In a city with a $12bn budget and tech millionaires, more than 8,000 people are forced to sleep on the streets each night

They appeared seemingly from out of thin air last month: two dozen knee-high boulders, at first glance, unremarkable, placed with remarkable precision along a sidewalk in a quiet alley in San Francisco.

Within days, they became a flashpoint for a city in the midst of a homeless crisis.

Residents of the Clinton Park alley, located to the north of San Franciscos trendy Mission District neighborhood, funded the rock installation to deter loitering after what they described as a year of flagrant drug-dealing and unpredictable behavior. Housing advocates and other civically minded critics were quick to call the boulders out as anti-homeless architecture.

Boulders dont stop people from drug dealing, said Jennifer Friedenbach, the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness. But they do stop people from sleeping.

So began a tale of Sisyphean feats. An artist put the boulders up for sale on Craigslist. The post was flagged and taken down. Activists rolled the rocks off the sidewalk and into the street. The city, which was not involved in the installation, placed the boulders back. The boulders ended up in the street again. Back on the sidewalk. Back in the street.

At the heart of this whole saga is a simmering frustration, coming in from all directions, at one specific issue. In a city with a $12bn budget, where new tech millionaires street-park their Teslas and pay for their multimillion dollar condos in cash, more than 8,000 people are forced to sleep in the streets each night.

A street in the Mid-Market neighborhood. San Francisco has a waitlist of more than 1,100 for a shelter bed. Photograph: Jason Henry/The Guardian

On one end of the spectrum, there are advocates like Friedenbach, who calls the crisis a fundamental human rights violation. Their concern is for the unhoused, for their ability to access the help and resources they need to get off the streets and into a stable environment.

On the other end of the continuum, there are the quality-of-life complaints and frustration with the citys seemingly inability to spark much change the qualms with how visible homelessness affects the housed. Chris Herring, a sociology doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley, analyzed 3m 311 calls in a paper published in theAmerican Sociological Review, and found that calls regarding the homeless increased by 781% in San Francisco between 2011 and 2017.

People complain about seeing homelessness. They complain about poop and needles, said Danielle Baskin, the San Francisco artist who put the boulders up for sale on Craigslist. Theyre complaining about having it affect their daily commute because they have to step over someones sleeping bag.

I dont feel that bad for people who are complaining about homelessness, Baskin continued. I feel bad for the homeless people themselves. But I think that nobody knows what to do. Thats the issue.

Danielle Baskin – Anti-Rock Agitator (@djbaskin)

Thats money they could used to help people.

Instead they tried to hide problems the citys problems from just their block.

It didnt even work though.

The rocks placement is barbaric and make walking more difficult for everyone.

September 27, 2019

This sentiment was heavy over the alley this week, after the city removed the boulders at the behest of the neighbors. They had been fed up with the constant attempts to roll them into the streets, and are working with local officials to figure out a next step.

One Clinton Park resident, who asked not to be named, stood across from the sidewalk in question, which, for the moment, was clear of any encampments or activity. He was supportive of the boulders, though he wanted planters because people do view boulders as hostile. But hes also supportive of more housing, more shelters, more drug treatment, more mental health treatment and better solutions altogether.

This resident is a nurse practitioner who works with patients living in single-room occupancy units in the Tenderloin neighborhood patients who had recently been homeless and are recovering from drug addiction. He was frustrated with how the whole saga painted everyone who lives in Clinton Park as anti-homeless. The issue wasnt with people sleeping on the sidewalks, he said. People have been sleeping on that sidewalk for at least the eight years hes lived in the neighborhood. The issue was with the rampant drug-dealing and drug use.

Almost half the homeless population in San Francisco suffers from both mental illness and substance abuse disorder, according to the city department of public health.

Calls to 311 regarding the homeless increased by 781% in San Francisco between 2011 and 2017. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

People say, Gosh, these boulders, are they going to stop drug-dealing? Maybe not. But its not tidy, he said. Its just been this combination of getting high, getting dope, getting crystal meth and sitting there for days. There are fights, there are fires. This woman was bringing her infant by to score dope.

