News + Politics

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.


SFPD manages not to kill armed suspect

The very good news is that the man who created a four-hour standoff with police in the Tenderloin this afternoon is not dead.

That, even the chief of police appears to acknowledge, is the result of more than a year of active, vocal protests that led to the dismissal of former Chief Greg Suhr.

In this case, an African American man who by all accounts had mental-illness issues and was armed with a handgun was hit with beanbags, flash-ban grenades, and sound weapons but not with gunfire.

A year ago, I’m sorry to say, it’s almost certain he would have been shot and killed in moments. That’s happened repeatedly in this city to people who had no guns; the idea that an armed man might actually not instantly draw lethal fire is a signal of the pressure that is on the chief not to face the fate of his predecessor.

Chief Toney Chaplin told reporters after the four-hour standoff that “the sanctity of human life is the top priority” and that he had ordered officers to do what they are supposed to do in these situations: Create time and distance, don’t fire your weapon, wait until trained negotiators arrive.

“Time is our friend,” he said.

Chief Toney Chaplin essentially admits that community activism has forced non-lethal options
Chief Toney Chaplin essentially admits that community activism has forced non-lethal options

The fact that the cops were able to do this with an armed man is a direct indictment of the killings of Mario Woods, Alex Nieto, Amilcar Perez Lopez, Luis Gongora, and Jessica Williams, none of whom were carrying guns.

Why, in none of those cases, was a time-and-distance strategy used? Why are five people dead who should still be alive?

That’s part of the message of today’s event.

It was wild, and one could certainly argue that there was overkill: Dozens and dozens of officers. Two tactical trucks. At least four officers with bean-bag shooters. I counted at least 15 bean-bag rounds and half a dozen flash-bangs.

Another whole group of officers were deployed to keep a crowd of angry people, who clearly still don’t trust the police, from crossing lines.

All of that for one person who, according to eyewitnesses I talked to, was for much of the time down on the ground, with his hands underneath him.

At one point, the SFPD public affairs team tweeted that bean bags and flash bangs had been deployed “to prevent escape,” which was just silly: With the entire area blocked off, and police everywhere, the guy wasn’t going anywhere.

From what we’ve been able to piece together at this point, the suspect, wearing no shirt, was out in front of the Hibernia Bank on Jones. Police officers on bicycles confronted him, and told him to take his hands of out his pockets.

Chief Chaplin told reporters that the man said he had a gun, brandished it at least once, and said he wanted to die rather than go to prison. One report had it that he was recently released from county jail in Reno.

None of the witnesses we talked to saw the man pull a gun; in fact, one witness, Scott Hatfield, told me that the man seemed unstable, but at no point pulled or showed a weapon. “His hands were in his pockets,” Hatfield, who was on the scene before police cleared the area, said.

Others said that for much of the standoff, the suspect was on the ground, with his hands beneath him.

I asked Chaplin about that, and he said he didn’t have the details yet, but insisted that the man had told officers he had a gun and had shown them a gun.

The cops – intentionally or not – parked the big, bulky, Tac Squad trucks in a position that kept the reporters on the scene from seeing what was happening.

Eventually, we saw the man removed in a stretcher, with what Chaplin said were injuries, but not life-threatening injuries.

This time-and-distance training is nothing new; what’s new is that the community is not tolerating police killings and has forced some changes not just in policy but in practice.

So now we will see if the officers who failed to follow those policies in the past shootings will be held to account.

Here’s our coverage timeline:


All public transport is blocked off on market street as SFPD officers negotiate with suspect possibly armed with a gun, on Market and Jones.

Tank on Market & Jones as SFPD negotiates with allegedly armed suspect . Photo by Arash Malekzadeh

Videos from the scene earlier show an African American male standing against the fence as multiple police officers point their guns at him, video taken from across the street doesn’t show whether the suspect has a gun in his hand.


















Bitch ass SFPD about to kill this brotha man God please help him!!!

A video posted by Munch Majorz (@munch_majorz415) on


In recent years, the SFPD has been heavily criticized for not descalating the situation and resorting to the use of lethal force when confronted with possible suspect, especially when dealing with people of color.

Market and 7th blocked as police cars line up. Photo by Shajia Abidi

Police officers on top of a tank can be seen aiming their guns at the suspect, who was last reported to be in a prone position. SFPD van currently blocking view of the standoff.

Another Instagram video shows a group of people heckling police officers on the scene reflecting the anger and frustration palpable on the streets of San Francisco against SFPD.


SFPD PIO Grace Gatpandan says a hostage negotiation team is on the scene, “So officers responded to this location regarding a suspect who is armed with a weapon, he was refusing to comply with officers’ orders to show us his hands. At this point, we have a hostage negotiation team on the scene actively talking with him in order to take him successfully into custody without using any force”

UPDATE: 4:15 – from our reporter on the scene Shajia Abidi

SFPD officer  Sgt. Holder “The guy has a gun in his pocket and he is refusing to take his hands out,”  Holder said he wasn’t certain whether the suspect has a gun, “The suspect says he has a gun and won’t take his hands out of his pocket,” he said.

According to witnesses on the scene the suspect has mental health issues, his family is on the scene speaking to him but he’s reportedly refusing to listen to them.

Update 5:00 PM: 

SFPD now says deployed bean bags and flash bangs to “avoid escape.” However, escapse seems an unlikely concern with all the police presence

Update 5:47 PM: 

The standoff now appears to be over, guns withdrawn and stretcher being brought to the scene. Suspect’s condition is unclear.

Update 5:53 PM: 

SFPD announces that the suspect is alive & that they recovered a gun. Witness in lockdown in building at 7th and jones sent this pic of police taking suspect into custody.

This is developing story

‘SOS’ effort launched to save The Stud

The Stud has been in its current location for almost 30 years.

In the wake of Sunday’s shock announcement that SF’s 50-year-old gay bar the Stud faces a 200-percent rent hike and may close, a co-op of Stud workers and affiliates has formed with the intention to buy the business, liquor license, and any other transferrable assets. But it will need the community’s help in the coming weeks.

The group, called SOS: Save our Stud, launched a Facebook page and set up an email account — [email protected] — to keep the community informed of its actions and needs. Mica Sigourney, artist and hostess of the Stud’s weekly drag show Some Thing (as alter-ego VivvyAnne ForeverMore!) is heading up the SOS effort.

“Right now, we’re at a very early stage,” Sigourney told me over the phone this morning. “But we have two goals. One is to make sure the Stud stays in the community. We want it to stay where it is now, with the same staff, everything. But we’re taking in the possibility that the Stud may move, as well.

The Stud has been in its current location for almost 30 years.
The Stud has been in its current location for almost 30 years.

“The other goal is to form a co-op of worker-owners, like Rainbow Grocery, to see if that’s a viable way forward,” Sigourney said. “Right now we’re researching what that co-op would look like and a longterm strategy to make it work.”

