TJ Johnston and Leslie Dreyer conducted this interview for the Stolen Belonging Project. It was recorded by Jin Zhu.
For the past two decades, San Francisco’s Department of Public Works (DPW) has largely ignored incidents of their employees committing acts of abuse, harassment and theft targeting unhoused San Franciscans, according to a former DPW worker who spoke to the Stolen Belonging team on condition of anonymity.
“They’re not trying to solve the problem; it’s just like a money pit,” said Candace, who requested her name be changed in this story to prevent potential online harassment. She supports programs like the Compassionate Alternative Response Team (CART), under which people who’ve experienced homelessness would be the ones responding to those issues, and she emphasizes that “compassion is more important than the job.”
While individual public workers undoubtedly cause harm as part of their job, this interview reveals how the entire system of policing, from direct criminalization to street cleaning, works to degrade and eradicate poor folks. Though Candace was tasked with inflicting harm by clearing encampments, she had genuine, caring relationships with unhoused San Franciscans. She mentions missing them much more than her coworkers. Her care, concern, patience and empathy should be a model for all those holding these jobs until we can upend and remake the system to value people’s lives over profits.
*The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity
Stolen Belonging team: Can you introduce yourself and describe the work you did as a DPW employee?
Candace: I worked for San Francisco Public Works street cleaning and encampment removal. Laborer was my position. I ran a lot of the crews. I retired at 18 years, so that’s 2003-2021.
Did the city provide actual services, or housing, or shelter placements for the residents before conducting the sweeps?
For the most part, no, they didn’t have any place for them to go.
And does DPW normally give a 72 hour notice before a sweep?
If there was just a lot going on, with the media coverage and all that, then they would. But a lot of times, it didn’t work like that. They wouldn’t post [any warning]. If the location had people unhoused people there that were political and knew their rights, then they would. But just like on a daily basis, no.
And does DPW bag and tag, and store property that they take in sweeps for 90 days?
They’re supposed to, but it depends on the individual that picks it up. You’ve got some individuals that will take it straight to the dump. It just depends on who you get.
Did they leave a notice behind with instructions on how one can retrieve their items?
I’ve never seen it.
Do they only throw away abandoned property, that they define as garbage, and soiled items and things that present health hazards?
Usually it’s up to the discretion of the person that picks it up. For sure, bag and tags were the ones that you picked up from the police station, because somebody has a log of it. But just picking up stuff on the streets, a lot of times it just gets trashed regardless of what it is.
For items that really aren’t defined as trash, could you describe some of the types of things that they would throw away?
They’ll throw the whole tent away. Most workers don’t have the time, or even want to risk sitting there going through somebody’s stuff. There’s been times I’ve done it too. You try to ask around, does anybody want to claim it? [imitating employee] Da-da-da, nobody wants to claim it. I’m not going to sit there and go through this shopping cart. I’m going to back it up to my truck, and I’m going to flip the shopping cart in there. And it’s considered trash, because I don’t have time to sit there, because I’ve got 50 service requests that I got to get done by the end of the day, so I don’t have time to sit here and figure out what’s going to get bagged and tagged, and what’s garbage.
What were some of the items that you would decide to bag and tag?
Medications, and that’s if they’re visible. If you get a cart, and the stuff is nice and neat and folded up, I don’t feel bad touching it with gloves, then I’ll bag and tag it.
Would you say in most cases, workers don’t bag and tag?
Most cases, yeah, they don’t bag and tag.
Well, the City is not supposed to take property away from someone, unless they ask the person to move. And in case they do refuse, they must give that person ample time to move. To your knowledge, was this policy followed?
A lot of the workers, I guess they don’t see the unhoused as human beings. Me, I treated them like they were people, and people have issues. A lot of times I’ll just go and say, “Okay, you’re on my list today. I’m going to leave these bags. I’m going to leave this broom and this shovel. And I’ll be back in four hours … you can move 20 feet, that way I can say that I moved you, and then I can take what you don’t want. I can have the crew wash it down, make it clean for you, and then you can come right back in.”
