Hundreds of demonstrators gathered just outside San Francisco’s glitzy Super Bowl City on Wednesday to protest the forced relocation of homeless residents ahead of the nation’s most popular sporting event.
Holding signs and chanting slogans including “Hey, Ed Lee, no penalties for poverty,” activists quickly pitched tents and just as quickly hoisted them aloft as a phalanx of police in light riot gear threatened to break up what they called the “illegal encampment” along the city’s waterfront Embarcadero at around 4:30 p.m. Other people, including reporters, were temporarily barred from joining the protest by SFPD officers blocking the sidewalk, but the officers hastily retreated to join the ranks of their colleagues after several minutes.
Lamenting the $50 million raised by the Super Bowl committee to host the big game, former mayoral candidate Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, said that “with that money… we can get 5,000 people off the streets of San Francisco and into homes.”
“That would almost ameliorate homelessness altogether in this city,” asserted Schuffman to applause and cheers. “But no, we’ve got a party over there (in Super Bowl City) instead.”
Among the other speakers was longtime LGBT rights activist Tom Ammiano, who served on the city Board of Supervisors and in the state legislature, where he unsuccessfully tried to pass a Homeless Bill of Rights. Ammiano told crowd that “the problem is not homelessness, it is a lack of political will.”
“They say want to eradicate the homeless problem,” Ammiano said of city officials. “But read between the lines, what they really mean is they want to eradicate the homeless.”
The demonstrators were a mix of homeless advocates, anti-eviction, gentrification and police brutality activists and others. Among them was Vicki Gray, a counselor at the San Francisco Night Ministry, a crisis intervention, counseling and referral service for the homeless.
“I know the conditions that homeless people are facing in this city and I know the conditions that non-homeless people are facing as they’re forced out of unaffordable housing,” said Gray. “These cheeseboxes that are going up everywhere are $3,000 for a studio.”
“I’ve called Super Bowl City a moral disaster area,” added Gray. “We should be spending money on adequate healthcare and social services for the homeless and for housing.”
City officials countered that they spend more than $200 million annually combating homelessness, but 6,686 people by the city’s own count—likely a conservative figure—are living on the streets and in recent weeks many homeless San Franciscans say they have been forced to repeatedly relocate as the city prepares to host a million visitors for the big event.
When asked if police have told her to move, longtime homeless resident Shannon Pleskac told Moral Low Ground that “they do it all the time.”
“Right now, it’s mainly for the Super Bowl,” said Pleskac. “The high cost of living [means] we can’t get an apartment. There’s no room in the shelters, there’s no SROs (single room occupancy hotels). There is no room.”
Homeless residents say they are often issued police citations for minor offenses, which can result in arrests when they cannot afford to pay them. Pleskac said she’s received such citations, and that Department of Public Works employees “will come and take all of your stuff away.”
“Last year, 11,000 people got citations,” said Coalition on Homelessness Executive Director Jennifer Friedenbach. “When they can’t afford to pay them, they get warrants and end up going to jail just for sleeping and resting. And they’re kicked off the housing list for warrants, which further perpetuates homelessness.”
Mayor Ed Lee’s office repeatedly refused to directly answer questions about Super Bowl homeless removal, instead pointing to a press release detailing the city’s plan to house the homeless during El Niño storms. The release did not mention homeless sweeps or the Super Bowl. But clues can be found in an August 2015 statement by Mayor Lee in which he told homeless people that “you are going to have to leave the streets.”
“They say San Francisco is a city with a heart,” Ammiano said at Wednesday’s protest. “But I feel that heart is missing lately.” Addressing the heavy police presence, Ammiano quipped, “What are we, ISIS? How many cops can we have? Who’s paying for them? What am I going to do, hit them with my purse?”