by Leslie Dreyer
The biggest thief and abuser in San Francisco, by far, is the City itself. Mayor London Breed’s administration—including the Healthy Streets Operations Center (HSOC), the police department, and the Department of Public Works—enacts violence against unhoused folks daily by sweeping encampments.
Stolen Belonging, a project of the Coalition on Homelessness, intends to shift the narrative on “community safety” by detailing these atrocities. The daily harm city workers inflict through these sweeps—sexual and physical threats, violent assaults, emotional and physical abuse, and repeated stealing and trashing of belongings—prevents residents from surviving, stabilizing and exiting homelessness. Polls show that housed residents link crime to homelessness despite evidence to the contrary, while the media has failed to report on how unsafe unhoused residents feel when the City takes everything they own over and over again, even threatening arrests when folks desperately try to hold onto their possessions. These omissions help maintain the dehumanization and degradation of homeless people as the norm. Access to housing, services and basic human dignity are key elements of the community safety everyone deserves.
“A DPW worker ripped our tarps and blankets off of us as we told him that there were females changing their clothes underneath, which was true. He was saying degrading things to me and the other female there. One of them said something about pimping me and her out just because I was asking if they were going to take my bin, could I at least get my medicine and stuff out of there because I had just gotten out of the hospital too. Instead they called the cops on me.”
– Heather Lee, unhoused San Franciscan
“I was sick for three days, and they just came around and laughed in my face when they got my stuff. I came out telling him, ‘You took my stove!’ I said, ‘Just give me that.’ And dude is laughing in my face and recording me because I jumped in the truck, tried to get my stuff and he goes, ‘You’re going to go to jail for getting that stuff.’ I said, ‘So I don’t steal and I don’t do anything wrong, and you guys will just record me and actually throw me in jail for taking my stuff back?’”
– Patricia Guzman, unhoused San Franciscan
“The DPW guy, he’s the supervisor or the head of that particular crew—they were dragging my tent away, and my purse fell out of my tent. I had money, I had my ID, I had a phone, I had, you know, everything that was important to me at that moment as far as survival-type stuff. And he came over and tried to grab it from me, and I wouldn’t let it go. He was swinging me around, pulling me around, and then he backed me up against the trash compactor, the big truck that squishes all your stuff in the back of it. He pushed me and slammed me up against that. That’s when I see SFPD, one of the officers, start walking towards me. I’m thinking, ‘Awesome, he’s going to have to put a stop to this. This is crazy.’ I’m like, ‘This is my purse. This is my purse. It’s my personal belongings. I have my phone, my money, You know what I mean?’ And he goes, ‘If you don’t let go of that right now, and stop getting in the way of them doing their job, I’m going to arrest you.’ [The DPW guy] put that purse in the cab of his truck, too.
I mean, I still can’t even fucking believe that shit.”
– Krystale Erickson, Unhoused San Franciscan
For the most part, these traumatizing incidents, along with the number of belongings taken by city workers each day, are not tracked. This means there is no real accountability for these repeated abuses. This is a huge reason why the Coalition on Homelessness, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and unhoused San Franciscans are suing the City of San Francisco for cruel and unconstitutional actions.
The Stolen Belonging project has been interviewing residents across the city about the sweeps, and we estimate that if the city was forced to track and pay for its theft, along with the irreparable damages of these acts, millions of dollars of the City budget would go towards reparations. Our latest interview with a former employee of the Public Works department revealed that the department effectively promoted the trashing of belongings, and even rewarded those who kept the belongings they stole.
“From what I’ve seen,” the former employee recalled, “the few people, the few incidents with the stealing that I knew of, those people were promoted. And it was brought to [the 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 too. I have a conscience, I believe in karma and I’m just a human being. And at any moment [becoming homeless] could be any of us. They don’t understand that. When you come from where I come from, you know that one wrong move, this could be you.”
The Public Works employee is right: One wrong move, like getting sick and missing a paycheck, could land many currently housed residents on the street. Approximately 70% of unhoused San Franciscans were previously housed in SF, which means the majority were evicted from their homes and onto the streets, where they are evicted continually by the City in repeated sweeps.
Then there’s the dehumanization of unhoused people.
“915 is the police radio code for dumping rubbish. And that’s what they refer to us as over the police radio dispatch, like ‘move along two 915s,’” explains Couper Orona, a Stolen Belonging project member who has been homeless in SF for over 10 years. “So, we’re trash to them. We’re not human to them if they’re referring to us as a code, as trash.”
This notion—that a person is trash if the system that is built to fail poor folks succeeds in crushing them—is the sentiment we must change to truly start developing community safety for all.
Lisa Mahmoud sums up how housed people could try to see things from her point of view in one of our project interviews: “Walk in our shoes; put yourself in that circumstance. The world is a funny place. Anything could happen at any time, and everything could be taken from you and you could be put out. Or it could be that you can’t handle anything anymore because you’ve gone through some traumatic event and you’re outside. The way you show compassion is actually imagining that was you. Is that what you would want to happen to you?”
In their article “Reclaiming Safety,” leading prison and police abolitionists Mariame Kaba and Andrea J. Ritchie write, “In our imaginations, we need to break the equation of policing and public safety. … [F]or many of us, the cops offer no solution to violence, and in fact are the killers, rapists, home invaders and looters, destroyers of lives, families and communities. They are what stands between us and the resources we need to ensure our collective safety and survival.”
This is true for so many homeless residents, which is why it’s imperative to reorient cities to care-based responses to housing and health. Housing is health care and is key to public health! We hope housed San Franciscans take the time to digest the City As Abuser stories we’re releasing this month, detailing the crimes City workers commit against their unhoused neighbors. Join with the Coalition on Homelessness and demand the City stop the sweeps, stop stealing from and abusing unhoused San Franciscans and prioritize caring for folks who need a home—not caging or clearing them from sight. Together we can hold the City accountable for these atrocities and create a city that is safer for all of us.
Visit StolenBelonging.org for more information on this multi-year arts organizing project and to see the project’s video releases, stories, interviews, articles, and ways to take action. Stolen Belonging is a collaboration with Coalition on Homelessness, artist and organizer Leslie Dreyer, and a fierce team of unhoused or formerly unhoused San Franciscans: TJ Johnston, Couper Orona, Sophia Thibodeaux, Roadkill Johnson, Kelley Cutler. The project team from 2018-2019 also included Charles Davis and Patricia Alonzo.
Stolen Belonging: A Reckoning & Reclamation
Art, Music, Food, Mutual Aid and Collective Action
Monday, November 14th, 4-7pm
Outside of San Francisco’s City Hall, aka Civic Center Plaza
Join Stolen Belonging, Coalition on Homelessness, unhoused residents, housing justice advocates, and housed allies who want to hold the City accountable for the ongoing theft and violence against those who currently have no roof. This creative action/event will feature projections, videos and stories gathered by the Stolen Belonging team, street theatre by Poor Magazine, music, food, and more! We will also be giving away survival gear to folks forced to sleep on the streets. Our goal is to have at least 40-50 big bags to give out on a first-come-first-served basis, including tents, sleeping bags, flashlights and other necessities.