People without homes in San Francisco are struggling to survive in this rich city. They are constantly on the run from the police. They face domestic violence, rape, and overdoses that can lead to death, and are fighting against citizens in the city to determine their worth. Experiencing homelessness, using substances, or managing existing chronic illnesses are all vulnerabilities that can worsen a person's mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health.
Rather than providing the bare minimum to address the needs of people without homes, there seems to be a war on humankind, especially our most isolated populations. Public policies that influence social determinants, brutality from police officers, domestic violence, rape, overdoses, lack of housing, and political officials contribute to the ideology of displacing homeless individuals throughout the United States. Too often, people without homes are blamed or shamed for their own conditions. The media often drags homeless people instead of advocating for change. There is a different approach, one that challenges our beliefs on this critical issue, rather than shaming.
San Francisco is a city that is driven to become a "healthier city," but its anti-homeless laws prove otherwise. These harmful tactics worsen the structural violence that homeless people in this city face. From 2017 to 2019, the number of people who are homeless in San Francisco jumped by 14%, according to San Francisco's street and shelter count.
An Inside Look at Homelessness in San Francisco
Rather than concern over San Francisco's homeless population, San Franciscans are concerned whether someone uses the bathroom on the streets, or if someone is lying down or sitting on the sidewalk. Our political stance should be to eliminate disparities, not punish homeless people. Egregious laws like Proposition L, which criminalizes sitting or lying on the sidewalk, foster an anti-homelessness ideology that seeks to remove homeless people from public view and, by extension, culture at large. Proposition L does not allow people who have been on the run all night to avoid being raped, abused, or robbed to sleep or sit on the sidewalk during the day.
Proposition L enhances anti-homeless laws, which attack the most vulnerable and enforce structural impediments. Instead of creating anti-homeless laws for people using the bathroom on the streets or someone sleeping on the sidewalk, let’s challenge the state, local government, and organizations that receive millions of dollars to implement more bathrooms and sustainable housing to address people having to live on the street. We should demand a public health approach that prioritizes housing units that could move people off the street. That's what would make San Francisco healthier.
Police sweeps are one of the everyday struggles that San Francisco's homeless population faces. Rather than helping anyone, these police sweeps are a direct attack against people living in poverty. During these sweeps, police go through the streets of San Francisco and pick up homeless people's property and throw their items away if they are left unattended. Could you imagine hauling your belongings with lesions, multiple sclerosis, and impaired abilities all day just to go into the store for a second, come outside, and everything -- birth certificate, medicine, memories -- is just gone?
Also, if police officers speak to homeless people and they refuse services, the officer can arrest them on the spot if they have a warrant. Sweeps are inhumane and do not have a place in a progressive city that boasts its innovative modules to address health disparities. This is not innovation; The idea is gruesome and creates an emotional tax on individuals instead of addressing the institutional barriers homeless people face.
The way media portrays homeless people also exacerbates the issue. When media demonizes people who are homeless, these depictions encourage anti-homeless tactics. When they use pictures of people shooting up or lying on the streets, the public advocates to remove the homeless rather than help them. The media must understand pushing these types of visuals is harmful to progress, because these images lead the public to believe that we should criminalize poverty.
"When I liberate myself, I liberate others. If you don’t speak out, ain't nobody going to speak out for you!" civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer once said. The quote reminds me of my passion for bringing awareness to the issue of how homeless people are treated in San Francisco. Human rights should not be debated, and a progressive city like San Francisco should be determined to end HIV, hepatitis C, unsafe substance use, and homelessness. Unity is essential when thinking of innovative approaches to decrease the epidemic.
The notion of unity with the homeless community, organizations that work and advocate to address homelessness, political officials, and the media must work cohesively to decrease homelessness -- but not through tactics that are harmful like Proposition L or police sweeps. There are multiple directions we can go when advocating for change, but the path we are taking now is not fully effective. When allocating funds to help people who are homeless, we must ponder strategies that are created by people who are homeless to understand the exact need to decrease homelessness. We must be accountable for each other -- even our most vulnerable. No one is free when people are homeless, sick, impaired, jailed, erased, or devalued.