What was the more commonplace scenario that would occur during a sweep, when the people living there were around?
If you got just a pickup showing that you’ve got 50 service requests that need to be done by the end of the day, they might be a little more uncooperative to wait for you to pack up. It’s going to be a fight. They’re going to call the police.
Me, I was well-respected out there, so pretty much I didn’t have the problems that a lot of the other workers have, because [homeless folks] know that I give them respect. They know, they see me coming and they can say they’re hungry. “Sis, I’m hungry.” “Okay, you all start moving, and I’m going to go get you all something to eat.” Even if I just got to go buy you all some noodles or anything, whatever I could afford, or whatever. You can’t expect somebody that’s been out there, up all night, they’re hungry, and then here you come at seven in the morning telling them they got to move. And then, because they’re not moving fast enough, you want to just take their stuff. There’s a lot of stuff that goes on there, that I don’t see how half of the workers sleep at night, to be serious.
I don’t see [the Department] trying to solve the problem. It’s just like a money pit.
We’ve witnessed and interviewed residents at the encampments who had all their stuff taken away from them. Ripped out of their hands, thrown into the trucks and compacted. Can you describe similar instances, where you witnessed this happening, knowing that it happened by DPW workers?
Well, I have witnessed an incident where the homeless person came to me and told me that they were missing things, before the crew even left. Because one guy, he had a thing that he had rigged up that he had a battery hooked up to, in order to move his stuff, because it was so much. So he knew that if we come, he has this motorized thing that he can just put everything on right quick and move it. So he got everything on there, and now the battery is gone, and he can’t move anything. And he’s like, “I know my battery was just here. They stole the battery.”
And I go over to the truck, lo and behold, there’s a bunch of batteries in there. And so I say, “Do you see your battery?” “Yeah, I see my battery.” “Get your battery.” Like, why would you take his battery? I’ve witnessed times where we were supposed to bag and tag. We’ve got a supervisor there that’s telling us to bag and tag. And certain things don’t make it to the bag and tag, and the supervisor realizes, and like, “Well what happened to the iPhone and the such-and-such that was in the stuff to be bagged and tagged?” And threatens the workers that it better show up. And by the end of shift, it shows up. But they steal.
Have you seen anyone on your crew take anything?
I’ve seen them loading stuff into their cars after work. I’ve been asked, maybe a supervisor might come out when we’re working and ask, “Well, why is there a generator in the front seat of that truck?” “Well, I don’t know, it wasn’t in there when we pulled up.” Obviously somebody was trying to steal it. I’ve never seen anybody just take something and put it in their pocket, or put it in their truck and say they’re stealing it, because they know that that’s a no-no with me. You steal from them, you steal from me.
[With the battery incident], there is a place by the job, where they’ll give you, I think it’s $10 for the smaller (batteries), $20 for the bigger ones. That’s why they were stealing the batteries from the homeless fella, so they (could) take them and get money.
And when you said the thing about people loading up their truck, where are they loading it from? Is that the DPW yard?
We have employee parking, so you’ll just see them pull up their DPW truck to their car, and unload stuff into their car, and you know it’s something from work. Where else is it going to come from, you know?
And as far as upper management, how did they respond to this behavior?
They just pretended like it didn’t happen or it didn’t exist. They know it goes on, and from what I’ve seen, the few people, the few incidents with the stealing that I knew of, those people were promoted. And it was brought to [management’s] attention about them stealing. So people like me, they don’t get promoted, because I speak up too much. I’m not going to break the rules because you tell me to—I have a conscience. I believe in karma, and I’m a human being. And I’m not going to let a job make me forget about my heart. And it’s sad to see it happen.
A lot of times, if I hear on the radio there’s a conflict at a location, and I know this location, and I know those people, I’ll show up and try to defuse it, see what’s going on, and nine times out of ten, it’s the worker doing the unhoused wrong. And the unhoused is stepping up for what they know is right, because a lot of them know their rights. A lot of times they have the police with them or whatever. But I had an incident with the police too, so I don’t trust them either, so I’m not going to do something that I know isn’t right because the police told me to.
