Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
Complaints about San Francisco homelessness have risen, but even if callers simply want to help, shortages means citations are given more often than support.
Donald Trump announced he’d take radical federal action on homelessness in California this month, vowing to clear San Francisco’s “filthy” streets, and potentially rehouse Los Angeles’ Skid Row residents in a government-run detention center. It seems he's taking steps to follow through: CityLab reported that the federal government has discussed leasing a building just outside Los Angeles to use as a homeless facility, and Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary Ben Carson toured a San Francisco housing project last week.
Trump’s attention brings with it the specter of federal law enforcement, and his remarks have received the condemnation of liberal city leaders. But as the visible signs of homelessness have multiplied in cities like San Francisco, the unhoused population has not gone unnoticed—or unpunished—by locals, either. San Francisco, which has the most anti-homeless laws of any California city, has also developed an increasingly active approach of what University of California, Berkeley doctoral candidate in sociology Chris Herring calls “complaint-oriented” policing.
After analyzing more than 3 million 311 calls and more than 600,000 911 calls made between 2011 and 2017, Herring found that the number of complaints about unsheltered homeless residents—people who live outside the shelter system, typically on the streets—in San Francisco has grown far faster than the actual number of unsheltered homeless has. Between 2013 and 2017, the unsheltered population grew by 1 percent, while the 911 dispatches citing “quality of life violations involving the unhoused” jumped 72 percent, and 311 calls about “homeless concerns” grew 781 percent.
Those complaints are translated into action quickly. A San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) lieutenant told Herring that “over 90 percent of police and homeless interactions across the city are initiated through complaints,” as opposed to officers’ decisions to enforce laws while patrolling.
A complicated cocktail of economic, mental health, and drug-related factors drive homelessness itself, along with disinvestment in housing services at the federal level, and the criminalization of poverty. But in a paper published in the American Sociological Review this month, Herring outlines how the factors driving the rise in complaints have more to do with how the city itself has changed, and the evolving ways in which people come into contact with each other. For his research, Herring spent nine months living on the streets, in shelters, and “welfare hotels,” and a year observing at City Hall, doing police ride-alongs, and working at a shelter. He also learned how the complaint-driven system perpetuates the cycle of homelessness.
Just as new development has increased property values and rents, driving people out of the city altogether, it’s brought new people and businesses into formerly industrial areas; and with them, new eyes on the streets. Though Herring didn’t isolate the variables that would determine whether San Francisco’s policing is gentrification-driven, other research shows that when higher-income people move into a neighborhood, the policing of minor offenses like loitering intensifies.
“It’s becoming perceived more as a crisis that’s at your front door,” Herring said. “It’s not because homeless people are just appearing at your front door. You’re also building new front doors.” Especially in San Francisco—a small city, only seven by seven miles long—there are fewer safe places to camp out, or stay tucked away.
One key factor driving displacement (and re-configuration) was the 2016 Super Bowl, many local homelessness advocates say. To make room for the festivities, and display a more presentable cityscape, unhoused people and their tents were pushed from the Embarcadero, and every other neighborhood in the city, towards the Mission District. “Within a few-block radius, there [were] over 300 tents,” recalled Kelley Cutler, a human rights organizer with the Coalition on Homelessness.
More anti-homelessness laws followed. A 2016 measure championed by then-District Supervisor (now California State Senator) Scott Weiner made it illegal to mount a tent on a San Francisco sidewalk, for example. The effort was intended to divert people into shelters, but many homeless advocates say it just justified more policing.
Meanwhile, the ease with which people can report incidents to the city has also accelerated, and with it, a belief that it’s residents’ responsibility to not only train their eyes on the streets, but to do something about what they see. The complaints that result in the policing of homeless people are generally initiated in three ways, writes Herring: “from below directly by the citizenry, businesses, or homeowner associations calling 911 or 311; horizontally from city agencies, particularly the departments of public works, public health, and parks; and from above by city supervisors and the mayor’s office.”
Most come from that first category. Along with 311 and 911 calls, residents can file reports through San Francisco’s Open311 app, which was initially developed to allow residents to report potholes, and to which “homeless concerns” was added as a complaint in 2015. (Locals call it the “snitch app,” Herring says.)
“These new 311 systems that are being mobilized are really playing off this idea as put forward by [Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City] … this idea of the mayor as a CEO, and the city as a corporation, and the residents as its customers,” Herring said. And the customer is always right.
Business Improvement Districts, which have multiplied from one in 2000 to 15 in 2015, also generate thousands of complaints a year. Accountings of monthly operations by San Francisco’s Union Square BID report that security guards and “community ambassadors” “enforced specific homeless-related quality-of-life offenses” 24,101 times between 2014 and 2015, and then 43,901 between 2018 and 2019.
Though San Francisco residents have been known to protest (and threaten legal action) against the creation of homeless services, Herring doesn’t blame the rise in calls on a lack of empathy. People who call city facilities are often doing so because they fear for their own safety, or that of an unhoused person living in unsanitary or potentially harmful conditions. “What they don't say is, yeah, call 311, and we will send out a sanitation team to sweep the streets at the threat of arrest by the police, which is what predominantly happens,” Herring said.
When Mayor London Breed expanded the Healthy Streets Operation Center (HSOC) after she took office last year, she said she wanted to divert complaints about homelessness to a coterie of social workers, supportive housing representatives, and public health officials, along with the police and the public works department. In reality, the majority of the dispatches have fallen to the latter two groups.
And, while most 311 calls are routed directly to the Department of Public Works, “between 4 and 9 percent of 311 reports in any given week are dispatched to the police,” Herring writes, including reports labeled “wellness checks.” In 2017, citizen-initiated complaints about homelessness were the source of almost 100,000 police dispatches, up from about 57,000 in 2012.
