The mayor of San Francisco called out feces on the sidewalks as a core problem to address in the city and wants homeless folks to “at least have respect” and “clean up after themselves”. It’s an unfortunate response, but I’m sure a lot of folks agree with the sentiment. No one relishes walking through the dirty streets in this city and it certainly is a concern, but this kind of rhetoric is actively harmful. It deliberately shifts responsibility for the problem onto the victims and away from the system that produced it. Homeless folks are among the most vulnerable in our society. In addition to their lack of housing, persistent precarity, mental health issues, and emotional struggles, the city is now going to ask them for respect and cleanliness?

16th Street and Mission BART

Signs at 16th Street and Mission BART.

From the interview with the mayor:

“There’s more feces on the sidewalks than I’ve ever seen here. And we’re not just talking about from dogs, we’re talking about from humans.”

“About 70 percent of the people who are estimated to be homeless in San Francisco were actually housed in San Francisco before they became homeless. We have to make sure people who live here, sadly, people who are homeless here, that they are also held accountable for taking care of our streets. This is our home.”

Shit on the sidewalks is unpleasant, but the human beings on the sidewalks are more tragic. Directing the discussion toward the dirty streets, rather than on the people who are forced to live on them is a distraction. To whom is the mayor trying to appeal? It is certainly not the homeless folks. (Do you remember “Tech Bro Justin”?) This language serves the privileged class.

The interview continues:

“Ask them to at least have respect for the community, at least clean up after themselves, and show respect to one another and people in the neighborhood.”

“I just solicited their help in trying to talk to their clients who, unfortunately, were mostly responsible for the conditions of the streets.”

Do you realize how much this is to ask of a homeless person? That they should respect a society that has given them none? They are denied the basic human right of housing. They are denied the dignity of free access to public toilets and showers. They hold little, if any, social or political power. They are vulnerable in every sense of the word. And the mayor suggests it is incumbent upon the homeless to clean up the streets, and that they are responsible for the conditions? Think for a moment how embarrassing and dehumanizing it must be to have no option but to defecate in public.

What would it mean for someone on the street to “clean up after themselves”? How does a person without a home do this in a city with a dearth of public restrooms? With what resources will they clean the streets? It is an honest question. What do you want them to do? What do you expect them to do? The suggestion is not actionable by any measure I can imagine. What purpose, then, does this kind of language serve? It is not offering a solution, but communicating to the homeless that their presence is unwelcome and should be concealed. It scapegoats the powerless and protects the brutality of state and capital by diverting public discussion away from critically examining and questioning the power structures that produced homelessness in the first place, a threat to current doctrine.

The problem is not the shit on the sidewalks. The problem is that there are thousands of displaced and vulnerable people living on the street while corporations evade taxes and venture capitalists light money on fire to stay warm during a San Francisco summer.

* * *

What always comes to my mind is the song Land by Fifteen, an 80s-90s era punk band from Berkeley. East Bay punk will never let you down. Jeff Ott lived on the street for a number of years, and his lyrics get directly to the point.

The homeless are a problem for only one reason
Their presence raises the question
Who owns the Land?
Who owns the Land?

[…]

This morning I was awoken, by a man with a hand gun
He’s got a book of rules that says, I ain’t got no right to sleep

This morning I was awoken, by a man with a hand gun
He’s got a book of rules that says, I ain’t got no right to be

Who owns the Land?
Who owns the Land?

[…]

Is there a connection
Who owns the Land?
To my daily eviction
Who owns the Land?
And the extermination
Who owns the Land?
Of the Native American

[…]

Homelessness is not a failure of capitalism, but a product thereof. It underscores the unequal distribution of wealth and exposes the imbalances in access to land and resources that are created by the construct of property rights. That is why it must be concealed. The city claims the homeless folks need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, without acknowledging that the bootstraps have been pulled from their boots and tied around their hands and feet. The city refuses to install public restrooms or build public housing on the premise that there is not enough funding. But the idea that there is not enough money in Silicon Valley is absurd. The problem is never a lack of capital, but who controls it.

While venture capitalists and banks possess most of the money, and landlords and corporations own most of the land, it is, of course, the homeless people who should be cleaning up their own shit off the sidewalks in San Francisco.

* * *

Resisting the atrocities of capitalism is a never-ending struggle. Aside from petitioning the city to install public restrooms, there are constructive actions you can take right now to help.

  • Think with compassion and act with understanding. If you feel angry or disgusted by something you see on the street, think about how dehumanizing it would be to live there. Who should receive your grievances, the vulnerable or the powerful?

  • Donate to the Coalition on Homelessness to help protect the human rights of the homeless folks.

  • Donate to Causa Justa to help prevent evictions.

  • Volunteer with ECS SF to have a direct impact in helping these folks by serving a meal or cleaning the facilities.

  • Do not call the cops if you see a homeless person having a mental health crisis — contact the Mobile Crisis Team, Concrn.org, or the SF Homeless Outreach Team.