This wasnt a situation like that of the neighbors who started a crowdfunding campaign to fight the construction of a homeless shelter, citing reasons such as it was likely to decrease the fair market value for any future projects in that wealthy neighborhood, the resident said. In a way, he was almost heartened by the outcry against the boulders. It would maybe be worse if people didnt get excited about it, if they just accepted it, he said. People do care. I could see myself doing it too, decades back.

We need more transitional housing, more navigation centers, more permanent housing, more access to treatment, more something, he said. Its frustrating.

San Francisco has a waitlist of more than 1,100 for a shelter bed. London Breed, the city mayor, is working toward increasing the number of shelter beds by 1,000 by the next year, but in the midst of an affordable housing crisis in which the median rent has risen to $3,700 for a one-bedroom apartment, many in San Francisco are feeling discouraged that they will see any meaningful results.

Oftentimes, the complaints about homelessness will drive the citys efforts, and they end up only addressing visible homelessness rather than the issue itself. In 2016, the city passed a ballot measure banning all tents on city sidewalks but rejected a measure that would have raised the sales tax to fund homeless services.

What that means is that its now illegal for people to camp on the streets, but theres nowhere for them to go.

It just pushes people from place to place, said Friedenbach. For homeless folks, theyre constantly looking for a place to sleep where they wont bother folks, and then they get pushed out of those areas into more residential areas. Then the neighbors complain, and they get pushed from one residential place to another residential place and no one ends up happy in the end, especially not the homeless folk who end up shuffled from one place to another.

Jef Poskanzer (@jef_poskanzer)

The Clinton Park boulders. I got there just before DPW put them back on the sidewalk, and came back later for the second shot.

The weird thing is, there’s still plenty of room on the sidewalk for sleeping. So the people responsible are not merely assholes, they’re also stupid.

September 29, 2019

San Francisco has more anti-homeless laws than any other California city, according to Herring, the sociology doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley who analyzed the 311 calls, but the laws havent solved homelessness theyve criminalized it. Police now have the law behind them to move homeless people along when neighbors complain. But they still have nowhere to go. In a 2014 study, Herring found that only 9% of respondents said they moved indoors the last time they were forced to move, they were short-term indoor spaces, such as a library or a bus.

Most people stayed outside, and the majority of folks stayed within the same neighborhood, Herring said. A lot of people are just walking around the corner.

No homeless people wandered along Clinton Park, even after the boulders were removed this week. But across the street, Brooks Zorn sat outside Whole Foods, holding a sign reading, Anything Helps.

He was disheartened to hear about the anti-homeless boulders. Overall, he felt that San Francisco was much more friendly to the homeless than where he grew up in Marin county, just over the Golden Gate Bridge, where you would get arrested if youre caught sleeping anywhere.

Just three years ago, Zorn had steady work as a cook and a place to live.

They shouldnt view us as homeless people, Zorn said of the neighbors who installed the boulders. They should view us as human beings who just have life problems. They could be one paycheck short of being homeless too. It could happen to them, it could happen to anybody.

Almost half the homeless population in San Francisco suffers from both mental illness and substance abuse disorder, according to the city department of public health. Photograph: Jeff Chiu/AP

Hannah Hayne sat outside the Safeway across from Whole Foods with a palm-sized cardboard sign reading Need Food. The 27-year-old said she could go back to school and get off the streets with some help, but spoke with a circular cadence that suggested there was more to her situation than she cared to share. She had a head injury that was exacerbated when she was hit by a rock while homeless, she said, which she has been on and off since the age of 16. Ive been outside too long, Hayne said.

Hayne started to say she understood why people didnt want homeless people around, and that anti-homeless architecture like the boulders would give the homeless the boost they need to get inside before her thoughts ran from her again.

Its just confusing to me because I feel like there should be an inside to get into, Hayne said. I just dont understand how theres not.



Recommended For You

Like it? Share with your friends!


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.