News + Politics

The Panama Papers and SF’s housing crisis

We know that a lot of the new condos in SF are second homes -- but how many are owned by despots and crooks using the city to launder their money?

The whole world is talking today about the Panama Papers, the amazing leak of documents from a law firm that specializes in helping the rich hide their money. Leaders of numerous countries are involved. Vladimir Putin is a player. The prime minister of Iceland may have to resign. The government of Pakistan is caught up in the scandal. And there will be a lot more as investigative reporters continue to dig through the terabytes of data.

We know that a lot of the new condos in SF are second homes -- but how many are owned by despots and crooks using the city to launder their money?
We know that a lot of the new condos in SF are second homes — but how many are owned by despots and crooks using the city to launder their money?

So far, none of my top corporate and political bad guys are on the list – no Donald Trump, no Koch Brothers, no Ron Conway (and my list goes on and on). But it’s clear that there’s a connection between all of this shadowy money and San Francisco. In fact, there’s a connection to the SF housing crisis.

On NPR this afternoon, the vice president of Transparency International talked about how the offshore deals impact ordinary people – and the first thing she talked about was housing in cities like New York and SF. See, the shadowy banking system allows people with illegal money – money from arms trading, money from drug sales, money stolen from the people of a struggling country – to launder it and use it, among other things, to buy real estate.

So, she said, the bidding wars that are driving up the cost of housing in cities, and the mega-priced condos that are shoving out other types of housing in places with scarce real estate, are directly linked to this dark money.

The Miami Herald documented this nicely.

Money from people linked to wrongdoing abroad is helping to power the gleaming condo towers rising on South Florida’s waterfront and pushing home prices far beyond what most locals can afford.

The Herald had access to the documents, as part of the international team of investigative reporters that catalogued and analyzed the records. Nobody from SF was on that team, so we don’t know yet exactly how many of the high-end condos that are squeezing out more modestly priced housing are funded by corrupt money.

But it would be completely insane to believe that all of that new housing that the mayor is praising is being built without some of this illegal, secretive cash. It’s happening in every other major city, and it’s happening, probably faster, here.

We know that a lot of the luxury condos going up are not occupied by people from San Francisco, and that in fact a lot of them aren’t occupied at all. They are places to hide money.

And now we know they are places to hide illegal money.

So let’s stop arguing that all of this new high-end development is helping the housing crisis. It’s not. But this type of development is almost certainly helping some very nasty characters bring their wealth ashore in quasi-legal ways.

And if you think that city planning has anything to do with what’s getting built in San Francisco, check out today’s Chron story on hotels. The Planning Department never decided that the city needs more commercial hotel rooms; maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t, but that was never discussed at a commission meeting. There was no public debate over whether hotel rooms are the best use of very scarce land in places like Soma.

No: The capital markets shifted, and decided that, for the moment, there’s more return in hotel rooms than in luxury condos. This has nothing to do with Nimbys opposing housing; in fact, it has nothing to do with any type of land-use discussion.

In San Francisco, the city doesn’t really plan; it responds to what the international capital markets – which, we are reminded today, are often deeply corrupt and venal, want to do.

That’s a key reason we have a housing crisis: We trust in the private market, and the developers who exploit it, and the investors who get rich off it, to solve the problem. It’s never worked in SF, and it never will.

I would love to see the city investigate how much of the new housing we so gleefully allow and the mayor so proudly supports is being purchased by crooks and dictators, and how much of that money has come out of the pockets of poor people the world over.

Super Bowl City is utterly stupid and boring

Umm ... okay

I went to Super Bowl City, and now you don’t need to. There’s nothing there.

Welcome to NFL City
Welcome to NFL City

Nothing, that is, unless you like to pay $8 for a Bud Light and $20 for a small lobster roll. Or you want to see a lot, lot, lot of police officers, many in full military gear with assault rifles. Or line up to have your picture taken with a headless statue of a quarterback. Or line up even longer for a zip line that runs about 30 feet over a fake Golden Gate Bridge in the enormous CBS Sports complex.

That’s about it. Seriously. For a tourist attraction sponsored by a $10 billion operation, it’s really, really worthless. It has no relationship to San Francisco at all; it’s entirely a corporate theme park that would be much more at home in some Mall of America than at the foot of Market Street in one of the world’s great cities.

If it’s supposed to be attracting a million people, the Host Committee needs to be doing a bit more work. When I was there around 4pm Monday, it was pretty empty.

Here are some of my photos and reflections:

Security is high, as you might expect. Metal detectors at the entrances, all bags are searched, and there’s at least a few cops on pretty much every corner of Market from Civic Center down to Embarcadero.

The SFPD is ready for an all-out invasion

Some of the cops are dressed to fight a full-scale invasion. There are police dogs sniffing everywhere, and a dog (and cops) guarding the entrance to the Federal Reserve Bank, because no matter what else happens, we have to protect the Federal Reserve.

I saw cops riding around in what look like armored golf carts. I met a federal agent who was send in, with his dog, from Cheyenne Wyoming. There were cops from Berkeley (and who’s paying for that? The officer told me that Berkeley was supposed to be reimbursed, but at the last minute that changed.)

This federal agent was brought in from Wyoming, with his dog
This federal agent was brought in from Wyoming, with his dog

The good news is that the MTA has human beings directing traffic, so cars and buses were moving, a little. Maybe someone got the message.


Inside the “city,” there’s really nothing except corporate booths promoting corporate products and really overpriced food and drinks. Bud Light rules the roost – there are stands and signs everywhere, and even a very special place where they built a wall and a very strange and slightly disturbing sculpture out of Bud Light cans. “More than 1,200 cans,” the woman in the booth told me. She didn’t know if anyone actually drank those beers or if the cans were produced empty. Nothing against Bud Light (and as my friends know, I have nothing against Bud Light), but … $8 a pop? At the foot of Market Street? Where you can walk about five minutes and get a whole sixpack for that? It’s $8 at the Giants game, too, but at least you get a Giants game.

Umm ... okay
Umm … okay

The City Attorney’s Office cracked down on Verizon trying to use the Embarcadero Center for an illegal billboard. But the NFL and Visa are doing the same thing, and since that’s all part of Super Bowl City, it’s apparently legal.

This corporate promo billboard is apparently perfectly legal
This corporate promo billboard is apparently perfectly legal

A huge amount of acreage is controlled by CBS Sports, which spent a small fortune creating a high-tech booth, a fake football field, a fake Golden Gate Bridge, and a really short, kinda stupid zip line that goes above the fake field, where the On Air Talent (men in suits) was playing with footballs and trying to pretend that there might actually be news to talk about.

What, there must be some news here, right?
What, there must be some news here, right?

