Neutralizing Poverty: Governing Homelessness in San Francisco
Lecture by Chris Herring for Fall 2018 Colloquium The City and its People.
Fall 2018 GUH Colloquium student Mikayla Domingo wrote the following reflection on the November 13th lecture given by Chris Herring, PhD Candidate in Sociology.
The pervasiveness of the homeless population in San Francisco has gained attention at the international level following the UN’s recent declaration of it being a human rights violation (Graff, 2018). Chris Herring, PhD Candidate in Sociology at UC Berkeley, focuses his lecture around the topic of how criminalizing the homeless essentially perpetuates poverty, while also illuminating the relationship between gentrification, homelessness, and policing. Many grow fixated on the booming economic prosperity of San Francisco and Silicon Valley, regarding the tech industry producing global conglomerates such as Apple, Intel, and Google (just to name a few). However, the glow surrounding this industry renders many unaware of the adverse effects that come with a global city. Homelessness is an unintended byproduct of a globalized city. Herring argues that gentrification results from an influx of new residents who tend to be more educated and financially affluent, resulting in a skyrocketing cost of living and exponential growth of the homeless population.
A global city can be defined as “an urban center that enjoys significant competitive advantages and that serves as a hub within a globalized economic system.” (Charnock, 2013) Global cities, such as San Francisco, often involve gentrification, a main focal point of Herring’s lecture. To further explore the impacts of gentrification on the increasing homeless population, Herring raises the question of whether policing of the homeless results from gentrification or citizen demand. In short, it results from both. Upon providing statistics data, Herring explains that the “increased criminalization of the homeless are driven by homeless complaints, resulting from gentrification, new development, and change in demographics of higher educated and wealthier individuals,” which can be attributed to the tech boom. This is a form of aggressive patrol, or rather “anti-homeless laws as a class strategy promulgated by elites and capital interests, aimed at exclusion and incapacitation.” Gentrified areas have increased individuals’ or organizations’ demand for removing the homeless from the streets in front of their buildings or businesses. Subsequently, police officers and sanitation crews play a role in the criminalization of the homeless, whereupon simply being homeless could result in citations for “quality-of-life” violations, such as obstruction or trespassing. Essentially, the condition of being homeless has been deemed a disruption to the public, and has thereby been criminalized. The most common callers to the Department of Public Works to report the presence of a homeless person were made by San Francisco’s residents, resulting in an “indistinguishable wedding between sanitation and police” leading to sanitation crews guiding policing of homeless. However, neither the police nor sanitation crews see their role as criminalizing homelessness. Moreover, gentrification creates citizen demand to uphold the new version of the global city by increasing policing efforts to rid of the homeless. To residents, the unhoused taking shelter on the street impedes with the vision that the new city attempts to put forward, further resulting in the punitive measures taken against the homeless.
As gentrification and residents demand are demonstrated to cause criminalization of the homeless, it is additionally important to consider how these policing efforts impact the homeless. Herring draws from a multi-sided ethnography of community-based studies focused primarily on citation and move-along orders. For instance, as Herring demonstrates in one study consisting of 351 participants who experienced homelessness in San Francisco in the past year, 70% of respondents were forced to move from a public space, yet 91% still remained within the public space; in other words, they merely moved down the street to another neighborhood, or simply walked around. This demonstrates that move-along orders are not only inefficient in providing a solution to homelessness, but that it merely continues the criminalization. Additionally, the practice of move-along orders continues the psychological suffering of the unhoused with the central consequence surrounding the concern of having their property destroyed by the city. Herring provides a jarring statistic stating that 41% of the unhoused reported their personal property destroyed by the city, resulting in the loss of medicine for HIV, family mementos, and often everything they formerly owned. Treating poverty as a criminal or medical condition allows for such pervasive penalties, or policing interactions that fall short of arrest.
However, there are suggestions for improvement surrounding policy implications for dealing with the unhoused. Alternatives to arrests are not enough for ending practices that criminalize the homeless; Herring argues that the critique of criminalization should be embedded with a critique of inadequate welfare in policy dealing with homelessness at the legal, legislative, and bureaucratic levels. As a political science major who focuses on the operations of public policy within American politics, the implications surrounding Herring’s lecture are essential to understanding how and why solutions must be implemented at the legal, legislative, and bureaucratic level. At the legal level, understanding that the conditions of homelessness ultimately violate the 8th amendment are grounds for a lawsuit that could set precedence in changing the way that homelessness is perceived as well as approaching solutions. However, reform at the bureaucratic level would seemingly evoke the most systemic change by extending the opportunity to enact solutions beyond the roles of politicians and policymakers, and into the hands of outside agencies that aren't incentivized by gaining votes for re-election, or by financial incentives.