“We’re also looking for significant investors who would help us buy the business, as well as the liquor license, which is of course very valuable,” Sigourney added. “If it’s one new owner who steps in, we want to make sure the Stud stays the Stud. But we’re all obviously very motivated to keep San Francisco’s oldest queer performance venue alive.”

When asked, Sigourney said he didn’t know how much money was needed or how much the Stud business was worth yet — Stud owner Michael McElhaney has taken a break from communications after making his announcement — although Sigourney did say that the Stud had proved itself to be “an economically viable business.”

Mica Sigourney as VivvyAnne ForeverMore, hostess of the weekly Friday Club Some Thing drag night.
Mica Sigourney as VivvyAnne ForeverMore, hostess of the weekly Friday Club Some Thing drag night. Photo by Gooch.

So what can people do now to help the Stud, while SOS investigates what it can do?

“I want to say that the Stud belongs to the community, and everyone should do what they feel is necessary to save the Stud, including reaching out to the owner Michael and seeing what he needs for any plan to work,” Sigourney said. “Let’s keep the energy up to save the Stud, because we will definitely need that energy going forward. Keep telling the story of the Stud, and how valuable it is to the community.

“Join the SOS Facebook page. Pressure Jane Kim’s office to find a workable solution. But most of all, actually go to the Stud. One of the inspiring things to come out of this bad news is all the stories pouring forth from people who’ve gone to the Stud over the past five decades. The Stud is still here! Come down and see a show. Make happy hour happen — the Stud has one of the best pool tables in town and there are plenty of corners to cuddle in.

“Support the Stud with your presence, and be there when a call to action comes. Although this has been a shock, we do have two months to figure things out, and if we need to hold an emergency fundraiser for an extra month’s worth of rent to buy us some time, so be it.” (Bartender Brian Feagins already pledged to cover the Stud’s first month of raised rent.)

“But stay involved and present,” Sigourney said.


Strangely, the Stud has no Wikipedia page or other significant historic annal, although its 50th anniversary gave a great opportunity to recount some of its history. Fortunately, invaluable Facebook page Preserving LGBT Historic Sites in California is filling in some of the details of half a century of community debauchery. (See the full post with some illuminating comments here.) 

THE STUD BAR was founded in 1966 in a space at the corner of Folsom and Norfolk streets. At that location, it was home to a gay hippie scene and was a favorite of queer artists, musicians and culture-makers, including poet Thom Gunn (1929–2004), who later was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. The club hosted DJ dancing, presented art exhibitions and sponsored live performers. Among the stars who appeared many times was blues, soul and R&B diva Etta James (1938–2012).

In 1987, The Stud moved to its current location in a structure dating to 1908 on Harrison Street between Ninth and Gordon streets. At the time, much of the area nearby was given over to a Muni bus yard, light industry and wholesale businesses. In its new location, the bar retained its loyal following, with regular patrons including rock critic Adam Block (1951–2008), poet Steve Abbott (1943–1992) and other personalities of the city’s queer cultural life.

Nayland Blake, "Dust," 1987
Nayland Blake, “Dust,” 1987

Through the darkest years of the AIDS epidemic, The Stud offered a place to dance in the face of doom. At one point in the early 1990s, a graffito that summed up the defiant queer spirit of the era was scrawled on the front of the building: “First we mourn, then we fight, then we party up their butts.” Internationally renowned gay African American artist Nayland Blake found inspiration for a more elegiac response, creating a flag that rearranged the bold letters STUD from the bar’s sign into the word DUST.

The mid-1990s saw The Stud give birth to one of San Francisco’s great queer club nights with drag personality Heklina taking over Tuesdays for Trannyshack, where inventive live shows were presented on a postage-stamp-sized stage. Performers who appeared at Trannyshack included Lady GagaGwen StefaniRuPaul, Charo, Debora Iyall, Mary Wilson and Ana Matronic of the Scissor Sisters. The club ran weekly from 1996 to 2008.


SFPD is a toxic culture of old boys run by insiders who resist reform

Justice Cruz Reynoso and Judges Dickran Tevrisian and LaDoris Cordell were the bule-ribbon panelists

The final report of the Blue-Ribbon Task Force investigating the San Francisco Police Department came out today, and while much of it is not surprising, it’s still devastating.

In particular, the report concludes that the San Francisco Police Officers Association has far too much clout in the department, impedes reforms, interferes with misconduct investigations, and helps create a “good old boys club” that at the very least tolerates serious racial bias, gender bias, and homophobia.

Judge LaDoris Cordell denounced he POA and the culture at SFPD
Judge LaDoris Cordell denounced he POA and the culture at SFPD

The report also suggests strongly that the department needs an outside agency auditing it – and while the panel suggests the creation of an inspector general, the conclusion could also support the creation of a public advocate, who would have the ability to monitor, audit, and report on the department.

The report is highly detailed, and runs 239 pages. You can download a copy here. It concludes that bias is deep, perhaps systemic in the department, that Black and Latino people are searched without cause far more often than White people, and that promotions are based more on personal connections than qualifications.

The department general orders, the panel says, are way out of date, that use of force policies need a complete overhaul. Transparency is utterly lacking; some data can’t even be complied because it’s only kept on paper cards that are never entered into a database.

“Data is rarely analyzed, and reforms are rarely implemented,” the panel’s executive director, Anand Subramanian, said.

There are 72 findings and 86 recommendations. Many of the suggestions are process or administration changes that could take place right away. Others, the panel admits, will take years.

Panel member LaDoris Cordell, a retired Superior Court judge who was also the civilian oversight director for the San Jose Police Department, delivered a brutal, harsh rebuke to the POA and the senior department staff who too often follow its wishes.

“The SFPD is, for all practical purposes, run by the POA,” she told a press conference today. “The POA leadership sets the tone, and historically, it’s an ugly one.”

She described how hard it was for the panel to find cops who wanted to talk. The POA “intimidated officers who wanted to talk to us,” she said. “The officers were told they had to go through the POA.”

In fact, the report consistently describes two visions of the department: One that comes from officers who were suggested and provided by the POA, who spoke with a POA lawyer at their sides, and who said that the department had no culture of bias or insensitivity – and a very different one that came from officers who agreed to testify only confidentially because of their fear of reprisal.

The officers who were not sent and approved by the POA described a demoralizing climate of racism, sexism, and homophobia perpetrated by a culture that promotes insiders who play the game and isolates reformers:

Several current officers said they feared retaliation for speaking with the Panel—or generally speaking out publicly about the department—in the form of damage to their professional reputations and/or careers (including being precluded from promotions). Another witness who spoke on condition of anonymity stated that if officers stepped out of line, they faced retaliation. She gave the example of field training officers assigned to train the children of a Chief or Deputy Chief facing the threat of retaliation if the training officers failed the trainees.

