Many white people in the United States grew up singing and playing this nursery rhyme, sometimes with a decidedly racist twist. Turns out it actually has more classist British roots, and the original words were either, “catch a tinker by the toe,” or possibly, “catch a beggar by the toe,” but no one knows for sure. Of course, children in the good ol’ US of A had to put their own little turn to the words. Today, we politely use the phrase, “Catch a tiger by the toe.”
The nasty little rhyme flew unsolicited into my mind when I first caught wind of the bumbling series of mishaps impacting poor people who were unlucky enough to be housed at a City-owned building popularly know as 150 Otis. An unbelievable yo-yo of events that has taken place at this site can only leave a caring person with bi-polar thoughts. Either City administrators are completely incompetent, or incredibly mean. But whatever the verdict, homeless people have been kicked out and other presumably more deserving poor folks moved back in, not once, not twice, but three different times:
First it was St. Boniface closing, then opening later at 150 Otis; then closing St. Boniface at 150 Otis; then opening the same site under Providence; then closing it; then, opening it under St. Vincent de Paul, but just for people from Golden Gate Park. Are you confused? You’re not alone. I got this image of comfortable City bureaucrats sitting high on a podium and pointing to individuals in a crowd of desperate shelter seekers saying “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.”
Wait: It only gets better. But first let’s take a couple steps back:
This lovely triangle of a building recently housed the Medi-Cal office, but all eight floors have sat empty for over a decade, used as storage for unwanted metal file cabinets and other human service furniture. Its blackened windows slap the faces of the many destitute families seeking help from the welfare department housed next door at 170 Otis. Over time, there has been continued outrage from a whole variety of poor communities as to why that building is sitting empty while thousands lay each night on the cold hard concrete with nowhere to call home.
At the tail end of the Brown administration, one of the floors was generously opened up as storage for homeless people’s property. “Why, it’s the least we can do.” This past summer, after the famously kind St. Boniface Shelter had to move, and the Newsom administration jumped on the opportunity to eliminate its funding, there was some pressure put on the City to house that shelter at 150 Otis. They put St. Boniface there “temporarily” and then claimed they only had a temporary permit, and shut them down.
Soon thereafter, the City then opened up a “winter shelter” at 150 Otis under Providence. The shelter turned year-round, and as Providence treats people with dignity, beds were always full. They had 59 beds—that is, actual beds, not mats on the floor—and showers. The shelter served a mostly stable clientele who were predominantly seniors and people with disabilities. The shelter was only open during the night, and even though that was an inconvenience, people kept returning and mostly had nice things to say.
In mid-July of 2007, the City had yet another declaration: Notices were sent out, stating that as of July 30, 150 Otis would be closing. We inquired as to why, and the responses were a little confusing. Something about only having an emergency permit to stay open. The Department of Building Inspection was noted. The Human Service Agency announced there was nothing to worry about: that 30 mats on the floor would be added to Ella Hill Hutch in the Western Addition, and that 30 mats would be added to Providence Church in the Bayview.
Location aside, brows furrowed a bit: How exactly would folks in wheelchairs access Providence? Mats on the floor don’t work for seniors who couldn’t get up off the ground. Also, aren’t those mats all pushed together already? How much overcrowding do we want? After all, these shelters already fail the legal requirement of three feet between mats. Of course, major mistakes were made, and emergency service providers were left scrambling at the last minute trying to find a place for people to go. Even though the City knew for months that it would have to close the shelter, it didn’t bother with any community planning to accommodate a major displacement of human beings without real housing options. Worse, it didn’t bother declaring an emergency and filing for a new permit to just let folks stay at the site.
Concerns were brushed aside, the City did less than ever to ensure people had appropriate accommodations after the closure, and then on July 30, 59 150 Otis residents were kicked out onto the curb. Sick? Apparently not sick enough.
The next day, a Chronicle article appeared sending a tornado of incendiary words through the air: Golden Gate Park, homeless people, needles, coyotes, crown jewel, needles, playground, homeless people. By that afternoon, it was decided that 150 Otis would open again. This time, St. Vincent de Paul worked with their grand partners at the Human Service Agency to open back up the shelter the very next night. Except this time, Miny Moe landed on the residents of Golden Gate Park. The shelter would be exclusively for Golden Gate Park residents.
And what about the displaced Central City shelter residents? Tough luck. The 50-some-odd people turned away from shelter every day? Tough. The City determined that only the Park residents could access the shelter. The first week there were seven of them. Now it’s up to 19. Of course that only leaves 20 highly sought empty beds, because the City also randomly decreased the total number of beds down to 39. Only the Mayor’s Matrix Reloaded Homeless Outreach Team has access to the beds now. Meanwhile, homeless people try all day to get an actual bed and are turned away, and the politicians play election games.
In order to entice the Golden Gate Park residents to 150 Otis, the City decided to take away their property and bring it to 150 Otis storage facility. Of course, they didn’t bother talking to 150 Otis storage facility staff about it, and they didn’t need to, because contrary to what homeless people were told, their property was not brought there. It was brought to the yards in the Bayview or César Chávez. Only two garbage bags of belongings were brought to the storage at 150 Otis. What should have happened was that the City ought to have followed the already established policy of bringing Park resident property to Kezar.
When poor people have their property confiscated, it means losing the last of their possession, often times their most cherished. Pictures of loved ones, medication, camping gear all get swept up and destroyed in the popular yet heartless actions by San Francisco’s four most recent mayors. One time, it even caused the death of an elderly gentleman who had his heart medication confiscated. The mis-handling of property alongside the popularity of sweeps during mayoral election campaigns led to the establishment of the property handling policy in the first place. It was pretty cold to be so cavalier with people’s valued possessions, as has been reported to us as being done by many Park residents. Sadly, it continues, as the park is raided by police officers every morning at 3:00 a.m. Park Station police are taken off of more pressing details to do the Mayor’s bidding in Golden Gate Park. As residents, police officers, and homeless people cry foul, the sleep deprivation of poor people continues relentlessly. Meanwhile, the Mayoral administration and its lackeys chant, “Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe: Poor people have got to go!”