A series of emails, released via the Sunshine Act, showed one of San Francisco’s top homelessness chiefs arguing that providing public services ‘attracts unsheltered people’ and that restricting amenities would be necessary to keep the City to be ‘tent free.’ These new revelations demonstrate a pattern of City officials neglecting their commitments to their homeless citizens and using police to force them out of the public eye.
In the emails to the Mayor’s Office and Department of Public Works on January 28th, Jeff Kositsky, head of Healthy Streets Operation Center, the entity in charge of Homelessness response in SF, says that if Mayor Breed “wants the City to be tent free we need to make some policy decisions.” The emails also show how Kosistsky sees his job as removing the City’s homeless rather than providing for them: “San Francisco attracts unsheltered people to our City due to lack of real enforcement and the many amenities we provide.”
In another email on January 14th, Kositsky said it was not “well-reasoned” for the Latino Task Force to request permanent housing, bathrooms, and water for unhoused people in Showplace Square. Kositsky wrote that “we have to decide if we truly want to have a tent-free, calmer environment in our visible public spaces”, but according to the City’s own data the strategy of removing homeless people from visible spaces is not making the problem better. The City is in need of a new strategy as new resources from ventures like the recent FEMA relief and shelter waitlists that can be over 1000+ people long.
In fact, according to the City’s 2019 report on homelessness, 63% of the City’s homeless said their main obstacle to housing was not being able to afford rent, which is not a problem that can be solved by either police enforcement or removing amenities. Supervisor Matt Haney disagreed with Kositsky by tweeting on 17 May that “public bathrooms are not the cause of homelessness.” Bathrooms and water are also a human right, according to the United Nations.
HSOC has been at odds with community leaders responding to the homeless with a police or Public Works response rather than services, resulting in sweeps that fail to get homeless people the help they need. Kositsky’s emails repeat what tenant rights advocate Shanti Singh has called the “pernicious, data-free Nextdoor-based myth” that San Francisco’s homeless come from outside the City. The Department’s own statistics show otherwise that the majority of the unhoused in San Francisco were previously housed in San Francisco.
Kositsky recently transitioned to the HSOC position in March 2021. In this new position, he will spearhead a joint venture of different departments including HSOC and the SF Police. Earlier in February, he presented to the Local Homeless Coordinating Board about directing resources more strategically. But more emails sent on March 31 show Kositsky continuing to give special attention to “VIPs” who complain about homelessness. His stated plan is to better triage 311 calls however, this strategy has led to wealthier neighborhoods getting disproportionate attention.
City Supervisors regularly respond to preferred businesses, wealthy residents, and the pleas of tech executives to have tents removed even when there is inadequate housing available. In 2020, Mayor Breed drew controversy for making personal requests for sweeps where her political donors have businesses as well as areas she frequents for dining. “Perception is everything” to the City’s officials even if their chosen policies have been declared “unconstitutional” by Martin v. City of Boise in 2019. Sadly, the overall concern is to make an appearance of normality even when thousands suffer across the City each day.
Because the homeless population in San Francisco is disproportionately black, queer, and disabled, these sweeps are not only cruel, they are racist and oppressive to our most marginalized neighbors. People often lose life-saving medication, family heirlooms, and survival supplies in these homeless sweeps As the homeless population increasingly suffers in one of the most expensive cities in the country, the City government has reneged on its responsibility to its own citizens to keep people housed and safe.