At least two current officers expressed a fear for the physical safety of themselves and their families, specifically related to their fellow officers potentially not “having their back” during dangerous situations in the field if they spoke out against the department.

District Attorney George Gascon, a former police chief, had harsh words both for the POA and for the Police Commission:

District Attorney Gascón testified to the Panel that the POA was very strong and held too much control over the SFPD. In his opinion, the POA was heavily involved in local politics, very well-funded, had money to help get politicians elected, and its endorsement was highly coveted. As a result, he believed the POA had more political power than its equivalents in other metropolitan areas. DA Gascón further stated his view that some Police Commissioners were “legacy people” who were close to the department and the POA—especially those appointed by the Mayor.

A high-level confidential witness characterized the POA as a “bullying organization” and “frat house.”


Witnesses inside and outside the SFPD, including one very high-level confidential witness, stated that although the department was diverse in some ways, the culture was dominated by an insular “good old boys’ club” that originated in certain high schools in the city, in particular St. Ignatius, Sacred Heart, and Riordan. In some cases, the network reached further back to elementary school and youth sports leagues. Some witnesses stated that officers who did not attend St. Ignatius high school could not reach the inner circles of power in the department.

The POA immediately sent out a press release calling the panel’s work “divisive” and dismissing it as a “kangaroo court.”

Justice Cruz Reynoso and Judges Dickran Tevrisian and LaDoris Cordell were the bule-ribbon panelists
Justice Cruz Reynoso and Judges Dickran Tevrisian and LaDoris Cordell were the bule-ribbon panelists

The panel found that the disciplinary process at the department is badly broken, and that officers rarely receive effective discipline for conduct violations. The Office of Citizen Complaints is understaffed, everyone agrees – but there’s a clear perception that most complaints are too easily dismissed and serious incidents are resolved with little consequences for the officers:

It also bears special emphasis that neither the Chief nor the Director of the OCC has sent a discipline case that originated from a citizen’s complaint to the Police Commission since 2012. All of the disciplinary cases that have been sent to the Police Commission from 2013 through 2015 originated in IAD. During this same period, only nine OCC complaints have resulted in a suspension by the Chief, and all such suspensions were for 10 days or fewer. That means that of the more than 1,920 OCC complaints closed and 147 OCC complaints where discipline was imposed over this time period, none were determined by the Chief or the OCC Director to raise issues that warranted serious discipline. While each individual case is unique and it is possible that there are reasonable explanations for why no OCC case has been referred to the Commission between 2012 and 2015, these statistics are troubling and raise questions about whether officers are being held accountable to the citizens they serve.

That’s a kind way of putting it.

The report demonstrates why deep, systematic reform is needed in the department – and at the Police Commission, where the mayor’s appointees at the very least enabled this crisis to happen.

Cruz Reyonoso, a former state Supreme Court justice and a panel member, told reporters that the necessary changes won’t come from within the department. “The Board of Supervisors and the mayor need to be bound by [the need for a change],” he said. “I’m not sure it will happen unless the citizens insist that it happens.”

When I asked Reynoso if he and the other panelists supported the proposal by Sup. John Avalos to put some of the police budget on reserve, pending clear and demonstrable changes, he demurred and said that the department needs its resources.

Yes, it does – but you have to wonder what it will take to change what is clearly a deep-seated toxic culture that has resisted every effort at reform for decades.

One reporter asked if the problems at the department were the result of a few bad apples or the entire orchard. Subramanium acknowledged that there are problems throughout the orchard.

The POA leadership is an example. It’s a labor union, and the member elect the leaders. If the majority of the officers don’t want to see obstacles to reform, why do they keep electing leaders who are, by all accounts, obstacles to reform?

The story Ahsha Safai doesn’t tell in his campaign for supervisor

It appears that Ahsha Safai is trying to replace the best Police Commission member in the city with one of his political allies

Ahsha Safai is running for supervisor in District 11 as a labor activist who has the support of some of the city’s unions – and is building some support among what is generally considered the progressive community. John Burton has endorsed him. It’s possible that the Democratic County Central Committee, which progressives fought hard to control, could wind up giving him at least a secondary nod.

He’s well known among city insiders as a former city employee and Housing Authority Commissioner, and ran against incumbent John Avalos four years ago.

But there’s a lot about his record that hasn’t received much attention. Safai is a real-estate speculator who made a big chunk of cash buying a house that was in foreclosure and flipping it. He makes most of his money – more than $100,000 a year – from a consulting firm that works with landlords. Nearly half of the money he has raised so far, our analysis shows, comes from the real estate industry.

And while he doesn’t list Mayor Ed Lee among his endorsements (nobody’s listing Lee these days since he’s so unpopular) Safai has long been a Lee supporter and donated to the mayor’s 2015 re-election.

Here are some things we’ve found researching Safai’s history:

In 2004, he was sued for fraud in a real-estate deal that wound up with Safai buying a house that was in foreclosure at what the suit alleges was an artificially low price and flipping it for a profit of close to half a million dollars.

According to the lawsuit, Safai and his associates took advantage of a woman who was facing the loss of her property. Mary McDowell, who was working as a parking control officer in San Francisco, was living at 78 Latona Street in the Bayview when the bank that held her mortgage filed a notice of default.

She owned four other properties that were also in foreclosure.

Two real-estate sales people arrived at her home unsolicited in December, 2003, and told her they would buy her property and pay her enough to cover the notes on the other places she owned so she could avoid all the foreclosures.

The lawsuit alleges that the real-estate broker didn’t properly list the home on the Multiple Listing Service but instead brought McDowell an offer for $375,000 – “far less than market value,” according to the complaint. McDowell was “frightened and intimidated” into accepting the offer, and the house was sold to Ahsha and Reza Safai.

McDowell eventually dismissed the case, her lawyer told me, because “the defendants were dragging this out forever in court and she decided she had had enough.” Attorney C. Brent Patten said that no court ever determined whether Safai or the others had done anything wrong.

Safai in legal filings denied all the allegations.

But whatever the legality, Safai wound up buying a house that was in foreclosure at what turned out to be an excellent price. In 2005, according to the real-estate service Property Shark, the median sale price for housing in that neighborhood was $336 a square foot. Safai paid $177 a square foot for the 78 Latona St. property.

City records show that he and Reza Safai spent $60,000 renovating the place, and sold it less than a year later for $800,000.

So Safai was part of a group that bought a house in foreclosure from a woman who was in financial trouble and flipped it quickly for a short-term profit. That could be perfectly legal – lots of people have made lots of money buying properties in foreclosure and selling them for a quick profit.

But house-flipper is not part of his public resume.


Safai describes himself as the political director for SEIU Local 87, and had played his union connections into a number of endorsements. But forms he filed while he was on the Housing Authority Commission show that the vast majority of his income comes from his consulting firm, Kitchen Cabinet Public Affairs, that did work for one of Lee’s main consultants and at least one high-end landlord.