In the most extreme cases, those checks can turn deadly; more often, they can be financially or emotionally taxing. In August, an Arlington, Texas, police officer responded to a wellness check for a homeless woman sleeping outside with her dog. When he arrived, he shot at the dog, apparently to calm it down, but ended up hitting and killing the woman instead. According to logs from the Open311 app cited by Herring, one San Francisco caller “requested a ‘well-being check’ for a woman reported as having ‘blood on her body’ and who ‘looks very sick.’” A few hours later, the app showed that the case was closed. “The woman was not issued an ambulance, however, but a citation,” said Herring.
“We have a housing and a health crisis, and yet San Francisco—just like other cities—is responding with law enforcement,” said Cutler.
It’s a mismatch in response precipitated in part by a mismatch in resources: There just aren’t enough housing and health facilities available to address the concerns that arise. Though the city has invested $1.5 billion in homelessness services in the past decade, and has created more than 500 shelter beds, the shelter waitlist often hovers around 1,000 people long. (In 2017, there were 7,000 homeless adults on the streets in a given night in 2017, according to HUD; and only 2,000 shelter beds to house them.) There’s also a lag in getting people who need a bed to available ones in adequately-staffed facilities.
A recent San Francisco Chronicle investigation found that between 27 and 70 beds in local mental health facilities had been left empty “on several nights this year,” sparking community outrage. “It’s pretty shocking to know that there are so many beds available in San Francisco for a level of care that is desperately needed,” Rachel Rodriguez, a San Francisco social worker, told the Chronicle. But further reporting revealed that at least one facility, beds were left open because of concerns that staff was “negligent”; and that staff shortages have become a common problem as costs of living rise for care workers.
At the same time, the law enforcement staff dedicated to policing the homeless has increased. The number of police officers dedicated to enforcing homeless complaints doubled in 2018, from 24 to 58. A 2016 report from San Francisco’s Budget and Legislative Analyst estimated that the city spends $20.1 million a year enforcing “quality of life” laws against homeless people.
Through conversations and ride-alongs with officers, Herring found that many police officers were reticent about following through on complaints and engaging with homeless people because they knew how few services there are available. “They were frustrated that they couldn’t give a referral or an offer of shelter or help,” said Herring. “And were very cognizant of the issue, which is that they’re just moving people around and not solving the problem.” Some of them likened their job to being a “mall cop.”
But most traumatic are the effects of these calls on the unhoused residents themselves. Herring writes:
Citations seen as nominal to most are nearly impossible for the unhoused to pay, resulting in debt and bench warrants that create significant barriers to exiting homelessness. Property confiscation by sanitation crews deprives people of medical and economic means of survival, and the mere fear of having one’s property confiscated prevents people from receiving medical services or holding a job. The constant churning of move-along orders provoke conflict among individuals trying to survive in limited public spaces.
If you leave medicine in your tent for the day to go to work, you could return to find it, and the entire tent, gone, says Leslie Dreyer, an artist and activist who produced a documentary on encampment sweeps in collaboration with several members of the Coalition on Homelessness.
“My backpack, my I.D., my birth certificate, my dad’s ashes”—all her most valuable possessions—disappeared in a flash one day, said Crystal, one of the characters in the documentary, Stolen Belonging: Recognize Our Humanity. (It’s not clear whether the sweeps in question were precipitated by a 311 or 911 call, or a routine officer action.) “You learn to get tough skin out here with stuff like that,” said Amber Fina, another unhoused woman. “You can’t have anything sentimental.”
During the nine months he lived on the streets, Herring said sweeps were common. “Even folks who never got the citation—which were few—it was a brutal reality of having to move; of being constantly shifted around on the streets,” he said. “You’re already totally defunct of both your dignity and material well-being and then being kicked while you’re already down…” Sometimes the sweeps would happen multiple times a day, he said; people would be served move-along orders, only to be asked to move along once again hours later. They were forced to spend more of their lives just trying to survive, rather than trying to find pathways out of homelessness.
What’s most ironic, Herring says, is that the unhoused feel unable to call the police with the same level of ease as their housed neighbors, fearing retribution from the city, or from others on the streets. While San Francisco protects undocumented migrants who report crimes like sexual assault, “we don't extend that same sanctuary to our homeless residents,” said Herring, “because their existence is illegal.”
To truly reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness—sheltered and unsheltered—advocates believe more radical investments in shelter beds, mental health resources, and, crucially, affordable housing are needed. But Herring says one way to curb people’s instincts to call the police with homeless complaints and reduce the criminalization of the unhoused, is to be more honest about the magnitude of the problem, and the limitations of the current system. When San Francisco opened five new shelters between 2014 and 2017, for example, the city encouraged people to call 311 more frequently, hoping they’d divert the homeless population from the streets to the freshly-made beds. But since the calls far outnumbered the empty spots, the 311 calls often led to more policing, not to better care.
“[Our officials] do not talk enough about the lack of services, and this produces the myth of service-resistance and the idea that if we police people, they will move inside,” said Herring. “If city officials can do one thing, it can be to educate the public when they’re asked these questions and being real with them about the lack of city services—rather than constantly promoting their work.”
So what should people do when they see someone that seems in need of city services? “Always start with talking to an individual and asking, ‘how I can help?’” the Coalition on Homelessness’ Cutler says, and avoid assuming. Even she acknowledges that sometimes, having those conversations is impossible.
“There’s times when I’ve called 311 for someone in the alley in crisis,” Cutler said. “But what I did is I stayed and advocated. That makes a big difference.”