Sweeps: Unnecessary response to poverty

Last Month, Mayor Mark Farrell announced a new crackdown on unhoused people seeking shelter. Mayor Farrell declared, “The tents are a public safety hazard for the people living in them, and for the residents of San Francisco”.

Absent from this crackdown are any sensible solutions to the issues afflicting our city’s poorest residents. These crackdowns are nothing new; mayor after mayor has felt the need to push this false “tough love” doctrine and Farrell is no different. The mayor confidently stated during his announcement, “We have moved as a city from a position of compassion to enabling (unacceptable) street behavior, and as mayor I don’t stand for that.” However, none of these efforts have made a difference in decreasing the visibility of homeless people or have they changed “street behavior”.

For Mayor Farrell, just existing outside in poverty is something he will not stand for. Farrell elaborates his reasoning by claiming, We have offered services time and time again and gotten many off the street, but there is a resistant population that remains, and their tents have to go.”

But what Mayor Farrell conveniently leaves out is the insufficiency of the services that are being offered and the gravity of the plight of those on the streets. On April 25th at 5am, the Coalition on Homelessness witnessed a sweep carried out by the Department of Public Works and SFPD. The Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) was present and offering residents seven days on a mat on the floor of the nearby Next Door Shelter. Residents would be ejected after a week and were not allowed to bring the bulk of their property with them. Additionally, the city was only able to provide mats for a third of unhoused people in the area. In the end only eight people were sheltered in that space, the majority were simply shuffled into surrounding neighborhoods.

During the April 25th sweeps, the Coalition could find no notices warning of the removal of tents. Nor was there any evidence of a relocation plan on the part of the City. Flyers given to some in the area publicized the additional mats but the regulations of the space (a congregate living space with restriction on personal property) was left out and no transportation was provided. Seven days on a mat on the floor is not an adequate response to homelessness. Farrell’s toxic statements also hide that the great majority of the “resistant population” suffer from serious mental health issues and that for these demographics, a group living environment is not possible.

Farrell hopes to paint vulnerable people in crisis as lawbreakers who must be swept away like refuse rather than offered assistance. With over a thousand people waiting to get into a shelter at the time of this publication, there are not adequate resources within our current system. Why are unhoused people expected to accept inadequate resources and then face criminalization when unable to abide by unrealistic standards?

Furthermore, these sweeps only aggravate the deep issues experienced by folks on the street; being displaced with no alternative, often at the cost of whatever valuables you can carry, is a violent and traumatic experience. People can and often do lose precious survival gear; blankets, jackets, Identification, and memorabilia and have to start over from literally nothing in some cases as one can lose everything in a sweep without proper resources.  One well known San Francisco artist Ronnie Goodman, lost his irreplaceable archive wood blocks and lino cut sheets in the sweep, while another homeless women was sliced after police cut her tent with her inside.

The lack of permanent housing or even dignified alternatives to camping damages the trust between unhoused people and local government and makes it tremendously more difficult to connect folks with what scant resources actually are available.