The beating of a homeless man by three young men, caught by the surveillance cameras of a flower shop on Waverly Place, should at first be categorized as a random act of urban violence. A hate crime committed without any reason against a defenseless individual, the incident was profusely reported by the local media. As it usually is the case when homelessness and crime intersect, and more when real footage is available, the media was all over the story and the phones of the Coalition were jumping off the hooks with requests for interviews.
Then, when the victim seemed to have vanished from San Francisco, the perpetrators were never caught, and the latest shootout in our poorer neighborhoods to claim the life of another young men of color took over the headlines.
However, random as this incident was, it points to the failures of the Newsom’s administration to promote real changes in the City’s approach to homelessness. Here we have a man who had consistently rejected offers to find accommodation at the city’s shelters because they were too unsafe. On the other hand, we have three young men who had no other reason to beat this man than the fact they figured they could get away with it, the “disappearance” of the victim, and the utter failure of the SFPD to identify and arrest the perpetrators, despite the fact that the entire incident was recorded on tape.
Let’s begin with the refusal to accept shelter, which is a recurrent theme of the news reports on homelessness. The consistent tone of such reports indicates a sense of “what we do with those who refuse shelter”—a rhetoric question used to justify calls for an even stricter enforcement of the so-called “quality of life” laws that are usually selectively enforced to harass homeless people for engaging in life-sustaining activities such as sleeping in public spaces. Consistently missing from those reports are the reasons those individuals give for refusing shelter.
The man beaten in the latest incident had said he didn’t want to go to a shelter because they were not safe, which they aren’t. Shelter residents, particularly women, seniors and those with disabilities are exposed to great risks in the shelters, which may come from their peers, but also from the staff. Many of the city shelters are run in ways that combine a “human-storage” approach with a jailhouse mentality. In other words, homeless people don’t deserve more than a bed (in many cases, just a mat on the floor) piled up with hundreds more, and they have no rights that the shelter must respect.
Not only are homeless people warehoused by the dozens in facilities that sometimes lack basic “amenities” such as showers (currently there are only three showers serving hundreds of men at MSC South), they are also “monitored” by overworked, under trained and underpaid staff who lack the resources and the will to intervene when violence arises. In some cases, shelter staff themselves are the ones abusing the residents with death threats or requests for sexual acts in exchange for beds, as recently exposed by the Shelter Monitoring Committee (SMC). Until those actions were reported by the SMC, management at the most dangerous shelters had consistently dismissed and failed to act on the residents’ complaints.
Beyond the violence and the blatant violation of health and safety codes, homeless people have plenty of other reasons to avoid the shelter system. Pets are not accepted at shelters, even though in many cases they are the only family a homeless person may have. Many shelters don’t have any storage space, and those that do only offer small lockers.
Homeless people must choose between accepting a bed—which is not guaranteed to be available beyond one night unless they are Care Not Cash recipients—a small minority of the shelter population—and keeping their belongings. Shelters do not accommodate couples (and no, we are not talking about intimacy, only the acknowledgement that a couple should stay together and not be split into different floors or even different facilities) or families without children under the age of 18. In many cases, you must stand in line for hours every day to be assigned a bed for the night, only to be forced to repeat the process the next day and every day thereafter.
Ed Jew, the owner of the shop where the attack occurred and who happens to have been a member of the Mayor’s Ten Year Plan to Abolish Homelessness, was clear about it. “We need to do better than this. The City needs to devote more resources to deal with homelessness. We need to build more affordable housing, but we also need to make the shelters safe and continue to monitor them to ensure that they comply with the city’s rules”.
Sleeping outdoors on a daily basis is no picnic. When homeless people choose the streets over shelter, they will take steps to ensure as much privacy and safety as they can have. Homeless people tend to congregate in order to protect each other from assaults such as this. But when homeless people congregate to sleep, we have a “homeless encampment”, which we do not tolerate in this fair city of San Francisco. For decades, city and state agencies such as SFPD, CHP, the Department of Public Works, and CalTrans have joined efforts to dismantle homeless camps wherever they pop up. When homeless people are forced to scatter and hide, the risk of violence against them increases.
The law-enforcement approach to homelessness has long been proven to be the most ineffective way to deal with what is a social crisis. Every public official and police officer you talk to will recognize that giving tickets to people who cannot afford to pay the fines is unfair, and ultimately a useless waste of police resources. Nevertheless, they continue to do it, and under the Newsom administration, more than ever before.
Thirty-two police officers are currently part of a “homeless task force” within the SFPD. Supposedly, their mission is to reach out to homeless people and direct them to housing and services. Except there are no more housing and services than there were before, so the “outreach” officers end up referring people to the same programs that will turn them down or at best place them in a waiting list they had already been before. And the next day, the friendly outreach officer will be frustrated to see that the same homeless person he had personally taken to a social service agency is back to the same street corner. So this time, they will approach him with the only city program that has no waiting list and for which everybody qualifies immediately: Homeward Bound.
Is no wonder that the city has managed to eject from town more homeless people than it has housed under its “Housing First” program. At the latest count, a little more than 700 homeless people had been housed through this program since Mayor Newsom took office two years ago. But in 2005 alone, more than 800 people had received a one-way bus ticket out of town, many of them handed out by the police officers of the homeless outreach detail. If you were a homeless person and a police officer “offers” you a bus ticket, what would you do?
Instead of rounding up homeless people and taking them to the Greyhound station, those 32 officers should be right now working their “homeless” hours in identifying and arresting the three perpetrators, who were after all caught on camera and may not be to hard to find, if anyone were actually looking.
As for the victim of this heinous crime, he was last seen limping away from the place where he was attacked. No one knows his name or where he might have gone. He never contacted any emergency services, nor did he show up at a hospital, or anywhere else. He has not gone back to the flower shop and seems to have vanished from San Francisco.
Just the way our officials like it: out of sight and out of mind.