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Homeless sweeps in SF: How do you report on an issue city leaders deny is happening?

Homeless sweeps in SF: How do you report on an issue city leaders deny is happening?

Picture of Nuala Sawyer
Sweeping away the homeless in SF: How do you report on an issue city leaders deny is happening?
(Photo by Giuseppe Milo via Flickr)

“The San Francisco Police Department does not conduct ‘sweeps’,” the email read. It was written by a spokesperson of the department, in response to my request for comment on the shuffling of unhoused people and their belongings from one street corner to another -— a practice largely conducted by police. Instead, the spokesperson continued, I should be requesting comment on “encampment resolutions,” a phrase that implies the sweeps result in housing or a bed for the night, something that my research proved to be very rare. 

The terms journalists use in their articles to describe public health crises should not be taken lightly. News reports have the potential to impact everything from colloquial speech to the drafting of legislative policies, and I kept this in mind as I chose to use the phrase “homeless sweeps” in a series of articles I wrote for the USC Annenberg California Health Fellowship. 

My reporting project was fairly wide in scope: How does the constant displacement of unhoused people from alleys, neighborhoods, and entire cities affect their health? What are the impacts of having one’s belongings regularly seized and lost by the city of San Francisco — and how are frontline medical workers adapting in their treatment of this vulnerable population as they lose medication, warm clothes, and other survival supplies? 

There were a lot of logistical hurdles to overcome with this reporting. Could I find any data to quantify the many health impacts of homeless sweeps? Would anyone who had their stuff taken want to talk to me? 

However, the biggest obstacle I ended up facing was not in the population I was writing about, but instead from the people at the top tiers of city departments. Despite hundreds of photos and videos showing city employees tossing tents, backpacks, and walkers into the back of dump trucks — plus countless testimonies from homeless people and their neighbors — city leaders repeatedly denied to me over and over again that homeless sweeps were even happening. From the police to the city’s Department of Public Health, any request for information on “homeless sweeps” was sidestepped and dismissed. 

It would have been easier to navigate if there was an equivalent official term, but there wasn’t. My project occurred smack in the middle of a massive city-wide rebranding of their response to the more than 8,000 homeless people living on San Francisco streets. 

The crisis of homelessness in this city is staggering. The nightly waitlist for a shelter bed hasn’t dropped below 1,000 in more than a year, with many seniors and people with disabilities vying for a mat in a shelter, a reprieve from the streets. According to an April 2019 ruling in Martin v. City of Boise, cities can’t cite or criminalize people for sleeping on the streets if there are no beds available, making San Francisco’s behavior — of issuing 647e citations for illegal lodging, seizing people’s belongings, and threatening them with jail time if they don’t move from the street where they’re camped — all against the law. 

The workaround was fairly simple for city authorities. Offer an unhoused person a bed in a police station, and if they deny it (which many do) you’re free to cite and seize as you see fit. 

There are innumerable articles that can be produced from this situation. And while my fellowship project lay in the health impacts of these sweeps, it quickly became obvious that I would have to prove they were happening first, in order to lend of any of my reporting on health any credibility. So, I took a step back and dug up some numbers. 

In my article Lost, Stolen, Sold: S.F. Violates Homeless Property Policy I focused on the seizure of unhoused people’s belongings. When a person experiencing homelessness has their belongings — which can include life-saving medication, crutches, tents, and warm clothes — seized by the city in an attempt to clean up the street, they’re often issued a “bag and tag” form, which they can use to reclaim their items at the Department of Public Works Yard in an industrial area of town, little-served by public transit. 

In an effort to prove the scope of these sweeps, I obtained every bag and tag form issued by the city between October 2016 and March 2019. In their loosely-organized pages was ample evidence that the city was seizing every item homeless people owned — from photo albums to suitcases full of clothes. And, the city’s own data proved that less than 20 percent of people who were issued bag and tag forms were able to reclaim their belongings, due to badly-organized and leaky storage containers in the Public Works Yard, and alleged theft and resale of items of value by Public Works employees. 

The article blew up. It got thousands of shares on Facebook and Twitter, and shone a light on a broken situation that was negatively impacting the most-vulnerable of San Francisco’s residents. 

But it also helped me set the stage for a deep dive into some of the health impacts of these sweeps — such as the challenges unhoused people who use drugs face in holding on to the overdose-reversal medication Narcan, and how clinicians, researchers, and frontline workers are adapting hepatitis C treatment plans for unhoused people who are frequently losing their belongings. And while interviewing anyone who works for the city — who have all been instructed not to use the phrase “sweeps” — meant dancing around different phrases, for my readers the evidence that such incidents were taking place was made clear. 

When you’re ready to dive into a big reporting project it’s not always easy to go back to the basics — particularly if it means proving something is happening that is easily witnessed by a stroll through the Tenderloin. But when you’re challenging policy decisions created, for example, by a mayor, I learned it’s best to back up and provide a foundation of evidence before diving into the nitty gritty of an issue. 

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