Solutions not Sweeps

The San Francisco Anti-Displacement Coalition has joined the Solutions Not Sweeps coalition in calling for an end to the criminalization of homelessness. We know that the majority of our unhoused community members were once renters in our increasingly affordable city, and have signed onto the below letter in recognition of the intimate connection between this advocacy and our anti-displacement work.


Dear Honorable Mayor Breed:

Everyone deserves a healthy and stable life. Despite efforts by the city to expand housing and emergency shelter capacity, thousands more people experience homelessness in San Francisco than there are available housing units or emergency shelter beds. Without acceptable indoor options, unhoused San Franciscans are forced to live in public spaces. Their presence in these spaces continues to be increasingly criminalized by encampment sweeps that result in eviction from their place of residence, confiscation or destruction of their belongings, and citations and arrests. This harassment and displacement of our neighbors who have no other housing option must end immediately.

Solutions Not Sweeps is a coalition of unhoused San Franciscans and allies, including front-line service providers, physicians, public health professionals, and advocates for justice for our unhoused neighbors. We crafted this open letter to demand that the City remove law enforcement from routine efforts to address homelessness, and to cease the criminalization of homelessness, poverty, mental illness, and substance use issues. The only true solution to the crisis is adequate, deeply-affordable housing and universal, comprehensive community services to support people with mental illness and substance use issues. Until homes and services are available, the City must provide public health interventions for these residents without threat to their person, place, or property in accordance with the US Federal Government’s best practice guidelines[1] issued by the Interagency Council on Homelessness. Below, we outline changes in policy and practice that must occur to achieve these aims and uphold the dignity of all San Franciscans.

We call on the Mayor of San Francisco to immediately:

  1. End the illegal confiscation and destruction of unhoused neighbors’ personal property.

The property of unhoused individuals is frequently being confiscated by city workers without adequate notice, even in cases where individuals are present to claim and move their belongings. Personal property “bagged and tagged” is often not catalogued or stored according to city policy[2] and is often disposed of by city workers. Even personal belongings such as medication, identification, wheelchairs, and walkers have been discarded. Not only are these violations of the policies of city agencies, they are violations of unhoused people’s rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

San Francisco police admit that they take belongings as evidence for alleged infractions, such as illegal lodging. There is no need to collect this evidence, however, because the District Attorney has committed to not prosecuting cases of illegal lodging. Rather than criminalizing and harassing homeless people, the city should focus those resources on managing this crisis with policies that promote stability for them and stop evictions.

 We demand that the City immediately accept responsibility for the harm that it has done under its current policies and cease the expensive and fruitless destruction of people’s lives. City policies that lead to the destruction of unhoused neighbors’ property are driving the most marginalized San Franciscans further into poverty. City officials separate our marginalized neighbors from possessions, which they often depend on for survival, maintenance of health, the ability to communicate, or the ability to earn an income. These are often items that hold significant monetary or sentimental value. By forcing people living on the streets to lose everything they own of value again and again, the city is repeatedly forcing people on the streets to focus on reacquiring what they need for survival, and actively working against their struggle to attain stability and safety.

We demand the city implement the following:

  1. All city agencies must follow existing property policy, and adopt clear and consistent improved policies which respect the dignity of unhoused neighbors, produce a system of accountability, and are easy for city workers to understand. These policies must be developed with input from the community.
  2. Law enforcement officers must stop confiscating individuals’ belongings as “evidence” of alleged infractions, such as illegal lodging.
  1. Replace the complaint-driven and law enforcement-led response to homelessness with an evidence-based approach aimed at connecting people with their needs.

Being homeless is not a crime, yet the city routinely dispatches police to address complaints regarding unhoused residents. San Francisco police assist the San Francisco Public Works (DPW) in their street cleaning operations through the Healthy Streets Operation Center (HSOC), forcing people living in encampments to disperse. Since January 2018, HSOC reports receiving 2,000 to 2,500 calls[3] per week. Police do not have adequate training on how to handle problems leading to and consequences occurring from homelessness. The number of officers assigned to addressing homelessness has more than doubled, increasing from 23 to more than 70 officers[4]. Yet, the independent Budget Legislative Analyst’s Office found in a 2016 report[5] that such dedicated officers was costly—$18.5 million—and ineffective. Of those forced to move, 91 percent remained in public space and only 12 percent were offered services.

