Homelessness in San Francisco: Talk of Frustration, Survival

SAN FRANCISCO – On a chilly December morning, Victoria Solomon recounted how the San Francisco police roused her hours earlier and threatened to take her to jail if she didn’t get out of the house within 10 minutes.

They tried to force her out of a public area without offering a shelter as required by law, Solomon said. At least this time the city workers didn’t throw their things away, she said. This would have forced her to get a new tent, bedding and clothes – not to mention new ID and social security cards and a cell phone.

“You can be as tough as you want, it won’t magically create a house for her. And they don’t have vanishing powers,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco.

In September, the organization and seven people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless again sued San Francisco for violating city guidelines regarding the provision of emergency housing. They also said city workers had thrown out personal items, including medicines, wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs, laptops and cell phones, in violation of city policy.

Solomon is among an estimated 7,800 homeless people in San Francisco, a city that has come to symbolize California’s amazing failure to address the homelessness crisis. Homeowners, businesses and local leaders in San Francisco are frustrated by visible signs of homelessness — including public roads blocked by sprawling tents and trash.

Solomon is also frustrated. “Who says I’m not part of the community just because I’m homeless?” she said.

Two of the raids she witnessed this year were in the Castro neighborhood, where she noted civil rights activists once championed the rights of marginalized groups. Now residents and nearby businesses are calling the police about her.

The 34-year-old has been homeless for around a decade. Solomon said she is bipolar and struggles with drug addiction, as well as grieving the deaths of her son and mother a year apart.

She travels light—a trolley case, a tent, dog food, and two dogs—and is afraid to leave her belongings unattended. Law enforcement have threatened to send her to jail on a warrant from another county – which they say was for petty drug possession.

Amid rising rents and a nationwide shortage of affordable housing, more than 100,000 people live on California’s streets. Hawaii, Oregon and Arizona are among other western states where more homeless people live outside in cars and tents than inside in shelters, despite spending billions to curb homelessness, including San Francisco’s $672 million annual budget Dollar.

Increasingly, homeless advocates are fighting back in court — as in the lawsuit filed in San Francisco, where the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom is $3,000.

City attorneys deny that workers are illegally coercing people to move or throw out personal belongings, and say there are strict guidelines in place that balance individuals’ rights with the need to clean public spaces.

During a virtual hearing last week, Judge Donna M. Ryu questioned the city’s tactics, given the overwhelming amount of data and eyewitness accounts provided by the Coalition. Last week she temporarily Banned San Francisco from evicting homeless camps.

Across the country, frustration at the crisis has united Democrat and Republican leaders in adopting tough tactics against homelessness, much to the dismay of homeless advocates and even Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration, which has warned against hasty camp closures.

This year Tennessee made it Camping outdoors on public property is a criminal offense and in Portland, Oregon, the city council voted to create at least three large campgrounds and to ban all other tent camps.

In September, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law to provide unwilling medical care to the homeless with untreated psychosis – and he has literally rolled up his shirt sleeves to join the camp clean-up. Under the program, people struggling with alcohol and opioid addiction do not qualify for treatment unless they have a diagnosed psychiatric disorder.

The San Francisco Department of Emergency Management, which houses the Healthy Streets Operations Center that coordinates the camp clean-up, said in a statement that outreach workers speak to unhoused residents beforehand to explain the process and offer services, including shelter.

From June 2020 to September 2022, San Francisco conducted 1,200 formal camp cleanups, according to the Emergency Management Department, and outreach workers encountered more than 10,000 people.

There are also informal calls for homeless people to move, like the one encountered by Solomon, so it is not possible to know the full extent of enforcement action being taken or threatened against the homeless.

Business owners are fed up, not necessarily with people who don’t have a place to stay, but with the city ignoring them, said Ryen Motzek, president of the Mission Merchants Association. “It’s a general issue of cleanliness and safety, that’s the #1 problem the city faces,” he said.

But Toro Castaño, one of the seven plaintiffs, said people like him who are homeless and without affordable housing are being forced to move from place to place. “We’re going to literally walk across the street — the other way,” he said. “We move maybe 14 times in a week. Just corner to corner to corner.”

In a court statement, he said he was given two hours to leave his tent in August 2020, but the incident commander declared everything a fire hazard, so city workers threw all his belongings into a dump truck. He lost his late mother’s wedding kimono, a MacBook Pro laptop, a battery-powered heater and a $1,400 bicycle.

The outreach team offered him a bed in congregation accommodation, but he turned it down for fear of contracting the coronavirus. Today he’s in a hotel room paid for by the city.

Advocates say many homeless people prefer to stay outdoors rather than in shelters, where they risk catching coronavirus and face abuse or threats of violence. Homeless people who have pets, work night shifts, need mental health services, or suffer from addictions have a hard time finding shelter to accommodate them.

Shivering in a crowded tent, Dylan Miner tried to rest upright. “You can get your stuff back, but it takes a lot of work,” he said. In a recent search, city workers dumped his mattress and the wooden pallets that keep him off the sidewalk – which was still wet from the torrential rain.

Miner, 34, builds and repairs bikes and resells items he either buys or finds.

The city put him in a downtown hotel for 10 months during the pandemic, but he was unable to find new housing when the program was shut down. He is not part of the lawsuit but has expressed support for it.

Nobody is satisfied with the reaction to the status quo, said Friedenbach. She hopes the lawsuit will make a “serious change” in how the city treats homeless people.

“This really comes with a bigger struggle for dignity,” she said. “And a bigger fight for the recognition of the humanity of people who are too poor to afford rent.”

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AP video journalist Terry Chea contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission.

https://www.local10.com/news/national/2022/12/28/homelessness-in-san-francisco-talk-of-frustration-survival/ Homelessness in San Francisco: Talk of Frustration, Survival

Sarah Y. Kim

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