Safai’s economic interest statements for 2012 and 2013 show that he earned less than $10,000 as political director for Local 87, but more than $100,000 as principal in Kitchen Cabinet Public Affairs.

On his website, he describes that outfit as “working with nonprofits, community-based and political organizations throughout the Bay Area building community and revitalizing neighborhoods.”

And indeed, some of his clients include Local 87, the Teamsters Union Local 350, and Mission Housing Development Corp. Also on the list: SST Investments, a landlord that operates high-end apartments, and Left Coast Communications, the consulting firm that ran the somewhat legally dubious “Run Ed Run” campaign.

Clients also included Jacobs Engineering and KJ Woods Construction.


— Safai is the real-estate industry’s guy. A 48hills analysis of campaign contributions filed so far shows that nearly half his money – 45 percent – came from real-estate development, construction, landlords and landlord lawyers, and big downtown companies.

Among his supporters: Janan New, director of the Apartment Association; David Gruber, who holds the landlord seat on the Rent Board, Russell Flynn (one of the biggest landlords in the city), David Wasserman (an eviction lawyer), Oz Erickson (a big developer), Mary Jung (lobbyist for the Association of Realtors), and Jim Lazarus (who works for the Chamber of Commerce).

The fact that a candidate takes money from special interests doesn’t always mean that candidate will do what they want. But it’s pretty clear from the preponderance of money that the people who have been making big money from evictions, displacement, and the destruction of neighborhoods think Safai is the one who will represent their interests at City Hall.


— He is a supporter of Mayor Ed Lee. Not a single politician in June used the mayor’s endorsement; in fact, polls show that more than half of San Franciscans would vote against someone associated with the immensely unpopular mayor.

Safai doesn’t list Lee’s endorsement on his website either. But he’s clearly a fan: In 2015, when 46 percent of the voters chose candidates with no name recognition, no electoral experience, and no real campaigns over the incumbent, Safai donated $250 to the Lee campaign.

That suggests that he endorses the agenda that the mayor has promoted: A tech boom that has created the worst displacement crisis in modern history.

Safai didn’t return messages left with his campaign. He will try to avoid a lot of these issues as he seeks progressive support. But it’s all there, on the record. And it’s worth thinking about.

Research assistance for this story was provided by Don Ray and Sofia Aguilar.


Cop who shot Jessica Williams had earlier complaint

Justin Erb

The police sergeant who shot and killed Jessica Williams has a record of complaints filed against him with the city’s oversight agency, including one in which he was accused of providing inaccurate information on a search warrant that lead to the arrest of an innocent suspect, the trashing of the young man’s house, and a cop bursting through a door with a gun drawn only to find a father caring for an infant.

Sources tell us the Sergeant Justin Erb is no stranger to the Office of Citizen Complaints and has been investigated several times. Since the files are confidential, there’s no way to know how many, if any, of those complaints were valid or led to discipline.

But we do have some details on at least one complaint.

The outcome of one case, in which Erb was completely exonerated, is a reminder of why critics say the OCC is not aggressive enough in holding officers accountable for misconduct.

The story begins in 2011, when someone punched a man on the 19 Polk and stole his iPhone. According to an incident report obtained by 48hills, the victim started to chase the attacker, who exited the bus, but backed off and called police from another cell phone he was carrying.

Muni video recorded the incident, and showed pretty clear images of the suspect and two accomplices. The main suspect was wearing a black hat, a gray sweatshirt, and blue jeans with holes near the knees. The case was assigned to Erb.

Police records show that Erb showed the three images to others at the Bayview station, but nobody could identify the primary suspect. The victim came in and viewed a photographic lineup; he couldn’t pick out the alleged robber either.

We are not naming the juvenile; that’s standard practice in these cases. For the purpose of this story, let’s call him “J.”

In fact, according to police reports, the victim said he was “leaning toward #3,” a picture that was not of “J.” He asked to look at “J”s photo again, and then said he was pretty sure it was somebody else.

Eventually, one Bayview officer claimed to recognize “J” as the primary suspect – and although the victim never identified him, Erb filled out an arrest and search warrant for the house where “J” lived.

Erb then went to the District Attorney’s Office, where, according to the OCC complaint and police records, Assistant DA Jacobs declined to sign off on an arrest warrant. Instead, the DA said Erb should pursue a search warrant, and further legal action would depend on what he found.

But when Erb presented the search warrant request to Judge Lillian Sing, which he swore was true under penalty of perjury, he checked the box saying that an arrest warrant had already been issued for “J.” He also said that the victim had requested “to look at ‘J’s photos a second time.” He failed to note in his warrant request that after viewing that photo, the victim went back and said he thought the robber was somebody else.

On the basis of what Erb presented, Sing signed the warrant.

A week after the warrant was issued – and 41 days after the robbery – Erb and ten other officers arrived at the San Francisco Housing Authority apartment where “J” lived. They smashed in the door with a battering ram, and entered, guns drawn.

Police smashed in a door at the young man’s house

Once inside, the officers kicked down the door of a bedroom, broke a hole in the wall (to search for “contraband”), smashed a window, and charged into a room where a brother of “J” was taking care of a nine-month-old infant.

“J” and his two brothers, one of whom police said had thrown some bullets out a window, were arrested. No guns were found in the house.

The search turned up a pair of torn jeans, some shoes, and what the officers described as a “black hat.” But according to the OCC complaint, “the ‘black hat’ seized was actually not black, nor was it a hat. It was a furry grey hood, the kind one attaches to a jacket.”

the “hat” the officers found wasn’t black and wasn’t exactly a hat

The cops also found three cell phones, which isn’t surprising when three brothers were at the house. Police records show that the victim’s cell phone was never found.

One officer noted in a report that she had been holding a “box spring” for some reason, and it “slipped from her grasp,” breaking a window.”

By the time the search was completed, the unit was so badly damaged that the Housing Authority had to relocate the family to another apartment.

According to the OCC complaint, the house was damaged so badly that the family had to move to another unit

The record of the arrest of “J” is very clear: The moment the District Attorney’s Office saw the file, and watched the video, Assistant District Attorney Tiffany Gipson decided that “J” could not be the robber. She asked the court to release him, and the case was dismissed the next day.

That’s important: It wasn’t the defense lawyers who demanded “J” be released; the DA realized immediately that there was no case here and had him released on her own.

“This was disgraceful behavior on the part of the SFPD,” Kate Chatfield, a lawyer who represented “J” in his OCC filing, told me.

The OCC found that Erb had done nothing wrong.

Chatfield finds that astonishing. “Would the OCC and the police department have responded so cavalierly had this been a white family whose house was destroyed, who were held at gunpoint in their home by the police, whose son was falsely arrested, and whose child in a crib could have been shot?” she asked. “Or would these officers not have acted this way in the first place if the family had been white?”