We demand that the City remove all police from the City’s street cleaning teams and HSOC efforts, as well as any other City-led initiative around homelessness. Responding to our housing crisis with law enforcement further criminalizes people for trying to survive. Use of police to respond to calls about homeless people not only unnecessarily causes fear and escalates the problem, but is both ineffective and inhumane.

The City must remove police from HSOC. HSOC must reform their dispatch protocol as follows:

  • When calls concern a public safety issue, such as an assault, or involvement of weapons, regardless of the housing status of perpetrator or victim, send appropriate public safety responders.
  • When calls concern the presence of a homeless person, and there are no threats to public safety, send people who are trained to appropriately respond based on the concern, whether that be social workers, client advocates, or mental health and medical professionals.
  • When appropriate, because of caller demonstrating implicit bias against unhoused individuals, provide reassurance and education about crime rates[6][7] among those who are experiencing homelessness.
  1. End the use of cleaning as a pretext for harassment of unhoused people and establish productive, scheduled, regular, and well-publicized street and sidewalk cleaning where unhoused people reside.

Street cleaning is being used as a pretense to harass and displace unhoused neighbors. The city agencies tasked with responding to our homelessness crisis are operating with neither the correct priorities nor tools. The San Francisco Department of Public Works, Department of Recreation and Parks, and Police Department are conducting sweeps that result in forced relocation, loss of belongings, and criminalization, instead of making a safer environment for unhoused and housed people and connecting people with services and housing.

San Francisco suffers from insufficient affordable, appropriate, and accessible housing for extremely low income people. Temporary options, such as Navigation Centers or shelters, have long waitlists and/or long wait times. The result is that thousands of San Franciscans have not choice but to be on the streets.  Everyone, housed and unhoused, wants a clean and safe environment.

We demand the city implement the following:

  • Sidewalk cleaning must be scheduled on a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly time frame, with a two- to four-hour window of time between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., similar to other city street cleaning services.
  • The cleaning schedule must be made readily available to homeless individuals, service providers, and the public.
  • Notices must be posted at each cleaning site at least 72 hours in advance for routine cleaning. These notices must be plainly visible and must clearly define the boundaries of areas to be cleaned using multilingual description and maps.
  • Emergency cleanings of hazardous materials or items that pose a risk to the public’s health, shall not be used as a pretext for homeless sweeps.  
  • The city must allow unhoused residents affected by sidewalk and street cleanings at a minimum of 90 minutes to move their belongings out of the way, and must provide additional accommodations for unhoused residents with disabilities.
  • People must be allowed space to leave their belongings during a cleaning without risk of having their belongings confiscated or disposed of by city workers.
  • if DPW workers do determine a tent, dwelling or set of belongings is eligible for destruction due to a health and safety hazard, they must photograph and document such cases. Under the current system there is no accountability or data tracking of the number of tents or belongings destroyed by city officials.  
  1. End the towing of vehicles that people are using as their homes.

According to the SFMTA, over 1,200 people are living in cars, vans, or RVs on the streets of San Francisco.[8]  These are families, students, pregnant women, young children, elderly people, people with disabilities, and adults.8  With an adult shelter waitlist that regularly numbers over 1,000 people and housing waitlists that can span years, vehicles are often the first and only line of defense before people are forced to live directly on city streets. Vehicular living is also often the first step out of street homelessness.

While vehicular dwelling is far from ideal, it can often be the safest option for an already vulnerable population, yet vehicle dwellers live under constant threats to their only form of shelter. A lack of sanctioned locations to park for extended periods of time, leads to constant harassment by law enforcement, displacement, and lack of sleep.[9] Parking citations can end up costing hundreds or thousands of dollars in fines and fees. Five or more parking citations can result in towing.9

After losing their vehicle to impoundment, most people are unable to pay the initial $275 fee, let alone the subsequent daily $71 impound fees. A tow often results not only in the loss of a person’s vehicle and shelter, but also all of an individual’s possessions inside the vehicle. These fines and fees do not serve to end homelessness, and only exacerbate the issue.

