One day after the created a story in Golden Gate Park, pulling up stock photos of needles and unabashedly blaming youth and poor people for what is essentially a park maintenance issue, the Mayor ordered the displacement of campers in Golden Gate Park at 4:00 a.m. each morning. Many folks were cited, and in fact camping and sleeping citations given to houseless folks across the city has tripled since the summer. Many were arrested on warrants. An effort to ensure youth in the Haight had access to showers failed in the context of intense hatred magnified by our largest local daily paper. The Mayor also introduced legislation to expand the definition of camping and the hours during which sleeping would be illegal. These dual efforts continue today: Both the sweeps and the hatred spewing from the same columnist who “discovered” people were living in the Park.
Of course, this was not the first such effort ordered by a big-city mayor. It wasn’t even the first this year in San Francisco. It is the same thing that has been done over and over, and has failed over and over. Whenever you send in the police, you can expect that the systemic causes of homelessness are not going to be addressed. In fact, you should expect quite the opposite: Police are diverted from real police work. Scarce urban resources are used in the criminal justice system instead of on solutions ($9 million has been spent on citing homeless people in this Mayoral Administration alone). Human rights are violated, individuals go to jail simply for being too poor to afford a place to live. Warrants for tickets poor people cannot pay keep them from accessing housing and disability benefits—thus making it harder to get off the streets. Everyone loses. Yet, mayor after mayor after mayor does the same thing. Always with same supposedly compassionate twist: We are helping because “these people” need an extra push to get off the streets.
This argument, of course assumes that people are choosing to be homeless, or have something wrong with them that landed them on the streets. It assumes that poor people cannot decide what is best for themselves, and that someone else needs to decide for them. This is a severely classist mentality, and as the majority of homeless people are people of color, it often has racist overtones to boot. Sometimes the thinking goes along the lines of, “if we make it uncomfortable for them, they will go elsewhere.” This ignores the structural causes of homelessness, and thus does not assist in solving homelessness.
The truth is many poor people have no choice: They do not have safe housing options. They are not making some lifestyle choice. They are broke, they are cold, they are struggling to survive, they are getting sick and not recovering, they are being traumatized. Having no safe place to call home is no walk in the park.
It was in this context that organized homeless people and other volunteers at the Coalition on Homelessness decided to stand up and take a very unpopular stance: We opposed the expansion of camping and sleeping laws, and argued instead that the City must offer housing, before it could give a ticket. When anyone stands up for oppressed folks, they get speared, but when oppressed people stand up for themselves, watch out! The media, some citizenry, and even our former mayor made the statement that we were fighting for the right for people to be on the streets. Actually, we are fighting for the right to get off the streets. And violating peeps’ human rights makes them stay on the street longer. So we oppose that. Thus the beauty of offering housing before accepting criminalization. It breaks open the steel box of “we say they say.” They can’t say people are choosing to be on the streets and then refuse to offer them housing first. They also can’t say we are fighting for the right of people to stay homeless and refuse to offer housing.
After a very complicated legislative road, and a lot of politicians’ not wanting to touch it, the “Housing First” amendment went to the Board of Supervisors for a vote, and Supervisors Ammiano, Daly, Sandoval, Maxwell, and Mirkarimi all supported it. We were one vote short, whcih is awfully close, so we are calling this game horseshoes: while homeless folks put up a good fight and while we did not get our amendment passed, the original legislation was tweaked in a way that may benefit folks. (The Board also voted that day to approve the placement in the November ballot of an amendment to the City’s charter that will provide funds for much needed affordable housing. If passed, the initiative will finally begin to address the housing crisis in San Francisco—a major cause of widespread homelessness.)
The criminalization of poverty is a tough struggle to successfully resist, but we are putting the building blocks together, and developing alliances with other groups such as immigrants and youth who are facing the same kind of oppression. While cities around the country are following a similar path—such as Oakland’s twisted proposal to have Goodwill hire homeless people to evict other homeless people with nowhere else to go—folks are rising up and resisting successfully. Sometimes this has even been taken to the courts: a Los Angeles lawsuit resulted in a finding that ticketing someone for sleeping when they had nowhere to go was cruel and unusual punishment. A similar lawsuit has been filed in San Diego. The citizenry is starting to wake up to the fact that ticketing people out of homelessness is a losing proposition. It would be much simpler to ensure access to affordable housing and this could be simply achieved if we invested just one-twentieth of how much our government is spending on guns and wars and killing. Call us crazy; try to dismiss us, but we’re not going away until homelessness has disappeared.
You can help in this work! The Civil Rights Workgroup meets every Monday at noon at 468 Turk Street. For more information contact Gioioa at 346-3740 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.