(But This Problem Runs Much Deeper)
“If the Mayor wants the city to be tent-free, we need to make some policy decisions … San Francisco attracts unsheltered people to our city due to a lack of real enforcement and the many amenities we provide to folks.”
“Advocacy groups have been expressing concerns about HSOC’s efforts, demanding that we stop all operations until everyone can be offered permanent housing … None of this sounds well-reasoned…”
“HSOC has been resolving encampments and made it extremely clear that Public Works should be removing and/or relocating Pit Stops so that these sites did [sic] not re-establish.”
— Various San Francisco city officials, including Jeff Kositsky, in emails from 2021, regarding street encampments and Pit Stops serving the surrounding areas
In May, several emails from Jeff Kositsky, director of San Francisco’s Healthy Streets Operating Center (HSOC), were released through a public records request and shared on social media by Twitter user @dizz_h. The emails detailed what appears to be a pattern of HSOC removing portable bathroom units from areas where they are frequently used in an attempt to discourage unhoused people from gathering. While the details of these emails and this policy are certainly shocking, they fit into a long history of San Francisco relying on cruel, punitive solutions to homelessness that have long proven unjust and ineffective. In 2021, San Francisco needs to move beyond these tactics to prioritize real, permanent solutions to homelessness. This means getting rid of city officials like Kositsky who would resort to such inhumane practices in order to achieve their goals. More importantly, this means changing the goals themselves, and dismantling institutions such as HSOC that prioritize clearing tents over helping the people in them.
There have been two periods of mass homelessness in the United States. The first occurred as a result of a collapsed economy which created widespread unemployment during the Great Depression. The second period, spanning from the 1980’s to the present, has a more complex history stemming from a disinvestment from housing, stunted income for working class people, growing inequities, and rising rents. Since then, local municipalities have increasingly turned to policing and criminalization to manage homelessness. These efforts not only exacerbate homelessness, but have also been broadly recognized internationally, nationally and even locally as a violation of the civil rights of unhoused people.
Communities across the country are re-examining a police response to homelessness. The federal government now penalizes municipalities in their McKinney Act funding applications for failing to address criminalization, and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USIACH) has also put out guidelines for cities to move away from carrying out “sweeps,” or the forceful breaking up and removal of encampments. The shifting policies of these institutions illustrate a growing recognition in the failure of policing to combat homelessness and the need for a different strategy to address the growing crisis. Despite this, many who are forced to stay on the streets of San Francisco are still consistently denied fundamental human rights such as the right to accessible water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities, while extensive resources are spent on enforcement-led responses to complaints about the presence of homeless people.
Recently released internal communications from Jeff Kositsky, former head of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) and current head of the HSOC, highlights San Francisco’s reliance on police enforcement and denial of basic human rights to unhoused San Franciscans. These communications called for “increased enforcement” — including the removal of portable restrooms — in order to deter “re-encampment.” Kositsky’s requests are a shocking revelation of how internationally recognized human rights such as bathroom access are used as a tool of enforcement, highlighting the harmfulness and ineffectiveness of enforcement-first solutions to street homelessness. As the head of HSOC, Kositsky reveals through his emails the foundational and systemic problems with a city response that aims at creating a “tent-free, calmer environment” through punitive enforcement strategies. These strategies not only contribute to the dehumanization of the most vulnerable members of our community, but also compound the traumatizing conditions of chronic homelessness.
This attack on WASH access came during a global pandemic, when both the necessity of personal hygiene and lack of accessible restrooms became more acute. A recently released report by the Coalition on Homlessness found that 60% of unhoused San Franciscans fall below the lowest international minimum water access standards, which are typically applied only in emergency situations. Actions such as the ones Kositsky prescribed only intensify this crisis, making it more difficult for unhoused people to access the facilities necessary for life, dignity and health. Another now-public email from Julia Dawson, Public Works’ deputy director for finance and administration, shows that this abhorrent practice was not just a proposed policy, but an established practice of HSOC’s encampment resolution process. These strategies not only cause immense harm, but greatly inhibit the city’s ability to pursue permanent solutions to homelessness by misusing resources and further destabilizing unsheltered San Franciscans.
Additional emails show that HSOC’s operations are often directed not where there is the most need, but where these unidentified “VIPs” demand increased attention. This only adds to the greatly flawed picture of HSOC, painted by Kositsky’s own emails, as a harmful and cruel agency acting in the interests of the most powerful San Franciscans at the expense of the most vulnerable.
