power-washed” several times when I was unhoused,” said Bruce Allison, elder and disability, poverty skola with POOR Magazine.

“I was power-washed as a pregnant houseless woman several times in SF,” said Juliana Cheng, a single mama/poverty skola.

The reason this “exposure” of unhoused bodies, communities and peoples was and continues to be such a problem in the US is we have a globally perpetuated myth that we are all doing OK. That “real” poverty only exists in the global South. That we live in a “classless” society and we all “have a chance to “make it.”

This myth is necessary for many exploitation reasons, not the least of which is to fuel a stream of poor workers risking crossing dangerous, killer borders to get here only to find the dream only exists in your sleep.

“People always think our family is doing good because they live in the US, when we tell them about Luis being homeless and killed by police, they don’t believe us,” Said Roxanna, who lives in Teabo, Yucatan, Mexico, and is the daughter of Luis Demetrio Gongora Pat, killed by SF police for being brown and houseless in the gentrifucked streets of San Francisco’s Mission District.

Fast forward to the late 1990s, the advent of (NO) Hope VI — meaning the demolition of several thousand public housing projects and passing out of useless Section 8 vouchers (See for more on this as well as POOR Magazine’s Volume 1 the Homefulness issue). And suddenly a new colonization project in the Bay Area known as the dot-com boom fueled even more anti-poor people hate along with a dangerous housing and commercial space shortage, followed by a poison cocktail of aristo-krazy corporate media, false promises from Jerry Brown to Willie Brown, wealthy tech industry pandering, and intervention by the police and the Department of Public Works …

And just as quickly, without even a blink of the societal eye, the concept of “sweeps” was launched.

A concept of equating unhoused human beings’ bodies and our life-long belongings with trash to be swept, seized, discarded, and/or absconded by the same state agency that picks up trash off the road, DPW, followed up with a punitive gun-toting agency such as the police or sheriff to enforce the de-humanizing of unhoused/un-roofed humans.

The notion of “sweeps” and equating humans with trash is nothing new under the settler colonizer sun. The original stealing fathers (my affectionate name for the Founding Fathers) imported anti-poor people laws when they first stole this indigenous territory. Laws like the “Ugly Laws”that made it illegal to be “unsightly” aka disabled, or houseless in public incarcerated poor people for being poor — all under the guise of “helping” us or “taking care of” poor people, which ties in perfectly to the Savior Industrial Complex and the cult of rehabilitation.

And while all of this poor-people-hate unfolds, popular culture is fed a terrifying collective understanding that equates the lack of humans in a landscape with “cleanliness” —  the Starbuckizaiton of the world — that somehow because people didn’t have the money to pay rent they were not worthy of being seen as human.

This wasn’t really a hard sell in the US. People already were sold a whole gaggle of lies about poor people. We were receiving “free money” welfare (not true — we all work in menial sub-minimum wage work to “earn” that poverty crumb) and food stamps (hardly covers the cost of food and certainly not healthy food so you have the poisoning of a massive population of poor people because of agri-business and corporate GMOs). Not to mention the entire basis of a capitalist culture itself that relies on everything being a commodity, from Mama Earth to care-workers. And that there must be poor people for rich people to even exist.

Sweeping humans wasn’t met with the proper shock, disgust, or even empathy. It was just accepted as the new normal.

Sadly, sweeping humans like we are trash became more and more normalized, it became something constantly said, by everyone from poltricksters to tech workers — and suddenly, it seemed perfectly OK to dehumanize people just because we were on the street, culminating in a deadly group of sweeps from former Mayor Ed Lee, to “get ready for the Stupid Bowl” – and the power structure seemed fine with it.

Activists lie on the ground in protest of the city's inhumane homeless "sweeps"
Activists lie on the ground in protest of the city’s inhumane homeless “sweeps” photo by Leslie Dreyer

Except us poor people. POOR Magazine, the Coalition on Homelessness, Coffee Not Cops, and many more groups stood in front of the DPW trucks in 2015. POOR Magazine launched our RoofLESS radio WeSearch project which continues today, determined to not let the city harass, criminalize and arrest every poor person they got in these violent sweeps, which included crushing disabled people’s wheelchairs and walkers, their lives and their bodies.

To fight back, lawsuits were filed by revolutionary attorneys and POOR Magazine’s WeSearch (Poor and homeless people-led research) which documented hundreds of thousands of dollars in belongings stolen and seized from unhoused folks was lost or crushed or never returned.

After Ed Lee died, an interim mayor, Mark Farrell, was put into office and one of the first things he did was launch a whole new gaggle of — you guessed it — sweeps.

SF is not the only one doing these violent moves against unhoused people. Oakland and Berkeley and pretty much the whole entire US is now about these sweeps. It became so deadly, we had RoofLESS radio elder reporters on both sides of the Bay reporting that if they even sat down to rest for five minutes the police and DPW would drive by and harass them, tell them to stand up and then if they didn’t take all of their belongings, throw them away.

It got so horrible for us as WeSearchers and poverty skolaz both housed and unhoused at POOR Magazine that we launched our own “sweep” — this time of the poltricksters themselves on both sides of the Bay. We called it “Sweeping the Poltricksters”which actually helped slow down the sweeps a little just cause of the shame factor. And then we got Mayor London Breed in SF, who has taken the unwritten homeless policy — aka “sweeps”— to a whole new level. Since August, 2018, under the Breed Administration, more than 405 tents were seized (stolen) from 210 unhoused residents.

Because of the unwritten violent policy of daily tent and belonging seizure in the rain, cold and harsh weather of the last several months, already physically fragile unhoused people have had their lives put at risk, and others have lost their medicine and basic necessities. We Poverty Skolaz at the RoofLESS radio project realized we needed to do a public release of our findings, which we did twice asking the SF community of housed people to demand that London Breed stop stealing our tents.

To date, she has only stepped up this policy.

Which brings us to Thursday’s special hearing on sweeps at City Hall, which starts with a protest called by United to Fight Displacement, POOR Magazine, the Coalition on Homelessness and Democratic Socialists of America.

Imagine if someone came into your home and snatched the roof off your bedroom, dorm room, or home, leaving you exposed, over-seen, no longer covered. In other words, no longer “safe” to be messy, unorganized, unclean, or just human, because now you no longer were living with what housed people live with every day and take completely for granted — the privilege of privacy.

You see, just because we are outside, without a roof, without shelter, it doesn’t mean we have no precious mementos, belongings, pictures, things, or lives. It also doesn’t mean we are inherently unclean, or messy, or dis-organized; as a matter of fact, people who survive outside are some of the hardest working, most organized people I know.

In the end, we are demanding that we as poor people, landless people, homeless people, be given the chance to our build own solutions to homelessness, communities like First we Came for the Homeless in Berkeley, Right2 Survive in Oregon, like Homefulness in East Oakland. Change won’t come from a savior, a pimp or an institution; change will only come from a poor people-led solution.

Sup. Matt Haney has called for a hearing on the city’s response to homelessness in extreme weather. The Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee will meet for that hearing Thursday/7 at noon in Room 250, City Hall. Activists will gather at 11am on the City Hall steps for a rally.

Tiny is the Author of Criminal of Poverty – Growing Up Homeless in America- published by City Lights and co-author of Poverty Scholarship – Poor People-led Theory, Art , Words and Tears Across Mama Earth- just released on To reach tiny go to her