Oh, and a chance to bond with headless quarterbacks.


I get tourist tacky. I get Fisherman’s Wharf. When my kids were little, they liked to ride the F-Line out there to look at the sea lions and the boats and have those amazing fresh greasy sugary mini-donuts. At least it made an attempt to be part of San Francisco. But this effort isn’t even tacky. It’s just …. embarrassing.

The city is paying $5 million to support Super Bowl City. It’s a total waste. There’s a nice stage, and maybe some good performances, but other than that, I don’t even think the tourists are going to get all that excited about getting ripped off for nothing.

And what’s going to happen tomorrow when a few thousand people show up in solidarity with the homeless population? At least then the people who come to Super Bowl City will get a taste of San Francisco.

50-year-old gay bar The Stud faces closure as rent triples

As a club, the Stud is 50 years old, and has been in its current location for 29 years.

UPDATE: Artist and nightlife fixture Mica Sigourney aka VivvyAnne ForeverMore!, hostess of Club Some Thing at the Stud, has announced he is forming a community co-op to buy the club. For anyone interested in supporting the effort, contact Sigourney at: [email protected] and join the Facebook group here

One of San Francisco’s oldest gay bars, The Stud, sometimes called “the Stonewall of San Francisco,” faces an uncertain future: its building has been sold, the rent will triple in September, and the club’s owner has announced he will retire and move to Hawaii.

At an emergency community meeting called by owner Michael McElhaney this evening, a cavalcade of club kids representing the ’60s through today — many of whom had attended the Stud’s 50th anniversary celebration just last week — gathered at the SoMa bar to hear the shocking news and propose ideas for the future. Ever since an enormous glass luxury condo building sprang up next to the one-story Stud building, hand-wringing has been rife about the future of the venue.

“In 1987, when I walked into the Stud, I knew I wanted to move here,” said an emotional McElhaney, originally from Hawaii, seated on a bar stool and “taking deep breaths of tequila” on the club’s small stage. “When the opportunity came up to buy it a few years later, there were these incredible obstacles,” including substantial debt. “But there I was, this young kid fresh out of art school who just wanted to do it anyway, to keep this magical thing alive.”

Stud owner Michael McElhaney lays out options for the club's future.
Stud owner Michael McElhaney lays out options for the club’s future.

McElhaney purchased the Stud with business partner and vibrant club presence Ben Fiesta in 1996. (Fiesta died in 2011.) McElhaney went on to cite the “golden age” of the Stud in the ’90s, when legendary parties Trannyshack and Sugar packed the club — and he recounted the hard times after those parties left the venue in the late 2000s. Recently, however, the club had been back on an upswing, with parties like Some Thing, Dark Room, and Go Bang.

Suddenly, however, circumstances changed. “For all this time we’ve had an awesome, awesome couple as landlord. But a few years ago, one of them passed away. Things continued fine, we were even able to negotiate a lower rent, which, to be fair, has been very low, especially at this point in history. That’s allowed us to pay off all our debt, get up to date on everything, and be in really good shape.

“But then, I found out a couple weeks ago that the building had been put in escrow to be sold,” McElhaney continued. “That comes just as our lease is up for negotiation, now with the new owners. In two months, our rent will be almost tripled, to $9500. For us as a small cabaret-type club, that is inconceivable. We just can’t do it with the way things are now.

“And also, my mother is getting old. After putting decades into this place, it’s time for me to move back to Hawaii and take care of her.”

McElhaney called on the community to collaborate on saving if not the space then at least the club in a different spot. “The Stud isn’t just a building, it’s a community.” He laid out options that included finding another buyer who could also pay the rent, finding another space and transferring the valuable liquor license, pooling together as “the next generation of queers” to buy the club, and working with the city to find solutions.

As a club, the Stud is 50 years old, and has been in its current location for 29 years.
As a club, the Stud is 50 years old, and has been in its current location for 29 years.

The Stud’s building was erected in 1908, which could qualify it for historical preservation status and, at 50 years — despite a move from nearby Folsom Street where the Holy Cow stands now — the Stud could also qualify as a legacy business.

Nate Allbee, who works in Supervisor David Campos’s office and wrote the legacy business legislation, addressed the crowd, saying that legacy status — which helps longtime business owners with city grants and lease negotiations — would help, but only in so much as it would probably at most shave $2000 off the oncoming monthly $9500 in rent. He added that historic preservation of the building itself may protect the facade, but that the interior could be destroyed and built upon. (The Stud site is currently zoned for five stories.)

Bobby Lopez, representing SoMa Supervisor Jane Kim’s office, said Kim was eager to fast-track the Stud’s legacy business application and help develop ways to leverage the Stud’s valuable liquor license to help preserve the space. Both Lopez and Allbee went on to cite hopefulness in the revival of the SF Eagle, a gay bar that had closed but was then reopened due to pressure from community groups to preserve queer space, and engagement from Kim and other Supervisors in finding new owners.

Allbee also pointed to oncoming “1 to 1” legislation that may be on the November ballot, proposing that, for legacy businesses, new building owners must help either relocate the business if they plan to alter the building, or help the business remain operable during construction and afterward.

Etta james performing at the Stud's former location, where it helped magnetize the gay hippie and funk scenes.
Etta james performing at the Stud’s former location, where it helped magnetize the gay hippie and funk scenes. Photo by Dan Nicoletta.

Comments from the crowd were mostly forward-looking, and applause sprang up throughout at the mention of the club’s past. The fate of the Stud’s beloved staff, however, was still in doubt. “I’m racking my brains to figure out how we can make sure there’s a place for you,” McElhaney said. “When we first bought this place, people said. ‘Oh, this is a gay bar, you should hire shirtless muscle twinks.’ But that’s not what the Stud is about. This is a bastion of beautiful freaks, of the kind of individuals that make San Francisco such a magical place, and I wanted my staff to reflect that.” The attendees burst into wild cheering.

As for action to save the club, McElhaney will put out an official statement tomorrow about the club’s situation, at which point further mobilization will be suggested. There are already plans to investigate the possibility of forming a co-op of owners to take over. But at that moment, everyone was letting the shocking news sink in, “taking deep breaths of tequila” of their own.


Five myths about the homeless problem in San Francisco

Tent cities are communities, too

There is so much misinformation about homeless people and the problem of homelessness in San Francisco that I almost don’t know where to start. But the news coverage of the homeless encampments, the Chron’s story on how much money the city spends on homeless services, and the ongoing attacks on tent cities suggest that a lot of us are missing the point.

