In the World of Homelessness, Many Are Punished for the Acts of the Few

by Jordan Davis

This year, I made a New Year’s resolution: No longer will I go on X, the social network formerly known as Twitter. Many of my peers have done so as well, since the rebranding has been accompanied by so much toxicity. X is starting to resemble an infamous website where trolls stalk transgender and autistic people.

If you have never been homeless without friends or family to house you, never needed to depend on systems for a roof over your head, then you don’t know how unsafe it feels when trolls write about “the homeless industrial complex,” attack housing first policies—the idea that housing should be prioritized with wraparound services—or weaponize the news about fentanyl use among homeless people to shame us.

This is called collective punishment: penalizing everyone in a certain group for the actions of one or a few members of that group. This is the root cause of many “isms” that permeate society and exacerbate homeless issues.

We see collective punishment in all sectors of society: Palestinians in Gaza suffering Israel’s war crimes in response to an attack by Hamas; transfeminine people being excluded from women’s spaces over imagined fears about sexual assault; working class, disabled and homeless people who have whose participation in public comment at San Francisco City Hall has been curtailed because of a Board of Supervisors decision to end remote public comment last fall after a few Nazis called in with awful comments and were immediately cut off. 

Now, collective punishment affects homeless people and supportive housing tenants in the form of stereotypes. Skewed images of poor and homeless people using drugs influenced voters to pass “Care, Not Cash,” a policy that slashed cash assistance in San Francisco in 2002. Similar stereotypes about homeless criminality have informed multiple laws like sit-lie bans and park closures; now, guided by images of addiction among unhoused people, drug testing is on the ballot.

Trolls post toxic comments on X about some permanent supportive housing tenants or unhoused neighbors using drugs and/or decompensating—or, in an ableist terms, “going crazy”—in order to argue for draconian policies such as expansion of conservatorship, ending housing first, and drug testing recipients of general assistance. I would expect these types of policies and attitudes in Ron DeSantis’ Florida, not in San Francisco. Yes, fentanyl is a crisis, but we need real, humane solutions instead of a return to failed Drug War policies in the past.

A lot of formerly homeless people, including myself, read these toxic tweets and worry about these inflammatory and oppressive attitudes turning into punitive policies: It’s raising my stress levels.

Permanent supportive housing tenants have to deal with landlords being afraid to rent to us and being placed into SROs instead of scattered site housing, with restrictive visitor policies imposed on us because of some tenants allowing their guests to run wild. Also, we’re not allowed to pay our rent by check because a few tenants bounced theirs.

Homeless service and supportive housing providers, as well as the general public, should treat us as individuals, not this monolith that wants to cause all the problems that are plaguing the city.