Commentary: Julie Pitta

Breed’s Campaign Against the Poor

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 can offer shelter to every homeless person living on the streets.

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 1,000 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 Follow her on Twitter: @JuliePitta.

2 replies »

  1. Hardworking taxpayers in San Francisco deserve clean streets and public spaces, where they don’t have to constantly look out for needles, feces and aggressive individuals. Homeless people need to follow basic rules for a functioning society, just like the rest of us. San Francisco gives up to $869 per month in cash and food stamps to transients who have been here for only 30 days. Obviously the billions of dollars that has been spent in this city on this problem isn’t effective. San Antonio, TX, has found a solution.


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