No tents on the ground, so the activists had to pick them up
It’s about inequality and evictions, not about the problem of tent cities

Here are some of the biggest myths about homelessness in San Francisco:

  1. The city spends too much money on the problem.

That was kind of the gist of the Chron article. Although it made no explicit judgment, the headline — “SF spends record $241 million on homeless, can’t track results” suggests that there’s a lot of waste:

The $241 million is about equivalent to the annual budget for the Public Works Department, which cleans all the city’s streets, repairs its sidewalks, cleans up illegal dumping, maintains its trees, removes graffiti and more. That much money would pay for San Francisco’s entire library system for two years.

Yep: It’s a lot of money. It’s also about 2.8 percent of the city’s $8.6 billion budget.

But there’s a sizable flaw in the calculus: As Randy Shaw points out (in an article that has other problems, but gets this absolutely right), almost half the money that the Chron identifies as “homeless” spending is actually money spend on people who are in supportive housing. That’s housing money, not homeless money. Supportive housing isn’t cheap, but it’s cheaper than the alternatives.

If we counted all the money the city spends on affordable housing as money that keeps people from being homeless – and in many cases, that’s exactly what it does – the numbers would look even larger.

The city spends a lot on homeless services. Here’s why: We have created an enclave for the rich, and driven thousands out of their homes. We are a city of vast wealth. We have captured very little of that wealth for the public sector. Trickle-down economics was a sad, painful, devastating mistake when Ronald Reagan first made it the law of the land, and it’s just as bad in San Francisco today. The tech boom has enriched the few and impoverished the many.

Along the way, we have driven up the cost of land astronomically, making it harder and harder, and more and more expensive, for the city to buy or rent space for housing and services. The biggest under-reported story of the tech boom may be the impact on city agencies and nonprofits that serve the homeless and other vulnerable communities – they are getting driven out by rent hikes, too, or the city is forced to pay higher rates to keep them in place. It costs far more to build affordable housing today – because the land is so expensive, again because of the boom that Mayor Lee is so proud of.

There are, clearly, problems with tracking the money and the people, and better systems would help. But in the end, we are spending too little, not too much, on housing. (Some of the supes want a set-aside for Rec-Park, which I think is a dubious idea. But if we’re going in that direction, what if we set aside, say, $500 million a year for affordable housing? Then we could bond against that guaranteed income stream, and build about $10 billion worth of low-cost housing right now, which would house a substantial percentage of the currently homeless population.)


  1. The reason people are homeless is that they lack job skills or are lazy or are on drugs.

Actually, no. The main reason that so many people in San Francisco, and other cities like Los Angeles, are living on the streets is that the cost of housing over the past two decades has vastly exceeded the amount of income that people earn making minimum-wage jobs or bring in from modest pensions, disability, or welfare.

Before Reagan took office and destroyed the American safety net, and San Francisco decided to be the West Coast Manhattan, you could live on SSI or a low-wage job and still pay rent in this town. When that changed, people who were formerly housed became homeless.

There have always been people in US cities who have mental-health or substance-abuse issues, and there have always been people willing to work but lacking the skills to earn a six-figure income. Until fairly recently, most of those people could keep a roof over their heads. There wasn’t a lot of homelessness in American cities in the 1970s.

Now we have two intersecting economic disasters – the deep cuts in what we can generally call “welfare” payments and the radical dilution of the purchasing power of the minimum wage, and the explosive gentrification of San Francisco. Add in the federal government’s complete abandonment of cities (except when it comes to law enforcement) and it’s no wonder that there are tent cities all over town.

And hello: Are either of the Democratic candidates for president talking about urban housing issues, about a national crisis that ought to be on the top of the Washington agenda? If they are I’ve missed it. I remember Bill Clinton in 1992 promising to spend federal money to “put 100,000 more cops on the streets” in US cities. How about Hillary or Bernie pledging to build 100,000 new affordable housing units?

  1. San Francisco is a homeless magnet.

Oh yeah: People come here from all over because we’re such a great place to be homeless, right? As Jennifer Freidenbach of the Coalition on Homelessness wrote recently:

After all, we have such a wonderful safety net here. World class. I mean people are traveling miles and miles just to get here so they can wait in line with 3,000 other people just to get a meal. A shelter bed is a breeze, too, all you have to do is stand in line starting around 8:00 pm and stand there all night until 7 am, where you’ll likely get turned away, and where you then wait in line for still more hours for the chance to get a wristband that entitles you to wait for hours again to see if you won a bed for one night, and then stay in that bed until you have to leave first thing in the morning only to start the whole process over again.

Our warm embrace includes a beautiful place to live as well, we don’t just have a gorgeous bridge, we have rents that exceed a $20 an hour full time workers’ salary after taxes, and only 40,000 households on the waitlist for affordable housing. A waitlist that hasn’t opened for years.

The vast majority of the people who are homeless today used to be housed – in San Francisco. According to the city’s 2015 homeless count, 71 percent of the people on the streets were living in San Francisco when they lost their housing. That means seven out of ten homeless people used to be your neighbors – before the tech boom and the eviction epidemic. Those are, to a significant extent, people who are homeless not because they did anything wrong but because they aren’t rich enough to live in Ed Lee’s San Francisco.

Another 19 percent came from somewhere else in California, and ten percent from the rest of the country – but the last time anyone asked, back in 2009, whether they had come here for good services, only 1 percent said yes. The rest came here, in many cases, to leave abusive, homophobic, or repressive situations; they came here not for money but for tolerance.

Many of them – as many as 30 percent – are LGBT or disabled. Thousands are young people. Many have just aged out of foster care – and at 18, have no ability to earn the income that is required to rent an apartment, or even a room in a crowded flat.

Tent cities are communities, too
Tent cities are communities, too
  1. It’s unacceptable to let people live in tent cities

This is Sup. Scott Weiner’s big issue: He wants the tents cleared out, and says that it’s not humane or reasonable to have communities or homeless people living on the streets in what are basically campgrounds.

But there are no stable places for most of these thousands of homeless residents to go. And other cities, like Portland, have embraced the idea that maybe the crisis (NOT caused by the homeless people but by civic forces beyond their control) deserves a different approach. Portland is legalizing tents for the homeless. Seattle has a well-organized tent-city structure.

I agree with Wiener: In an ideal world, people shouldn’t be living in tents on the city streets. But we live in a far-from ideal world, and unless and until he has a better option, tents and tent cities might be preferable to people dying of exposure in the rain and cold. Maybe instead of trying to roust people and take away their tents, we should do what the folks at Rainbow Grocery, a coop business right next to the Division Street encampment, have suggested: Provide port-a-potties, hand-washing facilities, garbage cans that get emptied regularly, and social workers – not to get rid of people but to make their lives a little better and to less their impact on the neighbors.

