Homeless sweeps come back to the Tenderloin

Lawsuit settlement lets police remove people and confiscate tents -- when there is still nowhere for most people to go.

“They came by and took our tents, said we had to go and not come back or we would be arrested — you know a sweep” said Johnell, 48, a Black disabled, houseless RoofLESS Radio reporter who lived in a tent at Larkin and McAllister Streets since April when COVID-19 struck. Johnell and his wife both got a tent from POOR Magazine’s radical redistribution crew that distributes masks, hand sanitizers, tents and hot meals to everyone who needs it.

The lawsuit seeks to compel the City to clear the Tenderloin’s dangerously crowded sidewalks and to provide safe and sanitary shelter for the unhoused people who have been camping there in escalating numbers since the outbreak of COVID-19. The lawsuit was filed after many complaints from community groups and individuals to City officials failed to achieve visible results.

Tents in the Tenderloing: Homeless advocates are upset about the new round of sweeps.

Two weeks ago the city settled a lawsuit brought by UC Hastings, a law school located in the Tenderloin, which basically sued the city for not properly taking care of houseless people during the pandemic. The city was guilty of leaving hundreds of people on the street while hotel rooms sat empty.

But Hastings in effect also sued houseless people for being houseless –with the end result being the violence called sweeps of unhoused people in the Tenderloin.

Although the Tenderloin is supposedly a business district, there are thousands of working-class residents, both housed and unhoused — but they just aren’t the kind of residents UC Hastings wants.

Since the lawsuit was “settled,” UC Police and regular SF police cars have descended on the Tenderloin, displacing, evicting, terrorizing, removing tents and houseless communities that had porta potties and hand-washing stations.

Just like all the Barbecue-Becky-Speak that has led to countless police terror calls and murders of Black, Brown, disabled and poor people across the US,  the lawsuit is peppered with racist, classist  words like “scared” and “unsafe” when talking about houseless people, a majority of whom are Black houseless people, who although they only make less than 3 percent of the San Francisco population, make up more than 30 percent of the houseless population in the Tenderloin.

An open letter to Hastings from a group of students and alumni of Hastings notes:

UC Hastings’ lawsuit focuses heavily on criminal activity. The suit includes lurid descriptions of “tent-blocked sidewalks, groups of addicts injecting themselves, the odors of smoked crystal methamphetamine and human waste, and open-air drug dealing” that “cause residents to fear” going outside at night.The complaint makes Hastings’ position clear. These tent-dwellers, addicts, and producers of human waste are not considered “residents” by the complainants, who call their presence a “horror show.”

“If we didn’t agree to leave, they told us we would be arrested,” Marvin R, a POOR Magazine RoofLESS radio reporters reported.

“Before I was houseless I had an apartment in the TL,” said Roger C, another Black, disabled elder resident of the Tenderloin. “The rent got too damn high, now I’m homeless, and no I’m not leaving San Francisco, even though it doesn’t seem like any of us are wanted here.”

One after the other RoofLESS radio reporters told us they were told they had to go. Sometimes they were offered a hotel room if they agreed to a series of intense surveillance and hoops, with social workers demanding paperwork and appointments and on and on.

Here’s what the settlement document says:

Because the implementation of this stipulated injunction may have the effect of encouraging additional people to come to the Tenderloin in the hope of securing a hotel room or placement at a safe sleeping site, during this process the City will discourage additional people from erecting tents in the neighborhood. The City intends to continue to assist unsheltered persons in other areas of the City.

The parties recognize that it will take time to make additional sites available in and out of the Tenderloin. The City is hopeful that most people offered an alternative location will be willing to accept it, but if necessary to comply with this stipulated injunction the City will employ enforcement measures for those who do not accept an offer of shelter or safe sleeping sites to prevent re-encampment.

In this time of police terror resistance, it’s so often that houseless people are not seen in this struggle, it is so often that the criminalization of houselessness continues with the insane violence called “sweeps” which happens all the time, and is not viewed as police terror. Poverty, wealth-hoarding, and land-stealing are not seen as crimes.

Yes, us houseless people are sometimes in struggle with drugs, mental illness, and confusion. But so are housed people; they just have the privilege of privacy, instead of the violence of exposure.

Here’s what the Coalition on Homelessness says:

The settlement proposes the removal of 70 percent of the tents currently in the Tenderloin by July 20, 2020 and authorizes the use of enforcement, presumably police enforcement, to prevent re-encampment. The settlement also states that, “the City will make all reasonable efforts to achieve the shared goal of permanently reducing the number of tents, along with all other encamping materials and related personal property, to zero.” At the same time, none of the City’s  homeless shelters are accepting new residents.

The intervening non-profits say that the settlement could violate homeless people’s right to use tents and sleeping bags to sleep safely on the streets. This right was acknowledged by the Federal Court in Martin v. Boisein 2019. The Court held that absent safe and appropriate shelter or housing, these residents have a constitutional right to be free from criminalization if they are residing outside with no available shelter options. A zero-tent policy in the Tenderloin would likely criminalize homeless people for non-criminal behavior in the Tenderloin.

Prior to the motion for intervention and subsequent settlement, dozens of community organizations serving Tenderloin residents urged Hastings to protect the rights of unhoused residents to the same extent they are seeking to protect housed residents in a petition that Hastings Chancellor David Faigman refused to sign. Statements from the lawsuit’s plaintiffs make clear that their intent  is to clear homeless residents rather than provide them the housing they need. In one recent CNN interview, Faigman stated, “What we want is to clear the streets.”

According to Joe Wilson, Executive Director of Hospitality House, “This settlement validates exactly why we wanted to intervene – to respect the rights of all persons to due process. In the midst of a public health crisis, housing for all should be the highest priority. UC Hastings has chosen human removal over human rights – a dangerous precedent. Now is the time for more justice – not more racism. We hope the Board of Supervisors will answer that call for justice.”

Three hundred hotel rooms is nowhere near enough for the number of people who are on the street. If hotels are not offered, our unhoused neighbors have a right to tents to keep themselves and their community safe during this pandemic. Removing tents is an ineffective means of addressing homelessness. Someday we will provide housing to all who need it,” Sam Dennison, co-director of Faithful Fools, said. “Until then, there are realistic ways to manage tents so that the sidewalks are clean and there is room for wheelchairs and pedestrians.”

On June 10, the mayor announced SFPD reforms including an end to the police response to homelessness, in response to Black and allied uprisings taking place in the City and across the country. Then we woke up this morning to the City agreeing to a settlement that calls for the opposite: a police response to homelessness,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, Executive Director of the Coalition on Homelesness. “Reaching a settlement before unhoused people have a chance to weigh in is both irresponsible and cruel.  It will only serve to exacerbate the very injustices of homelessness that the mostly black unhoused residents of the Tenderloin are facing today and do nothing to solve the issue for the businesses UC Hastings is purporting to act on behalf of.

No, people sleeping in tents isn’t a solution — but neither is hoarding and stealing mama earth and hoarding billions of dollars and arresting and sweeping people like we are trash.