City Sweeps Retraumatize Women and Survivors

By Meghan “Roadkill” Johnson

Sweeps in San Francisco have been keeping many houseless residents cautious and afraid at the looming uncertainty, “Is today the day? Am I going to be targeted again?” We are seeing a hike in the number of women and queer folks slowly coming forward. Revisiting open wounds surrounding their traumatic encounters of sexual harassment and assault while on the streets and at the hands of the city. 

As fellow team member of the Stolen Belonging project I’ve been working with several housing justice advocates including many who’ve experienced homelessness, to gather and examine testimonies of unhoused SF residents and the impact of the city sweeps. During our work, we noticed a troubling pattern: several women mentioned the theft of their medication, sexual harassment and abuse they were subjected to on a regular basis by city workers, which adds unnecessary trauma to the violence they regularly endure on the streets.

Patricia Gonzales, who regularly stays in the Mission, described one sweep she had been through. She had been very ill when DPW came to clear her belongings. She reported that they took many things including a small camper stove and medication bag, both essential for her survival. She jumped up,”You took my stove, just give it back!” she pleaded with the DPW workers. They looked at her and began laughing and recording her. By this time Patricia, frantic, managed to get in the back of the DPW truck to try and retrieve her things, but the workers threatened to call the police.

“I don’t steal and I don’t do anything to you guys [DPW] and you just record me and actually throw me in jail for taking my own stuff back,” she recalled saying to them. “After that, DPW kept my medicine and continued to laugh in my face, recording me. Even after I told them I was sick. I need that.” She explained to them that she is diabetic and makes little to no money. The likelihood of replacing stolen medicine is nearly impossible for houseless folks like Patricia, and merely trying to hold onto survival gear thrown into the back of a truck like trash, means jail time.

Veronica Ocampo, another unhoused woman surviving on SF’s streets, told us about escaping a dangerous man only to return the next morning to find the city had stolen everything she owned. “That night when I was by myself and he was trying to start problems, I was scared so I left and when I came back, everything was just gone. My friend told me that the police and DPW had took everything. It really sucked because my friend had just gave me a brand new tent, clothes, jewelry, female hygiene products. My phone was gone. I was real shaken up.”  

Fabiola Lopez, a Trans Latina Woman, says she has trouble advocating for herself because of the speech barrier between herself and city workers. She said DPW sweeps her regularly and throw away everything she owns and don’t allow her to retrieve her essentials like her ID, her work permit, and immigration related papers. They throw it all away. On another occasion, DPW workers suggested she get to a place where she could take a shower. The shelter denied her entry for being a trans woman, and when she returned to her tent, the workers had stolen and trashed everything. She was left with nothing.

Heather Lee, an unhoused resident of the SoMa district, described her makeshift tent being torn open by DPW workers while she and other females were undressing. She says they came without warning. She vividly recalls, “A DPW worker ripped our tarps and blankets off of us, even as we told him that there were females changing underneath. One of them said something about pimping me and the other girl out. They continued to throw everything I owned away and wouldn’t even let me get my medication, my survival gear or anything sentimental… Start opening your eyes, [housed people],” she exclaimed. “These things are happening out here to us and nobody is believing it or doing anything about it. It’s ridiculous the abuse that’s going on. It needs to stop because it’s happening from the people that should be helping us the most.” 

These stories are mere examples of the reality homeless women go through living day to day, under Breed’s administration. Sometimes a tent or a tarp is the only thing keeping women safe from the violence of the open streets at night. These women deserve better, the city needs to take accountability for their forced trauma and bring the sweeps to a halt. As of now, there is no real effort by city officials to stop the sweeps.

No more sweeping their lives away San Francisco!