If that’s not the best place – and it probably isn’t – instead of rousting people who have nowhere to go, the city ought to find a better site. The Mayor’s Office is trying Pier 80, but a lot of people don’t want to stay there, and I can easily explain why. It’s not just the location, and the lack (so far) of showers and toilets, which can be fixed.

It’s because the place is a huge open space with mats on the floor.

Would you rather live in a tent on the streets -- or here?
Would you rather live in a tent on the streets — or here?

I have been in medium-security jails that offer more privacy. This place has none, zero, and if I was a homeless person (or a couple, or someone with a kid) I would much prefer a tent, where I could at least close the flap and have a tiny bit of my own space, instead of a mat on a floor with hundreds of other people.

You want to make Pier 80 work as an alternative to a tent city? Here’s my suggestion: Spend a bit of that budget on a whole lot of two-by-fours and sheetrock. Ask for volunteers (I bet the Carpenter’s Union would help) to build a bunch of rooms, with doors that close and lock, and put beds in those rooms, and turn it into a dormitory, a short-term residential hotel, with 24-hour access in and out, were people get an actual private space, instead of a place nobody wants to sleep in for more than a night or two.

Or if you don’t like volunteerism as a solution to social problems (I think people should get paid for their work) Mayor Lee can hire union carpenters and ask some his tech-bro billionaire buddies, who have helped create the problem, to pay for it.

There are nonprofits in the city that do a good job managing residential hotels; they could manage this one, too.

Otherwise, people would rather live in tents, and I don’t blame them. So maybe let them pitch tents inside Pier 80, or find them someplace else until there’s actual housing for them, not a mat on a floor.

Remember: Shelter isn’t housing. And that’s the big problem: We think of shelter as an answer, when it’s nothing more than a band aid, nothing much better (and sometimes less appealing) than a tent on the street.

And most of the homeless people aren’t at fault. They didn’t create this problem; City Hall (and the feds and the state) did. So don’t blame the victims for trying to survive with a shred of dignity.

  1. There’s nothing we can do; it’s all the federal government’s fault

This is a common refrain among apologists for Mayor Lee, and they aren’t wrong to put some of the blame on Washington. As I noted above, federal support for cities has collapsed, and federal benefits haven’t even remotely kept pace with the rising cost of housing in cities like San Francisco.

But there are costs to decisions made at City Hall, and the decision to give a tax break to Twitter and other tech companies to colonize mid-Market, and the decision to allow private shuttles to use Muni stops to make it more attractive for high-paid tech workers to live in places where there used to be low-income people … those decisions are part of the reason there are so many people homeless in the city, despite all the money we spend on supportive housing.

My Hippocratic Oath for a housing crisis is: First, do no harm. Don’t make things worse. And City Hall has consistently made things worse – and then complained when people live in tents.

Could we house every person currently on the streets? Sure – it would cost a lot of money, but we could do it. And then there would be more – not because they are coming here from all over but because they are losing their homes in San Francisco to greed and speculation because richer people are coming here from all over. We are not a homeless magnet, we are a magnet for the young and rich … and the homeless crisis is in part a result of a tech boom that City Hall encouraged and helped create, without ever demanding that the great wealth associated with it be used to mitigate the impacts on the poor people who used to live here, in housing, and are now sleeping on the streets.

Can’t we just do what Wiener says, and build more housing? Sure – but no amount of housing built by the private market will at any time in the foreseeable future provide any relief for low-income San Franciscans. The housing market doesn’t work like that, as I tried to explain a month or so ago:

The [San Francisco] market is what the more advanced textbooks would call “irregular.” Developers build not to meet the market demand but to meet the demands of their investors. In San Francisco in the 1980s and 1990s, it was highrise office space, not housing, that brought the highest returns to investors (often the newly deregulated Savings and Loans, that were speculating wildly in real estate, ultimately causing a huge crash that costs the US taxpayers more than $100 billion).

In those days, no housing got built. I was here; I was watching. It wasn’t Nimbys who stopped housing construction in SF; it was investment capital.

…. Today, investment capital gets higher returns with luxury condos. So that’s what is getting built. It’s not Nimbys, or Mayor Lee, or zoning policy that is driving the gold rush of housing for the very rich: It’s international speculative capital.

Oh, and let’s not forget international demand for high-end housing as a place to park cash. That’s not in the textbooks, either. But it sucks up a huge amount of housing inventory.

The private capital that funds private housing only wants to invest in the high end, where the highest returns are. We can solve this problem only through regulation, income and wealth redistribution, and a commitment to protect existing vulnerable communities while we seek to improve the lives of those who are victims of our great civic success.

Let’s think about that next time we complain about “shanty towns” and “tent cities” on the streets.

One After Another Supervisors Jane Kim, David Campos, John Avalos, and Eric Mar call for Chief Suhr to quit

In a statement released this morning Supervisor Jane Kim joined the Frisco 5 – Maria Cristina Gutierrez, Edwin Lindo, Sellassie Blackwell, Ilyach Sato and Ike Pinkston who were on a hunger strike for 17 days – and community’s demand for a new police chief. Shortly after Kim’s statement, Supervisor David Campos, John Avalos and Eric Mar also joined in to demand that San Francisco Police Chief Gregory P Suhr step down.

Protestors march around city hall on Monday - Photo by Sana Saleem
Protestors march around city hall on Monday – Photo by Sana Saleem

Kim reiterated that systemic issues within the police force needed to be addressed. In her statement, issued on Wednesday Kim made clear her stance on demands for San Francisco Police Chief Gregory P Suhr to resign, “Chief Greg Suhr has served San Francisco for over 30 years and we should thank him for that service. But even he must acknowledge that leading a culture shift in that department would be easier and faster if there was new leadership there. It is time to launch a search for a new chief who can implement fundamental reform.”

We spoke to Kim this afternoon, and she said that “Out of respect for the Mayor, I gave him a chance to speak to the public. The blue-ribbon task force report came out the same day, outlining deficiencies at every level of the department. There are very serious reforms needed, and it would be very difficult for Suhr to lead those reforms.”

She said the city should begin the search for a new chief immediately. “The Police Department needs a leader, now.”

Kim noted how quickly the MTA moved to dismiss a bus driver who made racist comments. When the SFPD first learned of racist text messages between officers “They sat on it for a year,” she said. “I don’t understand why we can’t get the kind of quick action we got from MTA”. 

Supervisor David Campos and John Avalos have also called for the removal of Police Chief Suhr.

John Avalos said he feels that he can no longer trust the police chief to move forward with reforms.

“After public unrest and the revelations of last week, I don’t have a lot of confidence in Chief Suhr’s ability and commitment to implement the substantive reforms that are needed in the police department,” Avalos said, while paving the way for future steps. “The city should be in search mode for a new chief especially with the rumor that the chief will resign once his pension can be passed on to his partner. The city shouldn’t be caught flatfooted.”

