Commentary: Julie Pitta

Mayor London Breed’s Ruthless Campaign Against the Poor

By Julie Pitta

The memories are still fresh. Many San Franciscans spent holidays with loved ones, sharing hearty meals snug in their homes. The stormy weather, while inconvenient, posed no real danger to those who enjoy the luxury of staying indoors.

Not so for the many San Franciscans whose only shelter is a flimsy tent. Their homes are under constant threat from a city that treats them like so much garbage. Homeless sweeps allow the more fortunate to ignore abject poverty in one of the world’s wealthiest cities.

Despite a recent court order banning them, city workers swept homeless settlements during some of the worst weather in recent San Francisco history. At the time, Mayor London Breed was out of town, first in Napa partying with wealthy political donors before jetting off to Las Vegas to watch a 49ers game in a private box on the 50-yard line. 

According to the City, an estimated 7,750 people live on San Francisco streets. The overwhelming number were City residents before becoming unhoused. Not only do they face the constant fear of losing their homes and possessions, they are often in physical danger as demonstrated by an attack on an unhoused woman in North Beach earlier this month.

Sweeps are more than cruel, they are illegal. A 2018 federal court decision was unambiguous: Cities cannot prosecute people for living on the streets unless they offer shelter.

That case is the foundation for a lawsuit filed last September by the Coalition on Homelessness against the City of San Francisco. The suit alleges that San Francisco is violating the constitutional rights of unhoused people and asks that the City redirect the millions it spends on homeless sweeps toward affordable housing.

Two days before Christmas, the coalition asked a federal judge to ban homeless sweeps. At the public hearing, the City offered little in the way of a defense. 

“The City concedes that there is a shortfall, in the thousands, between available shelter beds and people who are involuntarily unhoused?” asked Judge Donna Ryu. “That’s right,” answered Deputy City Attorney Jim Emery. 

Ryu sided with the coalition, leaving the mayor seething.

Breed has long insisted that “we don’t do sweeps.” However, a public records request unearthed a trove electronic communications in which the mayor did just that, ordering city employees – including Police Chief William Scott – to remove unhoused people from their resting places. An Aug. 22, 2019, message asked Scott to relocate an unhoused man from a bench near a favorite lunch spot. 

“Man sleeping on bench on Hayes St. near Gough. Can someone come ASAP? I’m in the area having lunch,” Breed’s message read. “Copy. We are sending a team,” the police chief replied. 

In the coalition lawsuit, Kaki Marshall, a former director for the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, revealed that the mayor issued “daily mandates” to clear homeless settlements.

“Mayor Breed ordered us to carry out sweeps because she did not want to be seen near unhoused people while she was at lunch, at the gym, at fundraisers, or at meetings on public business,” Marshall said. “There were many times when I was working for San Francisco that I believed I was being asked to break the law.”

The mayor, it seems, considers homelessness an esthetic problem rather than the humanitarian crisis it most certainly is.

Sweeps continued despite Judge Ryu’s December ruling. While many were still recovering from holiday over-indulgence – and at the beginning of the brutal bomb-cyclone storms – homeless settlements were being broken up by city workers.

Dehumanizing unhoused people has consequences. On Jan. 10, a video of a North Beach art gallery owner spraying an unhoused woman, elderly and Black, with a garden hose, went viral. Gallery owner Collier Gwin’s assault is nothing more an extension of policies that treat human beings as trash, simply rubbish to be washed away. Gwin has yet to be charged with a crime. His art gallery, however, is receiving police protection. 

Meanwhile, San Franciscans use social media to pile on against the most unfortunate among us. On platforms like Nextdoor, they spread pernicious lies like often-repeated myth that unhoused people are not “real” San Franciscans when, in fact, most were City residents before losing their homes. Gwin’s actions make sense in an atmosphere in which victims are blamed for their condition. Hateful speech, as we’ve discovered all too painfully, has consequences.

In contrast to the mayor, District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston offers a compelling prescription for the homelessness crisis. First, Preston says the City should make available more than a thousand units now sitting empty, including 900 permanent supportive housing rooms ready for occupancy. Further, it should consider the purchase of hotels and empty buildings. 