OCC investigations, like all documents involving police officer discipline, are strictly confidential. But the OCC issue summary reports with names redacted, and when I looked at cases closed around the period when this one was closed, I found a report that is almost certainly the same case.

According to that investigation, Erb admitted that he had presented false information, under penalty of perjury, to the judge. But he said that he “forgot to revise the search warrant” application to remove that claim. The OCC called that a “clerical error” and said there was not enough evidence to prove that Erb intended to mislead the judge.

Charge dismissed.

The damage to the house? Necessary in the conduct of the search. Charge dismissed.

No disciplinary action was taken against Erb or anyone else.

Erb did not respond to phone messages seeking comment.

A protestor holds a photo of Jessica William, provided by her family. Photo by Sana Saleem
A protestor holds a photo of Jessica William, provided by her family. Photo by Sana Saleem

The SFPD has a system in place to identify officers who have a history of use-of-force complaints; the “early warning” system is supposed to allow management to more strictly monitor and provide more training to cops who seem to be breaking the rules a lot.

But there’s no flag is a complaint against an officer isn’t sustained (unless it leads to a successful lawsuit or legal settlement). And the OCC has a pretty weak record on sustaining complaints: in 2015, the most recent data available shows that the agency closed 492 cases, and sustained 35. That means 93 percent of the cases were in essence dismissed.

It’s hard to know much more about Erb’s record – we are told that several other complaints have been filed, but the secrecy in place makes it impossible to tell if those complaints were sustained or if Erb was cleared in every instance. The Blue-Ribbon panel on police bias points to the lack of transparency as a major problem at the SFPD, but every effort to get the state law changed to allow more public access to investigations has stalled.

And so far, the district attorney has not charged any police officer in the recent spate of fatal shootings with an sort of crime.

A 99-year-old still faces eviction

Iris Canada has died shortly after being evicted

Carved into the skin of SF’s black community is a desecration, a lack of recognition of the sacred. This desecration is being levied upon Iris Canada, a 99-year-old elder who has lived most of her life on Page Street — an elder who is in the fight of her life.

She has lived a life on Page Street long before condos, con-men and the poison cloud legacy they leave behind. Iris sits in her living room while plans are being hatched, schemed and plotted to separate her from her home in the name of condo-conversion.

Iris Canada's supporters have held a vigil outside her house
Iris Canada’s supporters have held a vigil outside her house

She sits in quiet dignity.  Her home is a bouquet of memory.  Pictures of family and community adorn the walls–black and white photos of a vivacious and beautiful Iris who worked as a nurse, who was married and very much involved in the rich life of her community.  There is a warmth in her home that cannot be duplicated, cannot be replicated in a lab or reenacted in a short term online application.

And the missionaries have descended upon her street, her neighborhood–as if ordained–in the name of revitalization and other terms formed in beaks whose true intention is to take our homes, our land and peck away at our bones until no evidence exists that we were here.  But Iris is 99 years old.  She didn’t come all this way to give the landlord, Peter Owens, the satisfaction of evicting a lifetime.

The other tenants want to convert the building into condos. They want Iris to sign a piece of paper which will allow them to do it. Tell me, why should Iris do them any favors?

Iris was given a life estate, allowing her to stay in her home by Owens, after he tried unsuccessfully to evict her several years ago. The estate comes with stipulations — including that she be prohibited from having anyone live with her, even a caregiver. Tell me, what 99-year-old doesn’t require some form of in-home care?

Iris, with 99 years, sits in her living room–a place where “living” is the operative word.  But the stress that she has been subjected to suggests that “living” is not part of the goal on the part of the owner and neighbors.  An upstairs neighbor yelled out of her window, “She doesn’t live here!” to the supporters holding the vigil for Iris on day one–to which a friend quickly and appropriately responded: Iris has lived her longer than you’ve been white.

And yes, the white cloud has overtaken this block–just as fires have overtaken the Mission. Even the trees appear uncomfortable, unwelcome–perhaps in fear that they too will be uprooted and discarded. And Iris fights quietly. Community has gathered at her side. Her landlord has sued her for court costs in a case against her that he lost. In vindictiveness, he sued again and won and Iris must pay 164,000 or face eviction.  If this is not elder abuse, I do not know what is.

Iris Canada, 99-year-old elder, eviction fighter in SF.  Iris Canada — who endured a stroke and still fights on. Iris Canada, a black woman in a black neighborhood that is becoming whiter and uglier. What the hell does she owe anybody?

Iris Canada turns 100 — as her landlord tries to evict her

Iris Canada has died shortly after being evicted

Iris Canada turns 100 on July 13. Iris Canada, eviction fighter, who has lived in San Francisco’s black community on Page Street since the 1040s. Iris, with history in her skin and stories welling up in her eyes.

The trees outside her home bend to the left and right, seeking balance in anticipation of her 100 years.  It is more important than the Golden Gate Bridge and all the gold dust fairytales peddled by get rich con-men and their schemes to pull the rugs and chairs out from under us. It is more important than Google and the tech shuttles, the cable cars and the box of Rice-a-Roni.

Iris Canada sits with supporters outside a courtroom where she fought her eviction
Iris Canada sits with supporters outside a courtroom where she fought her eviction

Iris speaks softly, so soft that you must listen carefully or you will miss what is important. Her voice is a caress of butter on a warm slice of toast in a kitchen whose walls breathe stories:

I was born in 1916, the same year the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote. When I was 13 the stock market crashed. At 25 I cried with my country when Pearl Harbor was bombed and I celebrated with my country when the war ended. I was 38 when Brown vs. Board of Education ended segregation in American schools. At the age of 53 I felt old, having endured six of the worst years our country had ever seen as its leaders were murdered: Fred Hampton, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy and Medgar Evers assassinated from 1963-69.  I lived through Watergate, the oil crisis, Iran Contra and the assassination of Harvey Milk when I was 62. When I was 74 and had been collecting Social Security for 10 years, the US was fighting the Gulf War. I was so proud that I voted to elect our first African-American president after my 92nd birthday.

In three days Iris turns 100. Did you expect to live this long? Did you imagine bearing witness to the black community’s dwindling to 3% of the population of San Francisco? In your dreams, did you think that your building would be sold and that you would have to endure an Ellis Act eviction whose sole aim was to extricate you from your home? Iris, with a voice so soft—tell me.

I have lived and continue to live a rich and full life. I have paid my taxes, worked to improve the health and life of families and community in neighborhoods locally.  I have paid my dues. I am entitled to all the protections the laws allow for tenants and the elderly in the city of SF. I am entitled to the quiet use and enjoyment of my home according to the protections of the state of California from harassment and disenfranchisement due to the greed of property speculators and landlords involved in the race to take over all viable space in SF for personal gain for the highly privileged.  I have been under siege, harassed continually by my own neighbors, attacked in my own home and fooled when I was well into my 80’s into signing documents that did not benefit me by people who falsely claim to have my best interests at heart.