Eric Mar, supervisor for District 1, joined his colleagues in calling for a new police chief “I joined my Colleagues Jane Kim, John Avalos and David Campos in calling for a national search for a new police chief who can address the breakdown in trust with communities and to systematically address the issues of institutionalized bigotry and racism within the department,” he said. Mar also said he feels that the blue-ribbon task force finding was the last straw.

 “The Frisco 5 and thousands of people that have raised their voices and the recent texting scandal along with other issues have really put pressure on the mayor and the board to take action now, so I am in agreement with the movement that we need to change the culture of the police department,” he said.

Mar said he believes that new leadership means a national search for a new police chief. “A national search means finding somebody, probably an outsider, who can understand not only San Francisco but also how nationally other police departments are addressing the issues of institutionalized bigotry and racism within.”

This is a developing story and we will keep updating it.



Occupy the Super Bowl?

It's all nice and pretty -- and it ignores the city's real problems

The supporters of the Super Bowl want San Francisco to look like a nice, clean city where all is gold and diamonds and special “50” sculptures and rich people can spend freely without guilt or concern.

It's all nice and pretty -- and it ignores the city's real problems
It’s all nice and pretty — and it ignores the city’s real problems

But it’s not going to work out that way.

Starting February 3, advocates for the homeless are going to be holding what I think could turn out to be a massive demonstration right on the edge of Super Bowl City.

I like to think of it as Occupy the Super Bowl.

The Coalition on Homelessness and Broke-Ass Stuart are promoting the event, which will feature a tent city right next to the glitz. Already, 800 people have RSVPd on the Facebook page, and that’s probably a fraction of the folks who will actually show up.

“We’ll be making a homeless Super Bowl City,” Stuart told me. “We’re planning to be there a while.”

This will happen right in the middle of the big week of events, and the national news media will be on hand, and if enough people show up it will be a glorious mess.

Are the SF cops going to forcibly remove protesters? Or will there be an alternative city right next to where the billionaires are holding their party?

Right now, homeless people are being driven out of the downtown area, which is one reason there’s a huge tent city on Division. (The other reason: It’s comparatively dry under the freeway, and El Nino is a public health issue.)

The SFPD has said it will not interfere with peaceful protests, and I have every reason to believe that the Homeless Super Bowl City will be peaceful, just as Occupy SF was peaceful.

But the mayor has insisted that homeless people will have to leave the downtown area. So what is he going to do?

Better to have the cops drag away thousands of protesters in front of the national TV cameras (and trust me, they are all looking for this story) or accept the fact that the failures of the city’s housing policies will be right there for all to see?

Protesters are meeting at 4:30 pm in front of Sinbads on the Embarcadero, right next to the Ferry Building.

Among the demands the protesters are making: The $5 million that the city is spending to promote the Super Bowl would house 500 people. Why not put that money into housing?

Some facts from the Facebook page:

– There’s one shelter bed for every six homeless people

– There’s an 8,000-person long wait for housing

– 3,300 Children make up SF’s homeless

– 61% have disabilities

– 11,000 citations were given to homeless for resting in SF last year


Superbowl-Related Statistics:

– 25% of the costs for Superbowl ads would be enough to end homelessness in SF (Each 30-second Superbowl ad costs 5 million.)

– The $5 million cost to SF to host the Superbowl would house 500 homeless people.

– SFPD is responsible for clearing out homeless people for the Super Bowl by giving them citations, which are already up 30% from last year.


Black Lives Matter, others pull out of SF Pride Parade

Janetta Johnson of the TGI Justice Project led the effort to withdraw from the parade

Three major participants have dropped out of this year’s SF Pride parade, after the SF Pride organization announced earlier this week that it would heighten security in the wake of the Orlando attacks.

Black Lives Matter Bay Area (scheduled to receive Pride’s Lifetime Achievement award), sex worker health clinic St. James Infirmary (receiving the “Heritage of Pride” award), and anti-incarceration TGI Justice Project‘s Janetta Johnson (a community grand marshal) held a press conference this morning to announce their withdrawal from the parade and celebration. The organizations will still accept their awards.

SF Pride, whose theme this year is “Racial and Economic Justice” earlier this week announced it was taking unprecedented security measures this year, including screening entrants to Sunday’s Civic Center celebration with metal detectors and bag searches. Newly forbidden items include shopping carts, e-cigarettes, and “any item deemed inappropriate or hazardous by law enforcement and/or security.”

Janetta Johnson of the TGI Justice Project led the effort to withdraw from the parade
Janetta Johnson of the TGI Justice Project led the effort to withdraw from the parade. Artwork by Micah Bazant.

Concerns among LGBT communities of color, as well as individual participants, were immediately raised when the new security measures were announced. Many felt alienated and less safe by the sudden increase in security force presence and potential violation of civil liberties. Already, members of the local Latino LGBT community felt that the Orlando tragedy was being “whitewashed,” the focus shifting from the racism and homophobia directed at the communities directly affected and placed in contexts of xenophobian anti-immigration, and increased militarism on the national political stage.

According to a statement from the withdrawing organizations distributed to journalists, “In light of the recent announcement that Pride participants would be subject to increased policing, metal detectors and discretionary admittance, several Grand Marshals and awardees of the ‘Racial and Economic Justice’ themed event are withdrawing from participation in the Pride Parade or Civic Center activities because of the unsafe conditions created for our communities by law enforcement.”

The statement continued, “In the aftermath of the Orlando shooting that took the lives of dozens of queer, trans and gender non-conforming people of color, many people in our community are afraid. For us, celebrating Pride this year meant choosing between the threat of homophobic vigilante violence and the threat of police violence. We had a tough decision to make, and ultimately we chose to keep our people safe by not participating in any event that would leave our communities vulnerable to either.”

Black Lives Matter and SF Pride joined for a forum at the Commonwealth Club earlier this week.
Black Lives Matter and SF Pride joined for a forum at the Commonwealth Club earlier this week.

In the statement, Shanelle Matthews, a member of Black Lives Matter, says, “‘In the Bay Area, and the rest of the country, Black communities experience real fear and terror at the hands of homophobic vigilantes and law enforcement, and we work every day to find solutions. We know the militarization of large-scale events only gives the illusion of safety. We are choosing to do the real work of building safe communities.”

Among those who had voiced immediate concern on social media about Pride’s new security measures was St. James Infirmary Executive Director Stephanie Joy Ashley, who was joined by TGI Justice Project’s Janetta Johnson, who is also a member of Black Lives Matter. They came together to form a coalition and make the withdrawal statement, according to TGI JP spokesperson Woods Ervin.