Continued expansion of restrictive parking policies has resulted in massive displacement of vehicularly housed families and individuals as well as increased suffering and sleep deprivation. Even SFMTA’s own data[10] identified that the usual result of parking bans for vehicularly housed people is displacement to new areas, creating new ‘problem spots.’ Continuing to approve such restrictions without offering adequate alternative parking solutions has a detrimental impact on marginalized members of our community. We have a major housing crisis in San Francisco, and until every human has a safe place to sleep, they should not be criminalized for taking care of their basic need for rest. During this cold and rainy holiday season, it is cruel and inhumane to target people who have minimal protection and safety in their vehicles, and who are often one tow away from being forced to sleep on the cold hard streets.

In response to the crisis of people living in vehicles, we demand that the City:

  • Establish multiple safe parking programs around the city for the vehicularly housed community to park and live in and provide portable bathrooms, garbage service and drinking water, and if possible, showers.
  • Call for a moratorium on towing people’s homes when there are no traffic safety issues, and when tows do occur, place an amnesty on tow and impound fees for homeless residents. Revisit the Auto Return contract to exempt homeless individuals from these fees. Previously, the City’s contract with another business allowed for this.
  • Audit and reassess parking restrictions in San Francisco.
  • Stop towing vehicles where the owner is present, based on previous findings that demonstrate bias in towing practices. Vehicles belonging to unhoused people are often towed even if the owner is present, whereas other vehicle towings would typically cease if the owner arrives on scene.9

Mayor Breed, we want to see San Francisco recognize the humanity of all of its residents, and we want to see policies embraced that do that. We are coming together as a coalition to pool our power, expertise, and experience to work together towards that San Francisco. As Mayor, you can take executive action to support our vision of a cleaner and safer San Francisco that does not discriminate against residents according to race and class. We hope that you can share this vision with us. We believe it is your responsibility to support that vision, and we will be working to hold you accountable until you do.

On behalf of the Solutions Not Sweeps Coalition,

Jennifer Friedenbach, Executive Director San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness


[1]   Ending Homelessness for People Living in Encampments: Advancing the Dialogue. United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. August, 2015. https://www.usich.gov/resources/uploads/
asset_library/Ending_Homelessness_for_People_Living_in_Encampments_Aug2015.pdf
. Accessed January 2, 2020.

[2] Procedure 16.05.08: Removal and Temporary Storage of Personal Items Collected From Public Property. Departmental Procedures Manual Vol. 16. San Francisco Public Works, December 2016

[3] Sabatini, Joshua M. “SF’s new homeless unit accused of heavy handed police response.” San Francisco Examiner. 2nd October, 2018: https://www.sfexaminer.com/news/sfs-new-homeless-unit-accused-of-
heavyhanded-police-response/

[4] Police Commission – August 7, 2019 – Minutes. Police Commission, https://sfgov.org/policecommission/
meeting/police-commission-august-7-2019-minutes
. Accessed December 23, 2019.

[5] Policy Analysis Report Re: Homelessness and the Cost of Quality of Life Laws. Board of Supervisors, Budget and Legislative Analyst, June 1, 2016, https://sfbos.org/sites/default/files/FileCenter/Documents/
56045-Budget%20and%20Legislative%20Analyst%20Report.Homelessness%20and%20Cost%20of%20Quality%20of%20Life%20Laws.Final.pdf
. Accessed December 23, 2019.

[6] Schmid, Thacher. “No link between homeless villages and crime rates, Guardian review suggests.” The Guardian, May 23, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/may/23/homeless-villages-crime-
rate-seattle-portland
. Accessed December 23, 2019.

[7] Shortt, Sara. “Op-Ed: We don’t need protection from the homeless. They need protection from us.” Los Angeles Times, October 15, 2018. https://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-shortt-homeless-victims-
20181015-story.html
. Accessed December 23, 2019.

[8] San Francisco Homeless Count and Survey Comprehensive Report, 2019. http://hsh.sfgov.org/wp-
content/uploads/FINAL-PIT-Report-2019-San-Francisco.pdf
 Accessed January 2, 2020

[9] Towed into Debt: How Towing Practices in California Punish Poor People. Public Law Center. March 18, 2019.  https://www.google.com/url?q=https://baylegal.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/TowedIntoDebt.pdf Accessed January 2, 2020.

[10] Thornley, Andy. February 6, 2018. Presentation to the SFMTA Board describing that approximately 1,200 people are living in cars, vans, or RVs in San Francisco. SFMTA Board Meeting, San Francisco, CA. https://www.sfmta.com/sites/default/files/reports-and-documents/2018/02/2-6-18_minutes_-_mtab.pdf

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