Iris Canada, part of the great migration of black folks to SF. She first lived on the 800th block of Page Street then moved to her current home at 670 Page, where she has lived since the 1950s with her husband James, who was a deep sea diver in the military and later employed by United Airlines until his passing in the 1980s.  Iris’ home was a home. The original landlord, James Stephens was a “gentleman who kept his word and realized his decisions affected the quality of life of his tenants.”

Iris kept up the small garden whose bounty was shared among the tenants and Mr. Stephens.  This was before sharing became known as tenancies in common (TIC’s).

When Mr. Stephens died, the building was sold to the current owner, Peter Owens, who, with his wife and brother, co-own Iris’ building. They invoked the Ellis act to evict her. She fought to stay in her home but the fight has resulted in her failing health which included hospital stays. Iris’s landlords and neighbors want to convert the building into condos. Iris refused to sign paperwork allowing them to do so.  In response, the neighbors have made Iris’ living situation less than comfortable.

In three days, Iris turns 100.

Iris, we honor and celebrate your life.  Thank you for being here.  Thank you for staying on that block.  Your mere presence brings us hope and pride.  Your presence runs deeper than the tourist landmarks that are flat postcard images when compared to the fullness of your life.  Compared to you the Transamerica building is a dunce cap, Coit Tower a crushed cigarette butt.  Attempts have been made to remove you from your home. It has caused tremendous stress on your 99-year-old body.  Is this a birthday celebration or is it elder abuse?

California Pen Code 368 (Elder Abuse Law)

Any person who knows or reasonably should know that a person is an elder or dependent adult and who, under circumstances or conditions likely to produce great bodily harm or death, willfully causes or permits any elder or dependent adult to suffer, or inflicts thereon unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering, or having the care or custody of any elder or dependent adult, willfully causes or permits the person or health of the elder or dependent adult to be injured, or willfully causes or permits the elder or dependent adult to be placed in a situation in which his or her person or health is endangered, is punishable by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year, or by a fine not to exceed six thousand dollars ($6,000), or by both that fine and imprisonment, or by imprisonment in the state prison for two, three, or four years.

You fought your eviction and won.  Your landlord sued you for his court costs and the judge ruled in his favor, leaving you with a $164,000 bill, that you must pay or be subjected to eviction. We are three days away from your 100th birthday.  Again, is this a birthday celebration or is it elder abuse?

A poem for Iris Canada

By Tommi Avicolli Mecca

We should be coming

to listen to your stories

sitting on the floor

in a dimly lit room

perhaps in silken candlelight

memories floating all around us


instead we’re with you

in a court room that wouldn’t

know justice if it fell from the sky

we’re out on the windy street

with our banners and slogans

trying desperately to be heard


you stand quietly watching

gripping your walker

100 year old eyes

that could never have imagined

that at your age you would

have to fight for your home



who doesn’t have to

say a word

to inspire us



The Agenda, July 5-10: Did the Homeless Project work?

The city "resolves" homeless camps -- but where do the residents go?

So we all wrote about homelessness last week, 48hills and most of the rest of the local news media, and the goal – as Chronicle Editor Audrey Cooper, who created the idea, made it clear – was to look not just as problems but solutions.

Cathy, who moved here to find a supportive community for a Trans woman, can't find housing. How is confiscating her tent going to help?
Cathy, who moved here to find a supportive community for a Trans woman, can’t find housing. How is confiscating her tent going to help?

The Chron did a classic “best practices” kind of story, looking at what works in other cities and what the experts say, and had some very solid suggestions about supportive housing. The paper also explained why police crackdowns don’t typically work.

We went a different route, and talked about why this problem exists in the first place and what steps policy makers could take right now to address it. We also talked about why Scott Wiener and Mark Farrell are not helping at all.

Then came the Sunday Chron, with a front-page editorial, which Editorial Page Editor John Diaz crowed about. It was called “A civic disgrace.” And it showed that Diaz either didn’t read his own paper’s stories or found them lacking, since his approach (and that means the “official” Chronicle line) undermined much of what Cooper and her staff spent five months trying to do.

The editorial starts out with the usual moaning – jeez, this is terrible, we can’t go on like this anymore, we have to make this a priority. Then it attacks existing programs, many of them very successful, and attacks existing nonprofits, calling them the Homeless Industrial Complex and saying that the city’s money “probably is not being spent with anything close to optimal effectiveness.” The solution: Close down or eliminate some of those programs, like they did in Houston.

Nothing in the Chron’s reporting suggested that there is any significant waste or misspending in homeless programs. I’m sure if we looked hard enough, we could find some – there is no way to spend $241 million in public money without some failures. There’s also no private-sector operating that spends $241 million without some waste and mismanagement.

The editorial does say – and I think everyone in the system agrees – that we need a better tracking system to make sure people get the right services. SF, in the tech capital of the world, is way behind in this. But I’m sure the minute the city creates a contract for that work, Matier and Ross will say it costs too much money.

The Chron stories pointed out, and the editorial acknowledges, that some of the most difficult cases cost the city the most money in treatment. “Some 1,500 chronically homeless people cost the city about $80,000 a year each.” Yes, John: And wouldn’t it be interesting to see what would happen if we gave those people enough money to rent a place in the city (less than $80,000 a year)? We used to do that; public assistance was enough to pay rent in San Francisco in the early 1980s, and there was less homelessness. Then, often with the support of the Chronicle, the city, state, and federal governments cut welfare and SSI – to save the taxpayers money.

There is no accountability for homeless programs, Diaz says. There is also no accountability for the Chronicle’s role in promoting politicians and policies that have created this problem and allowed it to get worse.

And then this:

It is neither inhumane nor “criminalizing poverty” to enforce laws against aggressive panhandling, tent encampments, or defecation and urination in public places.”

Actually, it’s both – and the Chron reporters showed this week that the law-enforcement approach just doesn’t work. Maybe Diaz didn’t read that story.

Come on, people: The first step in solving this crisis is admitting that the policies that we’ve used in the past, promoted by the Chron and the politicians it endorses, haven’t worked. But instead, we remain a progressive city with a major daily newspaper that takes editorial stands based on the old neo-liberal philosophy that has created the greatest economic inequality in modern history.

That, folks, is a civic disgrace.


Not a lot going on at City Hall this week. The July 4 holiday means there is no Board of Supes meeting, few committee meetings, not much on the agenda of other commissions and agencies. Next week the final budget discussions will start, and as we head into the end of July, the supes will have to decide what final measures to put on the ballot.

Meanwhile, we listen to the sound of fireworks we can barely see (why does San Francisco even bother?) and celebrate the founding of a nation that has gone way, way off track.

Homelessness: the media’s big problem

The city "resolves" homeless camps -- but where do the residents go?