“When Janetta heard that there would be sweeps of street-based communities and the increased police presence, we knew we had to do something,” Ervin told 48 Hills by phone.  “The appropriate response to the Orlando tragedy is nor more policing of communities of color, who are already the most vulnerable to abuse and are the most alienated by increased police presence. This does not make those communities feel safer.

“Our intent with this action is to amplify the need for the city to be able to address safety issues without immediately resorting to more policing,” Ervin said. “The city should work with the affected communities to build alternatives to policing, and utilize multiple other methods of de-escalation and conflict resolution.”



Multiple Pride honorees state that increased policing and militarized security makes LGBTQI communities of color unsafe at Pride Celebration.

San Francisco, CA – In light of the recent announcement that PRIDE participants would be subject to increased policing, metal detectors and discretionary admittance, several Grand Marshals and awardees of the “racial & economic justice” themed event are withdrawing from participation in the Pride Parade or Civic Center activities because of the unsafe conditions created for our communities by law enforcement. In the aftermath of the Orlando shooting that took the lives of dozens of queer, trans and gender non-conforming people of color, many people in our community are afraid. For us, celebrating Pride this year meant choosing between the threat of homophobic vigilante violence and the threat of police violence. We had a tough decision to make, and ultimately we chose to keep our people safe by not participating in any event that would leave our communities vulnerable to either.

Grand Marshal Janetta Johnson, Executive Director of the TGI Justice Project- an organization by and for trans, gender non-conforming and intersex people in prisons, jails and detention centers – announced her decision to withdraw from the parade at a PRIDE press conference on Friday. “While I am thankful for this honor, and grateful to Pride for bringing our work to the front this year, the decision to add more police to Pride does not make me, or my community, more safe” Johnson said.

While honorees recognized the increased concerns about safety in light of the recent mass shooting in Orlando, several argued that a greater police presence would increase the likelihood of violence against queer and trans people of color. “In the Bay Area, and the rest of the country, Black communities experience real fear and terror at the hands of homophobic vigilantes and law enforcement, and we work every day to find solutions. We know the militarization of large-scale events only gives the illusion of safety. We are choosing to do the real work of building safe communities” said Shanelle Matthews, a member of Black Lives Matter, who also announced their withdrawal from the parade.

The St. James Infirmary, which was slated to receive the Heritage of Pride Award at the main stage on Sunday, echoed the concerns of the Grand Marshals. “LGBT sex workers are often victims of violence and exploitation at the hands of police” said Executive Director Stephany Ashley. “The increased police presence at Civic Center, as well as the ban on shopping carts and items typically belonging to marginally housed and homeless people will only make pride less safe and accessible to our communities. These policies do not reflect the theme of racial & economic justice which we sought to march under proudly.”

The move comes a week after Grand Marshals of the New Orleans Pride Parade, BreakOUT! announced they would not be marching because increased law enforcement made its members- predominantly young trans people of color- feel unsafe to do so. In addition to a 25% increase in local law enforcement (both in uniform and undercover), federal law enforcement agencies are also scheduled to be on site at the Civic Center events.

In closing Janetta Johnson thanked SF PRIDE for their collaboration and understanding, “I am so honored that the community selected me. It is important that other Black trans women, especially younger girls and especially formerly incarcerated Black trans women, know that we matter, our actions matter, that we can work together to create a different future. But I just don’t feel comfortable accepting being in this parade. I walk in my neighborhood and see so many people sleeping on the street. I know come Sunday, they won’t be allowed to be here and many will be in jail. Particularly, in the San Francisco County Jail, where one of my Sisters, Athena Cadence, is on the 24th day of a hunger strike to demand a gender self-determination housing and search policy be implemented.

“But I can’t even bring myself to call it housing really, the truth is my community needs house keys not handcuffs, needs care not cages, needs jobs and job training, economic power and cultural self-determination. We need safety, real safety. And when Black trans women are safe, in our city, in our society, every single day. When my community is safe, then we can be really proud.”


Scott Wiener goes after homeless people in tents

Scott Wiener wants to clear out homeless tents

In what homeless advocates call a “cruel” move, Sup. Scott Wiener is asking city departments to crack down on homeless people who are living on the sidewalks in tents.

Scott Wiener wants to clear out homeless tents
Scott Wiener wants to clear out homeless tents

The El Nino rains have brought a proliferation of tent cities along strips like Division Street, which is also under a highway and more protected. There are some in Wiener’s district, too.

So he’s written to the police chief, the fire chief, the director of public works, the director of public health, the head of human services and the mayor’s homeless coordinator and asked, “assuming the availability of shelter beds, what will be done to remove illegal tent encampments from our streets …. Or will the law continue to be ignored as it is being ignored today?”

He said that it’s a failure for the city “to make clear to those who refuse help that tents on our sidewalks and in our public spaces are unacceptable.”

The letter was first reported by KQED.

The thing about the tents: I don’t think they represent an increase in the homeless population. They seem to have arrived at the same time as the rains. I’m not sure where the homeless people got the money to buy the tents, but it seems entirely plausible that the tent cities are no different than existing homeless camps – except for the fact that Mayor Lee is driving homeless people out of downtown to make way for a party for rich people, which means there are more homeless residents in the neighborhoods.

And I wonder: Considering that the rains are a serious public health problem, and that the city doesn’t really have an alternative for a lot of the people living on the streets, isn’t it better that people have tents to sleep in? Wouldn’t there be more health issues (and possible deaths) if homeless people were sleeping in doorways and on sidewalks in the pouring rain?

Homeless service organizations have often sought to give out sleeping bags, particularly when it gets cold. Is that a problem?

The tents are exceptionally visible, and at a time when the city is trying to look good for the tourist world with all of these glitzy Super Bowl events, they are a reminder that all is not well in wealthy San Francisco. Is that a bad thing? Should we try to hide from the TV cameras that vast income and wealth gap in this city, the displacement that the tech boom has created, the reality that bringing great riches to San Francisco has also created great poverty?

I’m actually looking forward to the Super Bowl fans all over the world getting a bit of that message. It’s real. It’s what the people who run this city have done. And they shouldn’t be able to hide it behind golden “50” signs.

Here’s what the Coalition on Homelessness says:

According to Paul Boden, Executive Director of Western Regional Advocacy Project “There is simply nowhere for homeless people to go.  They are sheltering themselves as best they can in leaking tents in the midst of a storm, and here Supervisor Wiener, in a low blow to people struggling to survive, calls on the city to enforce a tent ban. He seems to forget that only the most heartless San Franciscan would send humans to shiver in the cold.”

