“Man sleeping on bench on Hayes St. near Gough. Can someone come asap, I am in the area having lunch,” San Francisco Mayor London Breed texted police Chief William Scott in August of 2019.
“Copy. We are sending a team,” he responded two minutes later.
Eight minutes after that, when the police had presumably not shown up to escort the homeless man away, Breed texted Chief Scott again.
“He’s still here but not sleeping.”
“Following up now,” the chief replied.
These texts, and many others, were released May 25, when an anonymous public records request was fulfilled. Reading them is an exercise in incredulity. Just days after Mayor Breed publicly affirmed her commitment to ending encampment sweeps and seizures of property, her personal messages reveal a very different approach to public health and the rights of unhoused people.
Indeed, of the text conversations Breed initiated with Chief Scott in the 2019 texts released to the public, over 87% were about homeless people whom Breed wants removed from public areas. In the 2020 texts, a selection which includes the first months of shelter in place, over 60% of Breed’s texts to the chief focused on unhoused people in public spaces. While many of these texts were also sent to others, presumably the directors of City departments serving homeless San Franciscans, the responses from Chief Scott show that he sent a team of cops to address her complaints every time.
Breed’s complaints to the chief about the myriad homeless people she sees in her daily life might seem petty, a reflection of her personal distaste for the unhoused, but they reflect a grave trend in San Francisco’s effort to police the homeless.
In his American Sociological Review article “Complaint Oriented Policing: Regulating Homelessness in Public Spaces,” sociologist Chris Herring analyzed over 4 million 911 and 311 records to find trends in the type and quantity of calls about unhoused people. He found that the vast majority of police contact with unhoused people was instigated by calls from housed people.
“According to the SFPD lieutenant commanding the homeless outreach unit, over 90% of police and homeless interactions across the city are initiated through complaints,” Herring wrote in that article.
Instead of a system of enforcement based on quotas or top-down directives, Herring found that the police enforce anti-homeless policies selectively, by responding to the concerns of housed people. And these complaints are getting all the more frequent.
According to his research “unsheltered homelessness increased by less than 1% between 2013 and 2017, yet 911 dispatches for homeless complaints increased 72% and 311 complaints increased 781%.”
In San Francisco, the harassment of homeless people is based on the whims of their housed neighbors and the judgment of the police called in to enforce these desires. But taking someone’s belongings or giving a “move along” order, which is the majority of the enforcement that Herring observed in his time shadowing the SFPD, reduces the visibility of poverty without addressing the root causes of homelessness.
Breed’s texts to Chief Scott, when read in this framework, are particularly disturbing. The relationship between complaint and policing changes when the mayor is the one lodging the complaint. Unlike most San Franciscans, Breed doesn’t have to go through 311 or 911 to get the police to force an unhoused person to move from a public park, sidewalk or vacant lot. Instead, when she sees someone lying on a bench while she eats her lunch, she can text the chief of police. In doing so, she uses her power as chief executive in San Francisco to further the criminalization of homelessness, rather than the justice-focused approach she has promised San Franciscans again and again.
Additionally, unlike the average 911 or 311 caller, Breed knows intimately the alternatives to reporting an unhoused person to the police. She has the directors of the Department of Public Health and the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, as well as other city departments at her beck and call. In fact, these people were likely included — assuming theirs were the names that were redacted — in some of the texts she sent to Chief Scott. But based on Scott’s responses, we know for sure that a team of police officers followed up on every single complaint she made.
Long before these texts were released, Herring found that police officers were
frustrated with the way policing homelessness seemed to privilege the needs of those in proximity to elected leaders.
In his ASR piece, Herring quoted a police officer on how such calls are prioritized: “I mean, I’m trying to get through this queue [of homeless complaints] and it’s like just because the supervisor’s friend or supporter has an issue, or some camp near the highway turnoff in his district makes him look like he’s not dealing with homelessness we got to deal with it.”
This pattern emerges directly in Breed’s texts, where she directs the police to areas she and her associates frequent for sweeps. Many of the texts Breed sent to the chief were about the 800 block of Market, around the corner from John’s Grill, which is owned by longtime supporter and mega-donor John Kostin. Indeed, the trove of texts included no fewer than six requests to sweep the block around John’s Grill, which the mayor called “our bread and butter” in an August 23, 2019 text to the chief.
Three years earlier, in 2016, the mayor had forwarded an email from Kostin about a homeless woman near the grill directly to then-director of Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing Jeff Kositsky and then-director of Public Works Mohammed Nuru. “Please work on this,” she wrote. Given the direct relationship between Kostin and Breed, and her history of facilitating sweeps on his behalf, it’s hard not to wonder which of the 2019 and 2020 texts about the 800 block of Market were incited by Kostin’s complaints, or which of her other complaints about unhoused people came from her supporters.
On the afternoon of August 17, 2019, the mayor texted the chief of police and others.
“No one should be sleeping on the sidewalk in broad daylight,” she wrote.
On this, we all agree. No one should lack a comfortable, warm bed to sleep in, whether in the middle of the afternoon or the dead of night. But when the Mayor sees people arrayed across the sidewalk she expresses disgust not concern. Her texts prove this again and again. San Francisco deserves better.