[UPDATED: This story has been updated to reflect a correction in Chronicle Editor Audrey Cooper’s experience with homeless people having sex in a tent and her motivation for the homeless project.]


These are some of the headlines we saw in the San Francisco Chronicle this past year:

“San Francisco’s summer of urine and drug-addicted homeless.”

“Amid rising disgust, SF scrambles to flush stench from streets.”

“Flood of homeless in tent camp just small part of problem.”

“Mayor Lee’s Superbowl homeless plan is a breath of fresh air.”

There are others, less graphic:

“Myths, like the homeless problem, not going away.”

“Homeless problem can’t be swept away.”

This image of a menacing looking shirtless man with a shopping cart is all too typical of images of homeless people. (Does he have a name?)
This image of a menacing looking shirtless man with a shopping cart is all too typical of images of homeless people. (Does he have a name?). Photo by Lea Suzuki, SF Chronicle

There have been some very good stories (by reporters like Heather Knight) and some truly atrocious ones (by columnists C.W. Nevius and Deborah Saunders).

But overall, the Chron coverage of homeless people over the past year – until this week — has focused on problems way more than solutions, and is littered with words like “drugs,” “Drug-addicted,” “filth,” “feces,” and “crime.”

The papers editorials have consistently praised the mayor for his crackdowns – but have been alarmingly short on any positive suggestions, especially those that cost money or protect the rights of homeless people.

In 2012, when then-Assemblymember Tom Ammiano proposed a Bill of Rights for homeless people, the Chron mocked it as a “bad idea” and said it was “an absurd reaction to restrictions on homeless conduct and tough-love ideas such as San Francisco’s “Care Not Cash” program that substitutes housing and counseling services for welfare checks.”

As part of our work in the media project on homelessness, we decided to look at how the most dominant news media outlet in the city – and that’s still the Chronicle – addressed the issue over the past year.

Most of the problems we found are not unique to the Chron; they are common to local news media coverage. And they are persistent.

We’ve searched through SF and, and identified more than 100 stories, columns, and editorials with the words “homeless” or “homelessness” in them.

A passed-out, unnamed homeless person depicted on sfistcreates an image of drunks and drug addicts
A passed-out, unnamed homeless person depicted on sfist creates an image of drunks and drug addicts. Photo by Marc Flores

We included all types of coverage: Straightforward news reports, house editorials, guest opeds, and staff columns. Together, they create the overall penumbra, the picture of how homeless people are perceived, by the newspaper that still sets the mainstream political agenda.

We graded every story on a 1-5 basis – not for accuracy or for completeness or even for political approach but for how that story presented homeless people. Stories that repeatedly used keywords like “drugs” and “filth” got a 1 or 2; stories that showed who the people on the streets really are, in a more accurate and nuanced fashion, got a 4 or 5.

Our goal was to see not whether the Chron is accurate or missing stories or ignoring problems – but how consumers of media are taught to see homeless people.

That appearance matters – a lot. When the majority of the portrayals of homeless people use the terms “drug-addict” or “filth,” it creates a visceral impression for the readers. It sets the tone of how people view the human beings who, in many cases, were our neighbors until they were evicted or lost their homes.

When the New York Times refers to our neighbors as “clumps of humanity” and says things like this:

“San Francisco residents have over decades become inured to encounters with the city’s homeless population, the clumps of humanity sleeping on sidewalks under coats and makeshift blankets, or drug addicts shooting up in full view of pedestrians. There are also the tension-filled but common scenes of mentally ill men and women stumbling down streets, arguing with imaginary enemies or harassing passers-by.”

Or the Chron’s Kevin Fagan leads off the current series with this:

still, the city remains home to sprawling tent cities, junkies squatting on blankets shooting heroin, and all manner of anguished destitute people and beggars holding out hands.

(excuse me: “beggars?” I was taught 35 years ago at my first newspaper job never to use that word)

You get an impression. And it isn’t a nice one.

Truth is, many, many homeless people are neither drug addicts nor severely mentally ill. If you actually go and talk to people living on the streets, you hear stories of people who are just like the rest of us, except for the misfortune to live in a city and a society that treats housing as a privilege available only to those who have large amounts of money.

This picture of Sabrina, taken by Rebecca Bowe for the Bay Guardian in 2014, is a very different image of homeless people
This picture of Sabrina, taken by Rebecca Bowe for the Bay Guardian in 2014, is a very different image of homeless people

But the more we treat the issue as one of dealing with a population of squatting junkies and people who live in filth and shit in the streets (excuse me – no bathrooms) and attract rodents and are a public-health menace, the more that “emergency” solutions like police sweeps and criminalization appear attractive.

If we treat the people living on the streets for who they are – our neighbors who may have all sorts of issues (as many of our housed neighbors do) and are no different from us except that our society has failed them, then different types of solutions start to sound appealing.

I happen to have known many people who live indoors, in houses or apartments in San Francisco, who’ve had mental-health challenges. I’ve known people with serious substance-abuse challenges. The difference between them and the people on the streets is that they’ve have a roof over their heads and were able to do what they did in private. Because they were behind closed doors, they don’t become “quality of life” problems for people who walk by.

Audrey Cooper, the Chron’s editor, told the NYTimes “the issue became personal for her” when she passed by a couple having sex in a tent, with the flap open, and a pit bull standing guard. I think it’s fair to say that many of the people who have homes in San Francisco also have sex, and dogs. But they have a bit of privacy.

Words matter; the way we portray people matters. Most of the news media no longer use words like “crippled” or “retarded.” Long ago, I learned to use “people with AIDS” instead of “AIDS victims.” There’s a long list of words that we don’t use, because some portrayals of people are inherently derogatory.

So how does the Chron do?

Well, if you take out CW Nevius, who just brings down the average, the paper over about 100 stories averaged 2.8. If you want to assume that 3 out of 5 is fine and “objective,” that’s okay, but that’s not what we were looking for.

We’re looking for overall image – and frankly, there are a lot of problems. They go far beyond the Chronicle – nearly every major news media outlet in this town has fallen into the trap of blaming homeless people for the fact that they don’t have a place of their own to sleep.

In that sense, anything below about a 4 is a problem.

Let’s look at a few examples:

In an April 15, 2006 article, columnist Willie Brown talked about homeless camps resembling “the slums of Kolkata.” (Do we even use the word “slums” these days? I guess Willie gets to.)

March 9, 2016, Deborah Saunders:

When you get off BART at the Civic Center and Powell Street stations, you see people sleeping in de facto encampments in hallways — and the platforms stink of urine. In bad weather, walking through Civic Center and Powell stations can feel downright menacing. When taxpayers don’t feel safe taking BART, when all they see is squalor, they will find other ways to get around

(Actually, I go through those BART stations all the time, and I almost never see anyone who seems “menancing.” Which is a pretty strong word.)

