Safe sleeping spaces — or cages?

OPINION: Thousands of empty hotel rooms -- and the best the city can do is put houseless people behind a nine-foot chain-link fence?


For the homeless

On some street

In Saint Pete

Looks like

A cage

For people….

— excerpt of the poem People Cages by Dee Allen /Po Poet

“It feels like we are back in prison,” said Ronald, one of POOR Magazine’s roofless radio houseless reporters from the Tenderloin. He was talking about the Cage, I mean, “Sanctuary” aka the Safe Sleeping Village that was constructed in the Civic Center of San Francisco this week for socially distant sleeping of houseless people while thousands of hotel and motel rooms still sit empty.

Homeless people, behind a chain-link fence. Photo by Ken Miller

“It’s like martial law, trying to condition us, I don’t feel safe staying there as a houseless person,” said Maria, houseless reporter from the Tenderloin. 

“I don’t trust any fences, I have been in jail too long, can’t go back, I just wonder where the hotel rooms they were promising are,” said Marcus, RoofLess radio reporter from the Tenderloin, who was living in an alley three blocks away from the SSV. “I just hope they don’t use this as another excuse to take our tents, which this city has been doing even with the pandemic.”

“Have you heard of cages for immigrant children? Well they have them here for homeless people,” said Pastor GW, a formerly houseless poverty skola and pastor from Mission Dei Congregation in Occupied Seminole Territory (which we call St. Petersburg).

When the Cage, (Sanctuary) showed up in San Francisco this week, right after we did an action on Monday about the hoarding of hotel rooms, many of us were brought back to our own experiences of jailing, criminalization, and profiling for the sole acts of being a person of color, houseless or in poverty.

We also remembered a terrifying journey some of us went on to last year to Occupied Seminole Territory aka St Petersburg, Florida to present on the Poverty Scholarship- Poor People-led Theory, Art words and Tears text book, where we witnessed what Pastor Wright and Pastor GW called, The People Cages” which were actual cages of chain link fencing on the streets of Downtown St. Petersburg.  

People had to “check in” to the cages by 7pm and couldn’t leave until 7am, at which point they were kicked out.

The ones who spear-headed and supported the St. Petersburg cages were also “helping” or charity organizations,  non-profiteers, city government and several so-called advocates, not to mention police, sheriffs, and poltricksters.

“We used to have tent cities right down this street here in St Petersburg, me and GW were the ‘street-sheriffs’ making sure folks were safe at night,” said Bruce Wright, formerly houseless poverty skola with the Poor Peoples Economic Human rights Campaign and pastor of the Refuge Ministries of Tampa Bay, pointing at the long empty dark street next to the “people cages.”

“I can’t even speak,” said Aunti Frances. At Driver Plaza in Oakland, Aunti Frances deals with an endless amount of police harassment when she operates her beautiful Black-led Self-Help Hunger Program. “This is too much and what they want to do with all of us,” she concluded.

Is this Cage or is it Sanctuary?

Many of us poverty skolaz are already clear that most of the “services”  provided to poor people are rooted in violent scarcity, that is, how little we can provide poor peoples versus how much is needed by a person or family to survive, and the criminalizing of our lives and actions and homes with constant inspections, evaluations, applications and assessments and the slippery slope of shelter beds and SRO’s that require check-ins, check-outs, IDs and more.

So really, the nine-foot fence around a parking lot that’s now called a “safe sleeping sanctuary” isn’t that different from any of the soft cages built for poor people, including the ultimate cage that’s now the biggest “public housing project” for many of the disabled, very low-income and/or peoples of color in this occupied land – that is, prisons and jails. 

Nor is it any different from the hater solution to COVID-19 in Las Vegas which threw its houseless people out of the meager one shelter that town had and had them sleep in a parking lot, “socially distant,” or the recent move of cleaning houseless people out of the New York subway only to have them cramped together in the lobbies of homeless shelters dangerously close together.

The Virus of poverty has been going on a lot longer than the virus called Covid19, including the violent removal of houseless disabled people from the old Trans-Bay terminal in 2010 so the shiny new tech colonizers building Salesforce could be built to house more tech commuters, something POOR Magazine shed light on in our Stolen Land /Hoarded Resources Tour earlier this year.

To get clear about where this comes from and why people need to resist it, we must go back to the anti-poor people history to a terrifying thing called the Ugly Laws that Leroy Moore and myself have written and reported on multiple times and a book by Sister Shero Susan Schweik. 

Ugly laws in the United States arose in the late nineteenth century. During this period, urban spaces underwent an influx of new residents, which placed strain on the existing communities. As a reaction to this influx of people who were impoverished, ministers, charitable organizers, city planners, and city officials across the United States worked to create ugly laws for their community.People charged under the ugly law were either charged a fine or held in jail until they could be sent to the poor house or work farm. The wording in the San Francisco ordinance indicates violators will be sent to the almshouse. This connects with the Victorian Era poor law policy.

The ugly laws did not restrict performances of people with disabilities for the purpose of entertainment or eliciting disgust, but rather restricted people with disabilities from mingling with the general public.

Racism also played a role in the enforcement of ugly laws. In San Francisco, Chinese immigrants and their descendants were unlawfully quarantined to prevent spread of disease and epidemic

Cages, criminalization, and policing as a solution isn’t new, it’s just a continuation of a long process to make money off of poor people’s bodies and problems by the people who are supposedly here to “save” us, help us, house us. In the end, its why us poor and houseless people at POOR Magazine, the Poor Peoples Army/Poor Peoples Economic Human Rights Campaign, Reclaim SF, First they Came For the Homeless and Where do We Go Berkeley  and Moms4housing have been vehemently launching our own solutions to our own problems. 

Evil Sheriff Joe Arpaio tried his racist hate tactics out on houseless people in Phoenix, Arizona before he began his terror on indigenous refugees from the other sides of the false borders, throwing up barricades around a two block area and telling the houseless people they couldn’t leave until the morning, hoping ultimately we would kill each other

excerpt from Poverty Scholarship- Poor People-led Theory, Art, Words and Tears Across Mama Earth 

“There’s enough room to put us in a hotel or SRO (single room occupancy hotel) where they can keep us safe away from the virus. Why put us in a parking lot? That SRO could change someone’s life,” said Nick (in a beautiful story by Garrett Leahy of 48hills).  

“They are still “sweeping” us in the Mission,” said Miguel, RoofLESS radio reporter, yesterday.

If Mayor Breed wanted to continue the hoarding of hotels and not house houseless residents of San Francisco, she could have just stopped taking people’s tents and allow people to sleep houselessly without fear of arrest and belonging theft. Why put a nine-foot chain link fence with barriers up around a parking lot? 

Tune in to From Katrina to Corona – People Cages from St Petersburg to San Francisco – a web zoom series on Sunday night at 6pm PST- click here to get the zoom instructions.To reach tiny go to



For the homeless

On some street

In Saint Pete

Looks like


A cage

For people


An open-air

Holding cell

South of Heaven,

East side of Hell,

A jailhouse with a dusky

Ceiling full of stars,

Black wrought

Iron bars

Surround the transients’ reality.

Across the street

From a trailer,

S.W.A.T. monitors enclosed activity:

Crouching low,

Pacing around,



It was animals

That placed

Homeless ones in captivity

For no sins, away from palm trees & passers-by.

A step up from sidewalk


— Excerpt of the poem People Cages by Dee Allen /Po Poets Project


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