Stolen Belonging: This is What Accountability Looks Like

by Leslie Dreyer

The Stolen Belonging project, in collaboration with the Coalition on Homelessness, interviewed unhoused residents across the City to document the theft, abuse and trauma City workers inflict on unhoused people during encampment sweeps, how unhoused San Franciscans think they should be compensated, and how they imagine we should collectively hold the City accountable for these inhumane acts. In Street Sheet’s third installment of the Stolen Belonging project, we’re focusing on the latter question. As transformative and disability justice trainer Mia Mingus explains, “True accountability is not only apologizing, understanding the impacts your actions have caused on yourself and others, making amends or reparations to the harmed parties; but most importantly, true accountability is changing your behavior so that the harm, violence, abuse does not happen again.” While the Coalition and Stolen Belonging project participants don’t imagine the City or state is invested in true accountability, we believe we can collectively organize to force the City to compensate folks for its theft and minimize future harm by shifting who responds to housing and health issues and how, so that residents are linked to experienced care providers.

Poor and unhoused folks across the world know what they need to survive and get out of poverty, yet they are rarely asked what solutions would help them by poverty industry bureaucrats of governments and private industry who control and redirect aid meant to directly help poor folks. Poverty scholar Lisa “Tiny” Gray-Garcia of POOR Magazine regularly reminds us that “Change won’t come from a savior—a pimp or an institution. Change will only come from our own poor people-led revolution.” From Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement to The Indian Alliance advocating for slum dwellers internationally to POOR Magazine’s Homefulness project in East Oakland, the duration and impact of poor and Indigenous-led self-determined social movements across the world provide clear proof that they are key to simultaneously resisting the capitalist boot on the neck while building the interdependence they, and communities across the world, need to survive. 

In this tradition and with our team of unhoused or formerly unhoused housing justice advocates, we turned to those most impacted by homeless sweeps in San Francisco to explain what compensation and accountability could look like. After describing physical assaults, threats of sexual violence, emotional abuse, as well as the theft of all their belongings, many voiced that money to compensate for the losses would be helpful, but one-time payments could never compensate for the loss of personal items, the level of harm inflicted, or the accompanying long-term impacts they endure from these violent acts. Several others stated what should be obvious to all of us: They clearly need housing and other social services, not violence from police, San Francisco Public Works or contracted private policing crews like Urban Alchemy. Unhoused San Franciscans understand that the cruelty is the point, and the City will violate their rights at the request of Mayor London Breed or other housed haters to push them out of sight and further into poverty. We call on housed allies to do everything you can to help keep your neighbors safe from those ordering and carrying out violence against unhoused San Franciscans. There are resources to keep everyone housed and healthy.

Here’s what some Stolen Belonging participants told us about what compensation and accountability looks like:

“If my loss were to actually have value and to lead to whatever laws being put in place so that they can’t continue to do this, then I would be happy with that. 

They should be asking us what we need to help us and how. There should be things in place for them to assist us to get out of this position that they don’t want us in versus just trying to bully us and rob us.”

Angel Amador, Unhoused San Franciscan

“Besides paying for my medication they took, which I think they should because where am I going to get the money for my medication? I don’t know, compensate us how? Like not taking our stuff, letting us at least make a little bit of money and not worry about our tents and get out of the streets. Because what they’re doing is actually making us stay longer in the streets. We have to spend money to recuperate. We want to get out of here, not stay here.”

Patricia Gonzales, Unhoused San Franciscan

“Some of these items, you can’t replace them. Like the letters from my great-great-grandfather, and the photos from my mom’s side of the family, and stuff like that. Money can’t replace that. 

“[The City] should be held accountable. A lot of people out here living on the streets have mental health problems. And these people, they’re not trained to deal with these situations … even the cops aren’t. And I got post traumatic stress disorder from this kind of stuff going on. Every time I hear a beep, beep, beep of a truck backing up, I freak out. I started having anxiety attacks because every time, you think it’s them coming to rip your whole tent open and it’s terrorizing you. 

Just because we’re homeless doesn’t mean we can’t have anything.”
Todd Bryant, Unhoused San Franciscan

“The best way they could make it right with me is to not continue to do what they’re doing, the way that they’re doing it. Be professional, be a human being and care about other people and their stuff when they’re out here. I don’t think [those responsible for the sweeps] would like people going into their homes and doing what they do to us out here. This is our home for the time being for whatever reason.”

Heather Lee, Unhoused San Franciscan

“I don’t think they should just go and grab people’s shit. I mean, really, I think that they should have a training program to instill some type of morals or some type of system for these people.

Life isn’t easy and most people are one fucking step away from being homeless, too.”

Crystal, Unhoused San Franciscan

“There is no real compensation, but I would like to see them stop gathering up everybody’s tents, everybody’s personal belongings and food. We have a right to live just as much as anybody else, and have possessions. There is no God on these streets that’s walking around and saying, ‘This is what you could have. This is what you could have, and you can’t have this, but everybody else can.’

We might be living as nomads in these tents, but that’s all we have.

I think they should be accountable, like reimbursing people for some of the items that they have lost. Ones of value, the food items, the clothing. People should be reimbursed for everything the City took. They should never have their stuff taken away. Everybody has the right to their own possessions.” 

Guy Jeffries, Unhoused San Franciscan

“They should replace everything I used to have many times over. I had to do it. If I was to go and take all their gear, they would expect me to replace it, right? Well, they’d expect me to do time, but in terms of what’s real, we’re talking differently.

It’d be nice if they’d apologize, because when somebody has all their stuff taken, and they need a sleeping bag or something, and they’re holding a sign on the street corner, they could be doing something else with their time, but all these people are hating them. It’d be nice for [the haters] to know that SFPD did this to them. It’s not their fault that they’re sitting there needing something once again.”

Stiles Sessions, Unhoused San Franciscan

“I guess you should be able to sue them. But I don’t really know how that kind of stuff happens.”

Stephanie, Unhoused San Franciscan

All people want to be treated with dignity and respect and want to maintain their belongings. Unhoused residents know they deserve this regardless of their current housing status. The City, state and media’s regular demonization of homeless people—blaming individuals for systemic policy failures and politicians valuing wealth over lives—has enabled the daily mistreatment of these residents by many City employees and housed residents alike. Right now there is a historic lawsuit in the works in which the Coalition on Homelessness, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and seven unhoused plaintiffs are suing the City of San Francisco for their abuses. However, implementing legal victories can be incredibly difficult. As Paul Boden, formerly unhoused San Franciscan and director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project explains in an interview, politicians put laws on the books that they enforce on poor folks, not themselves or other elites. This is why the chant, “Who keeps us safe? We keep us safe,” which was heard across the U.S. and beyond as Black Lives Matter and other police accountability protests exploded in 2014 after Ferguson, continues to resonate today. 

Community organizing, mutual aid and shifting to care-based responses to housing and health issues are approaches that have and will continue to stabilize and aid disenfranchised folks. Unhoused residents deserve compensation for their losses, and they deserve protection from the violence of policing by cops, City workers, private policing companies, and even vigilante efforts seeking to harm them. The Coalition on Homelessness will continue to uplift initiatives that keep people safe, housed and sustained, and will continue to build with unhoused people and allies to bring forth a future in which all people have safe, permanent, affordable housing.