While the supervisor calls for transitioning those in tents into housing/shelter, he offers no viable solutions in his letter, and instead simply assumes there are enough shelter beds for all homeless people.  He enquires about the number of vacant shelter beds, but does not ask how many seeking shelter are turned away.  There are often empty shelter beds for a variety of reasons that are not available for shelter seekers, and dozens are sent away daily, while over 900 are on the waitlist for shelter.   There is one shelter bed for every 5.5 homeless people, and there are over 8,000 households on public housing waitlist.

“Mr. Weiner’s letter is in direct contrast to the very spirit of the City of St. Francis.  His timing was telling, as was his lack of solutions.  Homeless people are suffering enough, and his letter was surprisingly cruel,” according to Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.

Wiener told me that “it’s cruel to accept a status quo where tents line our streets and where people live in dangerous and unhealthy circumstances rather than in shelters or housing. I find it extraordinary that people who claim to advocate for the homeless would lash out at somebody who is simply asking questions and advocating that tents are not a homeless solution.”

On this I think we can all agree: Tents are not a long-term housing solution. On the other hand, for a long time we’ve taken a position in this city that harm-reduction is a good policy. Wiener told me that “we’re better off with people in shelters, even temporary shelter” than in tents.

Sure, if there are adequate shelters for all, that cater to the needs of all, and aren’t such a hassle that many refuse to deal with them.

But we don’t, any more than we have treatment on demand for every drug addict, or mental-health services on demand for every person who needs help, and in the meantime, we have needle-exchange to keep IV drug users from getting and spreading infections and we (should) try to keep mentally ill people from going to jail as a last resort. Bevan Dufty, when he was the homeless coordinator, suggested a subsidized “wet house” where alcoholics could live inside, and drink.

When it’s raining and people risk death from exposure, and when the city can’t offer shelters that work for all of them, isn’t it better that people are out of the rain? The tents don’t seem like such an awful thing. Better tents on the sidewalks than dead people on the sidewalks.

And instead of trying to get rid of them, let’s talk about why they are there in the first place. Wiener wants more data, and I would suggest he add a line: How many of the people in the tents are San Franciscans who are on the streets because they were evicted to make room for somebody with more money?

Another fire destroys more low-cost housing in the Mission

Flames roared out of the 300 block of Mission Street. Photo by Tim Redmond

The huge, roaring fire at 29th and Mission this afternoon was yet another conflagration in a neighborhood where big fires – and tenant displacement as a result – have become a plague.

This fire apparently started in the back on one of the buildings on the 3300 block of Mission, right next to Safeway. At least six residential and commercial buildings were destroyed, and that number could rise as water and smoke damage is evaluated.

Flames roared out of the 300 block of Mission Street
Flames roared out of the 300 block of Mission Street. Photo by Tim Redmond

Red Cross and Fire Department officials told us that at least 40 people were displaced by the fire. There are no reports of any injuries.

For those 40 or more people, the fire was a disaster – not only did many lose all of their possessions, they lost something almost irreplaceable: Affordable housing in San Francisco.

Melvin Gonzalez has been living in the Graywood Hotel at 3308 Mission for more than 22 years. He lives on SSI, and was paying $450 a month in rent.

This wasn’t the first time he’d heard fire alarms go off in the building. “The alarm went off, but the alarm had gone off before,” he said. “Those were mostly small fires.”

There are no $450 a month residential hotels or apartments left in the private market in San Francisco, not even close. SSI pays about $700 a month. The fire could force Gonzalez, and others, into homelessness.

If the building were merely damaged, the landlord could repair it – and the existing tenants would have the right to move back. But if the place has to be demolished – and it clearly will – then there’s no right of return, and a new residential building won’t be under rent control.

Maria Romero lived at 3316 Mission for 12 years. She was paying $1,200 a month rent for a place she shared with her son. She was on her way home from her job at a café in the Castro when she heard the alarms and saw the smoke. She, her son, and their dog escaped – but there are no $1,200 a month apartments left in San Francisco.

Genesis Manyari has lived above Cole Hardware for 12 years. She was paying $1,400 a month.

Stephanie Wilson, who had been homeless until a few months ago, was also living at the Graywood. She had to abandon her home with nothing but pajamas, sandals and a jacket, and had to leave her two kittens behind

Fire was massive. Flames shot out of the tops of the buildings while the Fire Department went to five alarms. More than 160 firefighters were on the scene, Jonathan Baxter, a spokesperson for the department, said.

Mayor Ed Lee showed up and spoke to the fire chief, Joanne Hayes-White, then walked to the Safeway parking lot, where survivors were gathered. The Red Cross was collecting names and looking for a short-term shelter for the displaced.

Lee met with the Red Cross, and shook hands with few fire victims who approached him. He told reporters that the Red Cross and the city would be working to find temporary housing for the people who were displaced.

He said that he’s concerned about the rash of fires in the Mission, but argued that there’s no indication of anything nefarious going on.

Then he left – without ever addressing the larger group of displaced people who were standing around trying to figure out what had suddenly happened to their lives.

The mayor did not appear to have anyone with him who spoke Spanish. The police and the Red Cross didn’t either – Hillary Ronen, chief of staff to Sup. David Campos, translated for the emergency officials.

Sheila Chung Hagen, who also works for Campos, said that the supervisor was trying to get the city to increase the budget for rent subsidies that can help people displaced by fires find housing. Campos is also trying to get the city to buy the building that burned last year, at 22nd and Mission, and rebuild it as affordable housing – with the tenants who were displaced getting the right to move back in.

29th Street was flooded with several feet of water
29th Street was flooded with several feet of water

Two popular local restaurants, Playa Azul and El Taco Loco, were destroyed, and the neighborhood hardware store, Cole Hardware, had severe damage. The bar on the corner of Mission and 29th, the 3300 Club, which was one of the very few bars in the Mission that resisted gentrification during the tech boom, was at the very least damaged by smoke and water.

Joseph Williams, a resident of the Graywood Hotel at 3308 Mission St, saw the fire erupt. “I think I was the first to notice the fire, it was the wiring because when we opened the fuse box smoke started coming out. It was on fire. Flames coming out of the fuse box,” Williams said.

Williams along with his wife and child have been displaced again, they’ve been homeless before and is concerned that the buildings owner didn’t come to the scene “He’s not even here, it’s worrying you know. The mayor can come but he can’t? I have been homeless before, I can pay rent now I just don’t want to be back on the streets again. I pray that doesn’t happen you know,” he said.

Update 1: 

Families affected by the fire have been moved to Salvation Army shelter at 1156 Valencia. They’ll be staying here until Monday, there has been no announcement on future plans for accommodation.

Update 2:

Families have asked for specific items, the Salvation Army also feels that a curated list of selective things is a better way for them to distribute goods to the families. The list of items required are listed here according to family numbers.


