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Sweeps of homeless camps in S.F. are creating a public health crisis

Sweeps of homeless camps in S.F. are creating a public health crisis

Picture of Nuala Sawyer
Courtesy image

In April of 2018, former San Francisco Mayor Mark Farrell held a press conference to announce the city’s recommitment to enforcing Proposition Q, which bans tents on sidewalks. It was one of many unfortunate things voters passed in November 2016, and it was put on the ballot by Farrell himself.

“You can offer services, you can offer shelter and housing to people but at a certain point, as a city we need to draw the line and say ‘this is a service-resistant population, we need to take down those tent encampments because they are unhealthy for the entire city of San Francisco’,” Farrell said.

The narrative that San Francisco’s thousands of unhoused people are resistant to services is a convenient one for politicians to spout. If they don’t want help, why bother offering it? But evidence proves otherwise; the city’s waitlist for a shelter bed hasn’t dropped below 1,000 in more than a year.

When she replaced Farrell last July, Mayor London Breed only increased pressure on authorities to sweep homeless camps, and points proudly to a drop in the number of tents in the city. With little to no housing options available, however, the homeless population has yet to recede.

With more than 8,000 homeless people living on the streets of San Francisco, the enforcement of a law that allows authorities to seize what little shelter people have is creating a public health crisis, the results of which haven’t been witnessed on this scale in years. My project with the USC Annenberg 2019 California Fellowship seeks to expose just that.

The health effects of encampment sweeps are nuanced, and vary from person to person. But one recurring result of these sweeps is the difficulty unhoused people have in holding on to their medical prescriptions. When bags and tents are thrown into the trash, medication often goes with them. This can be antibiotics for staph infections, antidepressants, or the vital, life-saving cocktail of drugs that treat Hepatitis C.

Victims of encampment sweeps also suffer from losing their community, however informal and temporary it might be. As camps are broken up and people scatter, they lose a life-saving safety net. For the estimated 22,500 IV drug users in San Francisco, this means there aren’t friends nearby to monitor use and, if necessary, administer naloxone in the case of an overdose. Many health workers attributed the rise in overdose deaths over the summer to the increase of encampment sweeps and the resulting change in drug-use patterns.

There are also significant mental health side effects of these sweeps. Starting over from scratch is exhausting for many homeless people, and combined with the loss of community, many people rely on drugs like speed to stay awake at night to better protect themselves against theft, rape and physical assault. The psychotic breakdowns that occur when people are tired, have lost their IDs, and no longer have medications are easily visible on a daily basis for anyone visiting the city’s downtown.

Sweeps of homeless encampments also appear to increase when inclement weather moves in. Hours before a massive storm hit in February, police and public works employees confiscated tents from dozens of homeless people taking refuge in a Tenderloin alley. As the media warned San Franciscans to take shelter during the deluge, the city rolled out just 75 additional mats for its 8,000 homeless people.

The resulting exposure to the elements was devastating; two days after the sweeps, I witnessed a freezing cold, soaking wet, wheelchair-bound homeless man be taken away in an ambulance. The same day, I was sent photos of another man’s dead body lying unsheltered outside a department store downtown. 

“Living on the streets is not fun for us, by any means,” a homeless woman named Caitlin told me last month. “It’s hard seeing them able to joke about us losing our stuff. It’s a really big impact, it makes a big big difference for us. You’re told for so long the police department is here to help, and then they do stuff like that.”

San Francisco’s determination to remove the evidence of homelessness without offering any real solutions is creating a new wave of public health crises on our streets. This is something frontline workers have been very aware of for months, but there has yet to be any data or coverage that addresses the varied public health side effects of these encampment sweep policies.

In reporting on this issue I plan to put the voices and experiences of unhoused people at the center of the discussion, with an emphasis on solutions — be it creative efforts being made by frontline workers to adapt to a changing street homelessness crisis, or vital policy changes that can occur in local government to protect the city’s most vulnerable population.

Comments

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Why can't homeless camps in California cities be permanently removed and kept from returning? It is ruining these cities for the people living in these cities and for tourists wanting to visit there. These homeless could never afford a place to live in these cities, as neither can most working California citizens. Get them out of California and don't allow any longer.

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You seem to be missing the whole point of this article @BL- which is that tent camps can only be prevented by creating sufficient public housing, and by regulating the market to keep profiteers from throwing people into the streets- Two things SF has proven resistant to do. The higher rents rise, the faster that speculative investors are purchasing buildings full of seniors and very low income tenants, then evicting those tenants and throwing them into the streets, thereby increasing the homeless population for individual profits. Your attitude of "get them out of California" is particularly problematic, as that has been the thinking that has prevented us from investing in affordable housing at a wider scale, as well as looking at the housing market as a whole to connect the dots- that the problems in the streets are directly linked to the rising cost of housing in the open market. What you are proposing- "get them out of California" is actually discrimination, some might say class warfare, and if it were even possible that would leave our entire state without grandmothers, artists, entry level workers, young adults, transgender individuals, students without rich parents, and other low populations that contribute far more to the community than high wages, AND would disproportionately displace people of color due to the large racial wage gap. And that is to say nothing of how unfair it is to think we can ship people who have failed to integrate into our society off to some other state as collateral damage to our greed. We have an obligation to create a city that is livable for people of all income levels. The global population is moving back to urban centers at record pace, and if we fail to create sufficient housing for low income people- THAT DOES NOT MEAN THAT PEOPLE WILL NOT BE POOR! That will NOT stop poor people from existing- it simply means that these poor people will live in slums and deteriorating conditions. AND if middle class people and tourists are inconveniences by those conditions IMAGINE HOW THE PEOPLE THAT LIVE THERE MUST FEEL!!! That is EXACTLY the problem this author seems interested in addressing, and I salute those efforts. Because too many people seem to be coming to the same, ill informed conclusions that if we only do more sweeps and increase enforcement of laws that criminalize poverty- that will fix this. When the sad reality is, our city "leaders" and elected officials thinking that way for the past 30 years is what lead to this situation we are in now.

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