“This is doable,” Preston states. “But it takes leaders embracing the challenge, instead of denying the problem.”

January is a month for new beginnings. My wish for San Franciscans is the recovery of their compassion. Imagine losing your home and with it your possessions, some being your only reminders of a happier time. As for the mayor, I hope she finds her conscience and stops what has been a ruthless campaign against the City’s poor.

Julie Pitta is a neighborhood activist. She is a former senior editor for Forbes Magazine and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. You can email her at

7 replies »

  1. The root causes of homelessness are mental illness and substance abuse, often at the same time in many individuals. Since it’s inception in 2016, the SF Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing ( HSH ) has spent 3.5 BILLION dollars and homelessness has increased here by 63%. As far as I know the homeless are indeed offered shelter before the sweeps so the city is compliant with the law. We need a new path forward in SF!


  2. Thank you for a terrific column highlighting the plight of the homeless and the heartlessness of so many in City Hall. Perhaps it’s time to start thinking about a Mayor who can lead the City with effective compassion.


    • Thanks for called this out Jean. From the article linked above; “After just one month of residency, people can receive benefits up to $869 a month for food and general assistance.” SF is subsidizing self destructive behavior.


  3. “According to the City, an estimated 7,750 people live on San Francisco streets. The overwhelming number were City residents before becoming unhoused.”

    How is the term “resident” defined for purposes of this statement? Does the City have data on where the person was working and living immediately before they became a “resident”?


  4. Uhm ..

    Asking the question “How is the term “resident” defined for purposes of this statement?” is ridiculous. Someone was paying rent while living in the city. Like Duh. The statement is also supported by people working for the City who (unlike yourself) actually talk to homeless people and get reliable statistics about where they were living before they became homeless.

    The homeless are the canary in mine, letting the rest of us know that we live in social system that squeezes people at the bottom of the scale. It’s easier to focus upon the filth and the drugs and make this a personal responsibility issue when what we have is stochastic process — with real people hiding behind those percentages.

    We have the highest rate of child poverty. We have the highest rate of people going bankrupt because of medical bills. 57% of Americans wouldn’t be able to cover a $500 emergency.

    Please think about that before you mouth off about what the word “resident” means.


    • I seem to have hit a nerve there. Like you, I am a taxpayer with children in public schools. I’ve lived here for over 20 years. I have a right to question whether the billion dollars spent annually on SF homeless services could be better-spent elsewhere. Forgive me as I “mouth off” some more.

      The writer of this piece wants SF to allocate more resources to address homelessness in SF. To support that argument, she states that “According to the City, an estimated 7,750 people live on San Francisco streets. The overwhelming number were City residents before becoming unhoused.” So the writer understands that her argument has more support if SF citizens perceive they are helping residents rather than non-residents.

      Your statements are also relevant. You wrote “We have the highest rate of child poverty. We have the highest rate of people going bankrupt because of medical bills. 57% of Americans wouldn’t be able to cover a $500 emergency.” Are you saying that SF has the highest rate of child poverty? That SF has the highest rate of people going bankrupt because of medical bills? I don’t think that is accurate. Of course, if those statistics are accurate, then SF voters, including myself, would have greater motivation to direct more taxpayer money to address that local issue.

      You next claim that 57% of AMERICANS are on the poverty line. That statistic is less helpful to your argument about SF homeless services because a country-wide poverty problem cannot be solved by SF citizens alone. I feel no shame in saying that I am less motivated to support my tax money going to assist a homeless person who only recently arrived from outside the City or State and who was teetering on homelessness when he/she arrived. That problem is better addressed by a multi-county, multi-state, or a federal approach rather than through a local homeless service.

      The resident v. non-resident definition is critical for public support of the SF homeless-services industry, as the writer clearly understands. Since tax money could be used to support public schools, parks or other worthy programs, my question is intended to ensure that the homeless “resident” numbers are not improperly inflated to justify more money and resources towards homeless services.

      Thank you for your response. Instead of citing to statutes, codes, accepted statistics and/or reports, your approach was to label my question as ridiculous and deride me as “mouthing off” because I questioned the homeless industry in SF.

      The readers can decide for themselves.


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