Brandon Mercer, Aug. 25, 2015:

Walking up Mission Street, passing a woman with festering, puss-filled lesions along her legs, watching a man lying on his back on the concrete, writhing and grunting, and hearing a man screaming obscenities at firefighters in an ambulance — all within the same block on the same morning– it hit me. The solution to San Francisco’s homeless problem is simple.


San Francisco has a mental health problem, and there are 7,500 people, most with some degree of mental illness, wandering the streets.

(Yes, there are homeless people who are mentally ill. Most homeless people do not meet anything close to the description Mercer presents here.)

Matier and Ross, Aug. 24, 2015:

San Francisco’s streets are becoming one big toilet — with druggies, drunks and the mentally ill openly defecating on downtown’s busiest boulevards.

(“Druggies?” “Drunks?” really?)

C.W. Nevius, Aug. 10, 2015:

the stench on the streets, homeless sidewalk campers and recklessly unhinged individuals roaming the neighborhoods unsupervised.

(“Recklessly unhinged? I don’t even call Chuck that, although I may have to start.)

There are plenty of other examples of times when Chron writers consistently describe homeless people in terms that we would not find acceptable for, say, the disabled community, people with diseases, or people who are victims of war, fire, famine, etc.

That dehumanizing portrayal – and yes, sometimes that’s what it is – reinforces the idea that people who are homeless are at fault, that they are on the streets because they have done something wrong. Which impacts the way the public sees the problem and the way City Hall comes up with solutions.

Some of the people who lost their homes in the recent Mission fire could easily wind up living on the streets. The ones who were already facing challenges, like a disabled man I met who is living on SSI, could see their disabilities (particularly if they are mental-health disabilities) get much worse, quickly.

If you don’t think living on the streets makes you more likely to develop (or exacerbate) a substance-abuse problem or develop (or exacerbate) a mental-health problem, just try it sometime.

Will we refer to those people as “crazy” or “drunks” or “recklessly unhinged?” I hope not. Maybe we should call them what they are: Refugees, fleeing eviction, or fire, or abusive home situations, or evil landlords who want to get even richer, or suffering from medical conditions that our society is not willing to pay to treat.

(For the record, the number of critical psych ward beds and staff at SF General has been cut repeatedly over the years during bad budget times, and has never been restored, even in good times, to the level that the city needs. There is no housing-based “treatment on demand” for people with alcohol or drug problems, and for the residential programs that exist, there is little in the way of a guarantee of affordable supportive housing when the treatment is over. These things cost money. Instead we give Twitter a tax break.)

Cooper told me that “our news reporting has been consistently awesome. Obits on the front page, for example. Much since the first Shame of the City. And I also wouldn’t discount things like the weekend pieces from the mayors. I think we are probably the only ones who could have convinced them to do that. It wasn’t easy!”

And indeed, there have been some excellent pieces in the Chron. Heather Knight’s article about discussing homelessness with children is a solid 5 on our scale. Her pieces on the myths of homelessness were really great (they also followed by several months our story with the same name). Many of the news pieces we read were pretty neutral. It’s important to put faces on the problem and in some cases, the Chron has done that, well.

Cooper has no control over the editorial page. Like most big dailies, the Chron keeps those roles distinct — the editorial page editor, John Diaz, reports directly to the publisher. His page is generally neo-liberal in its approach, and its one local columnist is Saunders, who is a Republican. Why the Chron has no liberal editorial page columnist is one of the great mysteries of the world.

But Nevius and Brown and Matier and Ross are news columnists, and all of them are pretty virulently anti-homeless and use pretty disgraceful language all the time. I asked Cooper why there was no progressive columnist to counter their bile:

I would love to get a more progressive voice in the paper. It’s been something I’ve wanted to do since I was named editor – I’ve had several conversations with progressives I respect to try to find some candidates. I agree it’s a missing piece.

I encourage those of you who might have another perspective on the local news to apply. Because it’s astounding that in San Francisco, the daily paper has nobody to challenge the strongly anti-homeless rhetoric of C.W. Nevius.

We took 10 Nevius columns over the last six months and did a special analysis of them. It’s pretty hard to read them all, one after the other – over and over again, he rails about tents, tent cities, people who live in tents, drugs, needles, violence, crime, alcoholism … Never does he talk to homeless people who have been evicted by landlords and have nowhere else to go. None of his columns reflect the perspective of many of the people who are living on the streets because it’s their only alternative.

By the numbers, he gets a 1.8. That’s because some of his columns address policy (which we can argue about, and that’s fine – but it’s different from dehumanizing homeless people.)

Nevius went to the same sidewalk camp we visited, where we found people with human stories who were trying to make a go of it in a community on the streets. Nevius found the one person who “just wanted to get high.”

The message: Homeless people deserve no sympathy; they’re just freeloading junkies who could have jobs and apartments if they wanted.

Here are some examples:

As the Division Street campground showed, an unsupervised tent city inevitably collapses on itself. It begins with urine, feces and needles on the street, and progresses to intimidation, lawlessness and violence.


I’m baffled by our local homeless advocates. Their efforts would be understandable if they were trying to improve conditions at shelters or agitating for better health and counseling services. But what they’re striving for now would simply preserve disorder in the streets.


A group of characters who look as if they walked off a “Mad Max” movie set pitched tents on the sidewalks and took over the neighborhood.


We know that taking formal action — demanding that the squatters leave the area and enforcing the move — could easily result in the kind of unpleasant video of police rousting the homeless that could fuel a political confrontation. But it must be done. Otherwise, Mayor Ed Lee is ineffective, timid and clueless

You get the picture.

It’s one thing to say that you don’t think tents on the sidewalk are the answer to the crisis. It’s another to focus almost entirely on things that are guaranteed to make readers think the residents are scary, drug-addicted thugs who ought to be rousted to make way for civilized society.

Words matter. They create impressions. And the words in the Chron too often give the impression that homeless people are The Other, something to fear, a source of disgust. And I’m sorry, but that’s why these anti-homeless measures that will never work get traction over real solutions.

I have no problem with hard-hitting newspaper stories; nobody can accuse 48hills of playing softball with elected officials or powerful interests. I write headlines that I hope will get attention (and I wish I could be as good at it as the NY Post). But we go after the mayor, and the supes, and Ron Conway, and PG&E, and the billionaires. We are much kinder to the people who society has failed.

The Chron today offered some real solutions; that’s good, and what a newspaper should do when faced with a crisis. I give her immense credit to Cooper for trying to take this on.

When I told her I was looking at the Chron’s coverage, she told me she was hoping that this week we would get away from “the noise and vitriol.” I’m all in favor.

And the Chron is not alone; much of the news media coverage of homelessness has the same problem.

So we can all start by looking at how our columnists (and some stories, and some headlines) contribute – in a really dangerous way – to creating that vitriol.

Research assistance by Sofia Aguilar, Michael Redmond, Jamie Hughes, and James Holcombe