Graff, Amy. “United Nations Report: SF Homeless Problem Is 'Violation of Human Rights'.” San Francisco Chronicle, 5 Nov. 2018. Accessed at www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/rapporteur-United-Nations-San-Francisco-homeless-13351509.php.
Mukherjee, Rahul. “San Francisco’s Bilenial Homeless Count.” San Francisco Chronicle, 28 Jun. 2016. Accessed at https://projects.sfchronicle.com/sf-homeless/numbers/
Charnock, Greig. “Global City.” Britannica Encyclopedia. 30 May, 2013. Accessed at https://www.britannica.com/topic/global-city
Note: all other quoted text are from lecturer Chris Herring on November 13, 2018 at the Fall 2018 Global Urban Humanities Colloquium.
About the writer: Connie Zheng is an artist and writer currently pursuing her MFA in Art Practice at UC Berkeley. She uses the dialogue between text, drawing, painting and time-based media as a conduit through which to consider the environment of the media and the media of the environment, and these investigations tend to center on the visual culture around environmental crisis and economies of waste and creative reuse. She received her BA in Economics and English from Brown University and worked as a researcher before beginning graduate school. Here, she writes about her current practice and research on cardboard is influenced by the GUH course, Populism, Art and the City.
We are surrounded by cardboard everywhere in the Bay Area: in our recycling bins, on our doorsteps, and scattered on the street. We use cardboard to protect and transport the items that often make up our domestic interiors, whether we are moving between homes or awaiting a shipment that traces its origins overseas. We also see cardboard being repurposed and given new life and context, often by our unhoused neighbors, as signage, shelter and insulation.
This material, so evocative of consumption, movement, and creative reuse, became the subject for a speculative research paper that I began while taking the GUH seminar Populism, Art and the City, with Drs. Angela Marino and Jason Luger. I’m grateful that this paper will be published in the Journal of Urban Cultural Studies this upcoming winter, and that the research I did for this piece has informed other writing, video and installation projects that I have been working on this fall.
The idea of a home space in relation to cardboard struck me one Sunday afternoon in January of this year, when I was walking through the ground floor of the HSBC headquarters of Hong Kong. There, I saw nearly a hundred Filipina and Indonesian women gathered in space. They were Filipina and Indonesian domestic workers assembled in one of many informal gathering sites that bloom and are then disassembled over the course of one day. Sunday was the day they could claim as their sole day off from what would otherwise be a 24/7 workweek in the home of their local or expatriate employers, and I assumed that the ephemerality of this gathering made cardboard a useful material to support its manifestation. When I first encountered one of these gatherings, or assemblies, I found myself struck by an affective response that I later attributed to the sight of cardboard being used to demarcate a new informal space directly on top of an existing codified space.
Initially I wondered if the women were homeless, since I am accustomed to the image of the homeless in the Bay Area sitting or sleeping on flattened cardboard. Closer observation negated this possibility. In both cases, however, the cardboard being used as insulation or shelter appeared to be of unknown provenance, occasionally bearing logos that suggested they migrated from a residence or commercial business. Through conversations with Professors Marino and Luger, and my brilliant classmates in the Art, Populism and the City seminar, I realized that the ubiquitous, utilitarian, endlessly repurposable material of cardboard could possess not only a particular symbolic force that is linked to class inequality and consumption, but that it may also contain the ability to cross spatial delineations and produce a new kind of public space. This inquiry led me to the following research question: how does cardboard circulate between public and private spaces, both physically and ontologically, and what is produced in the moment when it crosses from one semiotic space into another?
I began the project by tracing the movement of cardboard through a trans-Pacific circuitry of trade: I made calls to and visited the Port of Oakland, the Berkeley Recycling Center, the Creative Packaging factory in Hayward, and the International Paper sheet feeder factory in Gilroy. I used walking, sketching, photography, video, and speculative writing as methodologies, in addition to more “traditional” methods of research. The multidisciplinary approach that our instructors encouraged the class to take were crucial for the formulation of this paper and its evolution into more visually-oriented works as part of my artistic practice. In fact, much of the research that I did for this paper regarding the circulation of waste commodities made its way into an oil painting, an installation that I am currently building, a visual essay that was just published on SFMOMA’s Open Space platform (“Familiar Strangers, Strange Familiars”), and the footage that I shot when visiting the Berkeley Recycling Center for this paper found its way into a video piece, Notes on Fluorescence, which showed in the Trace Evidence exhibition sponsored by GUH earlier this year.