Please Listen

As the homeless and poor residents of the city of San Francisco face a full frontal attack, the homeless youth in the Haight find themselves under a three-month, 24-hour zero tolerance police operation. Haight officials, including Supervisor London Breed and Police Captain John Sanford, were heavily pressured by a group of powerful merchants and neighbors to increase law enforcement and remove the visible presence of homelessness and poverty from Haight Street. They are using a recent tragedy that happened in Golden Gate Park as an opportunity to “crack down.” (See our November 1 article, “Playing Politics with Tragedy.”)

Traditionally a progressive and alternative neighborhood, the impacts of displacement, eviction, and gentrification are happening at a terrifying rate in the Haight-Ashbury. Homeless service providers have been forced to pack up their programs due to displacement and budget cuts. The SF homeless point in time count found that there were at least 1,441 homeless youth, of whom 86% were unsheltered, meaning they sleep outside. This is a great undercount, but even that low count stands as a shameful backdrop for the current policy putting literal targets on these youth’s backs.

At recent meetings with the station captain, advocates and service providers from the neighborhood learned details of the 90-day zero tolerance operation. Enforcement is concentrated on addressing six “quality of life” violations: Sit/Lie, No Trespassing (used when people sleep against the side of a building), Aggressive Solicitation, Selling Items Without a Permit, Urinating/Defecating in Public, and Drinking in Public. When pressed to address the selective enforcement of these laws, meaning enforcement that singles out homeless individuals versus housed neighbors or tourists, the captain denied it was a practice or a problem, and insisted that if he was told that selective enforcement was happening, he would address it immediately. Additionally, Captain Sanford was pressed to address the misinformation that he and his officers spread, claiming most homeless individuals refuse services. The policy of SFPD is to “offer services” to a homeless or poor individual before issuing a citation or arrest, but the reality is that there is one shelter bed for every 5.5 homeless individuals in the city. The youth shelters are at capacity, and the adult shelters are not an appropriate placement for youth. Most adult housing options are in the Tenderloin and SOMA, far from youth services and youth community.

In addition to hearing the rhetoric of state power, there was also a considerable turn out of homeless youth and service providers in the neighborhood at these various meetings. They shared ideas and solutions such as increasing housing in the neighborhood and moving street families in together, establishing a navigation center-type center in the Haight focused on homeless youth, and more meetings between merchants, neighbors, and homeless residents. In previous neighborhood meetings, the tone has been thick with hate and ill-will towards homeless people. At the most recent meeting, many noted a shift in tone—including feeling a sense of hope for actual community forged solutions. In response to homeless people’s having been shouted down by members of one of the neighborhood groups at the last meeting, organizers provided audience members with signs that read: “Please Listen” and “Stop Silencing Solutions” to ensure that the meeting was respectful and safe for homeless individuals to share their testimonies and solutions.

While the captain refused to change his tone regarding the 90-day zero tolerance policy, service providers were hopeful that continued pressure and meetings with those most impacted as well as their allies may result in a change in police policy in the neighborhood. Service providers are also working on ways to keep the youth safe in the face of this neighborhood police occupation. They are planning a community forum in December on homelessness to create a space for the neighborhood to understand homelessness from the challenges of securing emergency housing to the barriers created by criminalization when exiting homelessness, especially for the youth in the Haight.

Neighborhood organizers and homeless advocates vow to keep the pressure on Park Station and Supervisor London Breed to implement community solutions and reject criminalization as the solution. As the weather changes and winter is upon us, concerns arise about the health and well-being of the thousands of homeless individuals forced to remain on the streets. We will be watching and supporting homeless organizing in the neighborhood in hopes that the opportunity to turn the tide still exists in this once magical street.