Activists say San Francisco trying to wash away the homeless

Pilot street-cleaning program downtown exacerbates wider Bay Area conflict over living space amid second tech boom

SAN FRANCISCO — The crack-cocaine users who sleep across the street from Victoria — or "bubble boys," as she has nicknamed them, after a slang term for drug use — screamed when Department of Public Works employees sprayed them with high-powered hoses a few weeks ago, she says. 

It was about 4:30 a.m. in the Mid-Market area of downtown San Francisco, a few hours before the daily arrival of tech industry employees, whose firms recently moved into the neighborhood. DPW workers gave the sleeping young men four warnings and then started spraying, said Victoria, 52, who only offered her first name out of a mistrust of police common among San Francisco’s homeless people.

Victoria described herself as a "polite," obliging homeless woman who picks up and leaves when asked by the authorities. She said the young men were given fair warning by the cleanup crew. But the sight of them being hosed was disturbing. "They were screaming," she said.

Three years ago, San Francisco’s city government backed a program to bring Silicon Valley tech into the heart of the city around the Tenderloin, traditionally home to the city’s have-lesses. That triggered what San Franciscans call the "second tech boom," which attracted a stream of moneyed young professionals, whom many critics have blamed for driving up the cost of living in the city and for pushing many lower-income people out of their apartments.

But now advocates for San Francisco’s homeless — and the homeless themselves — are also worried that some DPW workers may now literally be washing away the homeless from the central streets as the city makes way for tech workers. "There was a very orchestrated campaign to gentrify the Mid-Market area and draw in tech companies and offer them a tax break to move into that area," said Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition on Homelessness, a San Francisco advocacy group. "What goes hand in hand with that is displacement of poor people."

Victoria speaks with a homeless advocate before she and other homeless people are told to move by a second predawn cleaning crew.
Mark Richards for Al Jazeera America

City officials deny the idea that the street-cleaning scheme is aimed at displacing anyone. DPW spokeswoman Rachel Gordon told Al Jazeera the cleanings are part of a "pilot program" launched in September to keep streets tidy. "We wash the streets using disinfectant and steamers as part of our alleys program. We also pick up litter, human waste and other debris," she said.

But that does not convince everyone. Friedenbach said something akin to the DPW’s current effort started several years ago, but was halted after the coalition — together with local media — used a hidden camera to catch a DPW worker kicking the homeless and spraying them with their hoses. Now the neighborhood homeless like Victoria and her friends say some DPW workers are spraying people again.

DPW’s Gordon disagreed. "We do not point water at homeless people," she said. 

A tale of two cities

The rancorous debate over what is happening on Market Street fits into a wider discussion in the city over the impact of the tech boom on San Francisco and the accompanying wave of gentrification and skyrocketing rents.

Protesters late last year started targeting often unmarked, Wi-Fi-equipped buses taking the tech employees from their homes in San Francisco to suburban office-park headquarters in Silicon Valley to the south. There have been regular rent protests and extensive coverage in the local media of a perceived gap between the incoming wealthy tech industry and often less well-off already established communities, including the homeless.

Sometimes that has gotten ugly. Last December the then-CEO of tech startup AngelHack, Greg Gopman, posted a Facebook status complaining of the homeless in San Francisco. "The difference is in other cosmopolitan cities, the lower part of society keep to themselves. They sell small trinkets, beg coyly, stay quiet and generally stay out of your way. They realize it’s a privilege to be in the civilized part of town and view themselves as guests. And that’s okay," he wrote.

Gopman’s tirade garnered a flood of hostile media attention. Now he regrets the post, calling it "not well thought out."

"I don’t hate the homeless. I hate that we have turned a blind eye towards finding a real solution, and because of mental illness and despair, many of our streets are not safe," he told Al Jazeera.

The rancorous debate over what is happening on Market Street is fitting into a wider discussion in the city over the impact of the tech boom on San Francisco and the accompanying wave of gentrification and skyrocketing rents.

San Francisco’s authorities addressing homelessness agree with Gopman that the business community has a right to feel frustrated with the ongoing homeless problem in the city. Bevan Dufty, director of the city government’s Housing Opportunity, Partnerships & Engagement program, said some business owners can’t get into their workplaces without climbing over homeless people sleeping in their doorways, sometimes before closing hours.

But the city suffers from a shortage of homeless facilities. There were close to 6,500 homeless in San Francisco last year, according to official estimates — although homeless advocates say counting the transient population is a difficult task and that the true number could be much more. Yet there are currently only 1,139 beds available in San Francisco’s crowded homeless shelters. 

Dufty told Al Jazeera a better answer to the homelessness problem than washing the downtown streets — a project that costs the city more than $1.3 million a year — would be to put funds into housing the homeless. Creating more “housing for people is more financially efficient than trying to maintain clean, safe streets in people’s minds,” he said. 

DPW's Gordon noted that the cleaning program, which removes everything from excrement to used needles from the streets, also covers "basic outreach with information on services," but an Al Jazeera reporter did not witness any DPW workers or police offering the homeless direction to shelters or other resources.

A truck sprays water over a section of sidewalk that had been occupied by homeless a few minutes before.
Mark Richards for Al Jazeera America

But on the streets the efforts to clean up each morning go on. One DPW worker on a predawn shift, who spoke to Al Jazeera but declined to give his name over fear of job security, appeared pleased with his work. "We’re doing a good job. I got Market Street cleared out,” he said, while his team cleaned a dead-end alley with an encampment of homeless people, just blocks from Twitter headquarters.

The worker, who operates with a police escort, said he faced violence when his crew comes and occasionally confiscates belongings — tents, shopping carts. "I tell my family everything is OK," he said. "It’s a job." If he could, the DPW worker said, he would give the homeless jobs. He said he tries to do his work with respect for the homeless he encounters.

"I give people this respect. This is their home," he said.

Back in Mid-Market, where Victoria sat with her friends, a second cleanup crew came to hose down the streets just before 6 a.m. She and her friends were told by police and DPW workers to move. The workers confiscated a shopping cart and a few belongings.

One man who called himself Seven, 45, said police told him previously to relocate to 25th Street and Portero, a residential area, where police again ordered him to leave. Seven feels that multiple cleanups each night are part of the city’s attempt to try to get the homeless of Mid-Market to relocate permanently.

“There’s got to be a place for us. Just figure out where you want us to be,” he said.

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