The words and actions of Jeff Kositsky, revealed in these emails, are shocking and disturbing, but the larger political context in which they take place are even more so. For decades, homelessness has been used as a political wedge in San Francisco elections, with politicians using violent policies of enforcement to draw more conservatives and downtown interests to the ballot, just as Donald Trump used anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments to stir up his base and raise money. The homeless population in San Francisco is vilified and demonized, and tactics to dehumanize them — such as playing into xenophobia and describing unhoused neighbors as outsiders — are a common refrain. As a result, our homeless response is inequitable and politically charged. For example, the Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) has had its trust with unhoused community members greatly damaged through several years of being used in conjunction with sweeps to “clear” areas that are of political importance or draw the attention of “VIP” San Franciscans, rather than being allowed the freedom to connect those most in need with the shelter options they want.
HSOC started as a police-led, complaint-driven coordination of city departments and resources designed to lower tent counts and break up large encampments. While HSOC’s leadership is now under the Department of Emergency Management, and former Homelessness Department director Kositsky was brought in to replace SFPD Lt. David Lazar as the center’s director, its core purpose of moving people along has not changed. For unhoused community members, this only continues the cycle of being shuffled around by the city and having their belongings trashed or destroyed. These operations make it harder for people to find places that are well lit, or places where they can stay with others whom they know and, by turn, ensure their personal safety. For people with no other options, tents offer a modicum of shelter and privacy, and take the edge off the indignity of living in public spaces. While HSOC sometimes offers services before clearing encampments, it often has very little to offer, and at other times relies on the Police or Public Works departments to simply clear an area. Once an area is cleared, HSOC employs strategies like bathroom removal to attempt to prevent people from returning.
This is an inherently flawed approach. While HSOC frequently boasts their success in reducing the number of tents in San Francisco, this success is not reflected in anywhere near an equal number of exits from homelessness. Tents are not people, and removing tents while doing nothing to change the housing status of the individual does nothing but leave people on the street with even less protection from the harsh conditions under which they live.
Beyond this, HSOC has also significantly changed the way that the City’s resources are allocated. In order to facilitate HSOC’s many operations, many available beds or housing are reserved for use at encampment sweeps. This means that the thousands of unhoused San Franciscans not subject to an operation, who are perhaps in greater need of shelter and much more likely to accept the available offers, are left without a way to access those beds. These resources are often directed to the most politically important areas, rather than those most in need. This is often done at the behest of “VIP” individuals and groups, such as San Francisco’s many Community Benefit Districts.
Overall, HSOC by design incentivizes the types of harmful, ineffective solutions displayed in Jeff Kositsky’s emails. In a recent encampment removal, Kositsky said that HOT was only able to place 30% of the folks into housing. This means that 70% of those affected, remained on the street in the same area after the operation, likely on the very same block. This is not a successful intervention, but rather an expensive, ineffective process of shuffling people around, stealing their belongings and providing meaningful solutions for very few.
Homelessness is solvable, and San Francisco knows how to solve it when it chooses to do so. The impact of inequality during COVID-19 was strikingly illustrated by the struggles of San Francisco’s unhoused residents. Some emergency intervention — , like the shelter-in-place hotels — although serving only a fraction of people needing shelter, demonstrated what a difference decent housing can make, even in the short term. But political battles during the epidemic also revealed how profoundly broken the “revolving door” approach the City takes to homelessness is, and the lack of structural investments in long-term solutions has increased systemic inequalities. As UCSF’s Dr. Margot Kushel said in response on how to combat homelessness, “There is no medicine as powerful as housing.”
The content of Jeff Kositsky’s emails certainly undermines the image San Francisco presents as “The City That Knows How.” Nobody who advocates for the outright revocation of fundamental human rights should wield that power over the lives of thousands of unhoused San Franciscans. However, to truly address the root causes of these harmful practices, we need structural change. The entire HSOC must be disbanded, as does Kositsky’s role in it, along with any response to homelessness that quantifies success by a measure of visibility rather than one of permanent exits from homelessness. San Francisco must approach the needs of unhoused and housed neighbors with compassion and resources that lead to fewer people sleeping hard on the street, not reproducing the harms that keep people chronically homeless for years on end. The revolving door of street to shelter to street must end. Instead of counting tents and carrying out huge displacement operations, we must focus on moving people into housing. And for all San Franciscans, especially those forced to live on the street, we need to increase access to basic human rights, such as access to WASH facilities, rather than punitively taking them away. Nothing cures homelessness like a home, and San Francisco can’t afford to continue pursuing solutions that fall short of that standard.