I have so much trauma from that place and I hate it, and I hate the way they treat their workers, and I hate the way they treat the unhoused. And it’s not fair. And it’s just like a money pit for them. They’re not trying to get the unhoused off the streets.
And when they do, they throw them in the Navigation Center, and then they’re right back to the streets, you know, nothing permanent. I can say maybe ten out of the hundreds of unhoused people that I know, that have really actually gotten into housing. And they still keep in contact with me, and they still call me whenever they need anything because they know I can make it happen for them. And I was like the outcast because I cared, you know what I mean? It’s like, if you don’t care, you get rewarded for that. I don’t get it.
So it took me some time to rearrange my life [so that] I can get out of there. Because it got to the point where it’s hard to sleep at night, seeing that stuff all day.
You think about like, wow, I wonder where that guy’s sleeping at now they took all his stuff? He doesn’t even have a blanket, so where is he sleeping tonight? That type of stuff. Or they want you to do people wrong, and then they send you back the next day and you gotta face the person, that yesterday, you just took everything this person owned. It’s not fair.
Why can’t we try to figure it out? Why is it a fight? I hate when they call it a war. We’re not at war with them, we’re supposed to be helping them. Why is it a war?
Who calls it a war? Your work?
The department, the heads. Towards the end, they [the department heads] were like, “You’re a little too compassionate. We’re at war with the homeless right now, so we want you to find some other duties that you can do, other than street cleaning because we don’t want you out there right now, because we’re at war.”
I had to do stuff like, I went to graffiti [clean up], then I went to watering trees, and stuff like that, because they didn’t want me dealing with the homeless, because my way of dealing with the homeless was different from theirs.
They would rather you just not care. Don’t care at all. Say if I went to work one day and somebody flags my truck down and says—because they all call me Sis—”Sis, they came and took my stuff yesterday. Could you check and see if it was bagged and tagged?” And I would literally go check and see if it was bagged and tagged. And ten times out of ten, it wasn’t bagged and tagged. And so I have to go back and tell this person, “I’m sorry Sis, but they didn’t bag and tag it.” There’s nobody to verify.
It goes through different stages, because we just drop it at a cage [in the DPW storage yard]. And then there’s somebody that works Bag and Tag, that literally has to go through and make a log, and log this stuff in, and store it. Their discretion might be different from mine. It might’ve been good enough for me to take it to Bag and Tag, but Bag and Tag might say, “No, we’re not bagging and tagging this.”
How do you think the city should be held accountable for the theft of people’s property, and just all of the harmful impacts inflicted upon them?
They need to pay. At least so people can get more stuff. Or be compensated for the stuff they lost. Just because this is junk to one, it’s not always junk.
And what would you recommend that the City change about the way it approaches homelessness?
Have a little more compassion and put yourself in their shoes. What if somebody just came to your house and started throwing all your shit away?
Have you heard about the CART program, a team of people who are mostly people with lived experience of homelessness and social workers, but no cops? Would this be something that you would support?
Yes, that’s what’s needed. And then, say you have these different teams that go out and deal, and talk with the homeless. And they go out, and they do their job, but at the end they’re saying, “Well, we just don’t have any placement for them.” What’s the purpose of coming out, taking their names and doing all this stuff, if you don’t have nowhere for them? And then when you do, well, of course they’ve been moved along.
Anything else you’d like to share with the city, or whoever might see these interviews?
No, just have a little more compassion, that’s all. Everybody has their own different set of issues, and treat them that way. You’ve got to treat them accordingly, and just take the time to know them. The compassion is more important than the job. The trash is going to be there. You can not have compassion, and talk crazy, and do somebody wrong, and all that, and guess what? You can go back to that same spot tomorrow, and I bet you there’s some more trash there. Just have some compassion and have a conscience. Don’t do people wrong, and then just go on like it’s okay. It’s not okay, it’s not. There’s a lot of stuff that’s going on, that’s not okay. Compassion can go a long way, but nobody uses that no more. I do hope this helps somebody, you know?