“This city crushed my dreams”

Portland is taxing companies that overpay their CEOs -- and using the money for homeless services

The sidewalk near Division and Bryant streets has quickly turned into a tent city for homeless people in San Francisco. It’s a shabby street under a bridge, unusually cold this afternoon, and small parachute tents line up both end of the streets, along with camper vans stationed here and there along the sidewalks.

Homeless campers share a meal under the freeway in a community that's very different from what C.W. Nevius portrayed
Homeless campers share a meal under the freeway in a community that’s very different from what C.W. Nevius portrayed

When the Chron’s C.W. Nevius went there the other day, he found a young man who described himself as a heroin addict, someone who didn’t want to leave the streets – a part of one of the most enduring, and inaccurate, myths about homelessness in San Francisco.

Out visit left us with a very different story.

Heather Brown, 32, has been on the streets most of her life “off and on” but her grandfather’s death pushed her onto the streets for good. The house was sold and she had to move out, and with no money she had no option but to stay on the streets.

“We are just trying to start over” she says, while cradling her pet dog Bella. Her issue with shelters is that they will not allow her to live with her companion or fiance. Brown is four months pregnant and shares the tent with Travis Perolt, 34, who’s been on the streets for the past 16 months. They were both originally from Redwood city.

Heather Brown, 32, with Fiance Travis Perot, 34, and their dog Bella
Heather Brown, 32, with Fiance Travis Perot, 34, and their dog Bella

“It’s hard to start over, it’s hard to find a job when you are on the streets. You want to look presentable, wake up early morning and put in a job application. Still we do it all the time, we keep applying for jobs,” she says.

Brown is a college graduate with a degree, child psychology being one of her majors. Even if she gets a job, finding an affordable apartment in this city is nearly impossible.

You can barely hear her over the deafening noise of the cars overhead. “This is a constant you know, some people, they get psychosis because that is what we hear day in, day out,” she says, but quickly starts to explain that “people are really kind you know, the other day someone left peanuts, I walked down the street and shared it with everyone around. They also drop by warm clothes. You won’t believe but the dog is better cared for than us” she laughs.

It’s a small community that watches out for each other: They can quickly lose their tents and all their belongings if they are not present at the scene and are not able to quickly pack up all their belongings in under 20 minutes.

Heather and her partner clean out the area they live in; there’s no garbage in sight. “We were living right across the street for some time and used to help local businesses by cleaning up the trash in front of the stores,” Perot says. They moved here after they were told by the police.

“The cops told us specifically to go to Bryant and Division. This is where we are invisible under the bridge so that people who are here for the Super Bowl won’t see us from the highway.” When asked what they thought of the perception that most homeless people are drug addicts and therefore do not want to go to shelters, Brown laughed and nodded her head “I am drug free, sure there are young kids who have these issues but they need help too. They need help to get out of here and start a decent life. I am homeless and I am not an addict.”

A few tents down, an African American man in his 40s is still trying to figure out setting up his tent. Most people here find tents that have been abandoned by others or are cheap, making do with torn edges. [Local activist Shaun Osburn is running a program to buy new tents for homeless people; check it out here.] “I am too embarrassed to give my name or my story, because my family will see this,” he says.

Cathy, 51-year-old trans woman, is not reluctant to share. She’s been on the street since last fall after being kicked out of three different shelters. “I came out of an abusive relationship, with a boyfriend who was meth addict. I was beaten and abused. Domestic violence put me on the street, not drugs” she says.  “I’m not a drug addict, the only thing I’m addicted to is nicotine.”

Cathy, 51, moved here from Oregon in search of a community that would welcome a trans woman
Cathy, 51, moved here from Oregon in search of a community that would welcome a trans woman

Cathy moved from Oregon three years ago, in hopes to be in a city that would be more accepting of her as she transitioned. “I came to this city because it made promises to me, it promised to accept me, to embrace who I am, this city told me I could come here and be safe. I came to a promised city, and these authorities, they should have expected it.”

Her eyes well up as she opens up about the abuse she faced at shelters that claimed to be transgender friendly. One after the other, she was asked to leave until she finally gave up and is now on the street. She knew to come to this area because a homeless friend told her this was the only safe place during Super Bowl.

Cathy struggles with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and sees a therapist regularly. Taking hormones has made her more emotional, she says: “I learned to hold back my tears for 49 years as a man, but now I can no longer do that. May be it is the hormones, may be it is the fact that I have been running, running my whole life. Forced on the streets at the age of 16 for being queer, I have never known what a home is like. I am tired, tired of being out here in the open, fearing for my life. Hearing people walk down the streets, I am terrified — is this person going to come in and hurt me?”

What does she think of Mayor Ed Lee’s proposal for more shelters for the homeless “Cut the bullshit, stop tearing down homes, stop building new fancy condos, the dot comers are going to come and go. Build affordable housing.”

Oscar McKinney came to San Francisco in 1976. He has been effectively homeless since. “I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t take drugs,” he says. He’s got a job – he drives a hearse for a living. “Society don’t know what to do with us and are afraid they’ll become us.” He walks over to ask Cathy to ask if she would like some food, and we quickly walk down to his tent.

Oscar says he's suffered under five mayors
Oscar says he’s suffered under five mayors

“I’ve suffered under five mayors,” he says. “The mayor is complaining about homeless people pissing in the streets. It wasn’t a problem when the baths were open.” McKinney says.

“I love this city. I’m gay. I came to this city to be with my people. I was a child when I came from Iowa and was claimed by night ministers. I grew up on the streets and don’t have HIV.”

While we spoke, Oscar and his friend Donna had assembled a table full of food and were handing it out to their assembled neighbors. “It’s enough food to last us a week, but when we get a leg up we look out for our neighbors.”

Donna has been on the streets since her husband left her
Donna has been on the streets for three years

Donna Sears is originally from Florida and has been in San Francisco for three years now. She tells me she has worked as college professor and has two degrees. “I smoke some pot,” she says, “but that doesn’t make me a junkie.” Donna has been on the street since her husband left her. “He was on drugs and we lost our place. I’m blind as a bat and am getting eye surgery on Friday.” I asked her what would she like from the city.

“It’d be great if they brought us some garbage cans and picked them up. The people with homes get garbage cans and garbage trucks come around to collect them. They don’t come around here to collect our trash like they do for them. And the city says we’re dirty.”

Walking away from the tents is almost like bidding farewell to a small community, one made up of people who help and share survival tips and their dreams of one day returning to the safety of a home they can call their own. Their struggles are as much human as they are incomprehensible.

Cathy says that in the the promised city, she hasn’t been able to get her surgery so she could transition. “I came here to finally be myself and this city pushed me on to the roads and crushed my dreams. Now you’re telling me that I am homeless because I am a drug addict?”