Police Cleared Out Neighborhood - to Make Way for Park?

Amber Whitson knew the cops were coming. She just didn’t know when. For years the city of Albany, CA had been trying to force Whitson out of her home. The official reason was that she lived on a strip of land destined for conversion to a state park. But the city had been dragging its feet since 1985, and never offered to meaningfully help with her transition. For these reasons, she felt she had the right to stay.


Whitson’s home was a bit unorthodox. She built it herself on a former landfill that had become a destination for artists, anarchists and people with no other place to go starting in the mid-1990s. The area ultimately grew into a community of upwards of 70 people, coexisting on the fairly unregulated peninsula amid towering art installations and colorful dwellings, masterfully assembled from bits of found debris. The strip of land was christened the Albany Bulb. For two decades, its residents lived peacefully alongside dog-walkers and adventurers who came to admire the likes of “Mad Mark’s Castle,” the found-art sculptures created by artist Osha Neumann and the glorious views of the Bay.

But the Bulb wasn’t popular with everyone. For many officials in Albany, a predominantly white, upper-middle-class community, a state park would allow the public more access to the area and would also be attractive to developers, who had long dreamed of turning the dozens of acres of scenic waterfront land into a shopping mall. A chorus of negative feedback from Albany residents halted that plan in the mid-2000s. In its stead came a 2010 proposal that would have seen a mixture of public and private institutions forming a “Technology Collaborative” along the eastern edge of the Bay. That plan was also scuttled when the principal tenant walked away from the project, leaving a World War II-era racetrack intact and more uncertainty about the fate of Bulb residents.

By spring 2013, some of that uncertainty was dissolved. On May 6, the Albany City Council voted to evict Amber Whitson and dozens of her neighbors by October, with a PR-friendly decree—the “Albany Waterfront Park Transition Plan.” The residents banded together to fight the order. As they stood their ground, they were regularly harassed by police officers. In October, an officer unloaded five rounds into a dog belonging to one of Whitson’s neighbors. The police report claimed the dog had bitten an officer (not the shooter). According to Whitson, that officer didn’t even arrive on the scene until after the dog was shot.

The city’s general negligence toward Whitson and her neighbors in the course of the state park transition prompted a lawsuit in November 2013. Whitson’s hopes of retaining her home had dwindled considerably by that point, but she still refused to give up. Even after the lawsuit concluded in April 2014 and 28 of 30 plaintiffs accepted the city’s settlement offer in return for vacating their homes and not returning to the area for at least a year, Whitson and her partner (the only two plaintiffs who rejected the city’s deal) would not leave.

In May, Whitson received several visits from police officers. On each occasion, they only stayed long enough to write a citation, but their presence was ominous. Then, after 19 eerily quiet days, the cops made their move. At 4:30am on May 29, Whitson was alerted by a local supporter that a battalion of police officers was drawing near for a military-style raid.

“I ran inside and I woke my partner up and I was like, honey, honey! The cops are here," Whitson says. “And they stepped right through, broke down our fence, and came in with assault rifles, and arrested us for lodging and no ID. Even though we all had ID, but they had to have an excuse to arrest us. You can’t just arrest someone for misdemeanor lodging, so they had to arrest us to identify us supposedly.”

Before whisking Whitson and her partner away in handcuffs to the Santa Rita jail, one of the officers participating in the raid threatened to shoot their two dogs. The threat never materialized, but that hardly made it less traumatic for Whitson, who had seen an officer shoot and kill a neighbor’s dog several months back. Reflecting on the raid almost a year later, Whitson says, “I didn’t expect them to come in with guns blazing like that. Nobody got shot. At least both of the dogs survived.” It’s no surprise that Whitson was shaken up by the presence of 30 heavily armed law enforcement officers from three police departments pointing guns and making threats inside her home. 

But Whitson had other things to worry about then. Most pressing was the question of where she would sleep. Whitson and her partner had come to the Bulb to escape the indignities they faced living on the streets of Berkeley. “We had been together, living in Berkeley, for about a year and were tired of being harassed by police just because we were homeless. When we moved to the Albany Bulb, a new life began for both of us.” Whitson said many of the people she met at the Bulb had come for similar reasons, and in fact, in the early 1990s, “Albany police started telling homeless Albany residents to ‘go live on the landfill.’”

But the harassment eventually caught up with Whitson. Not only did she ultimately lose her home at the Bulb, she gained an arrest record in the process. This means her chances of landing a coveted spot in public housing is extremely slim. Thanks to the generosity of an Albany resident, Whitson has had a place to stay for the several months since her eviction, but she knows she can’t count on this hospitality forever.

Cracking Down on Homelessness

The police raid that evicted Amber Whitson from her home is an extreme example of the kind of force routinely waged against the homeless people of the Bay Area. But it stems from a broader policy, embraced by municipalities nationwide, of criminalizing activities associated with homelessness, rather than addressing the underlying causes of a decades-long housing crisis.

According to a recent report from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, laws like the “no camping” ordinance, which served as the pretext for Whitson’s regular harassment and ultimate eviction, are “designed to move visibly homeless people out of commercial and tourist districts or, increasingly, out of entire cities” and “are often justified as necessary public health and public safety measures.”

While these anti-homeless laws have been ratified and enforced in every state, increasingly so beginning in the 1990s, there is a compelling case to be made that California cities and the Bay Area in particular are at the vanguard of the trend.

This view is supported by data from a February 2015 study from UC Berkeley. Its authors note, “homeless people face more challenges finding housing in California than elsewhere. This includes not only rental housing, but also emergency or transitional housing. Whereas most homeless people across the country lived in emergency shelters or transitional housing programs in 2013, most homeless people in California were unsheltered.”

Though California has about 12% of the nation’s population, it has almost a quarter of the country’s homeless people.

Given California’s out-of-control rental markets, its glaring lack of resources for the homeless and low-income residents, and the absence of any political will to address an enormous statewide housing crisis, a race-to-the-bottom law enforcement solution has been devised and implemented for managing the majority of the homeless left outside of the crowded shelters and the scarce stock of subsidized apartments.

The UC Berkeley study observes that “Compared with other U.S. cities, California cities have more anti-homeless laws restricting many important types of activity.” Moreover, “cities in California are substantially more likely than those in other states to restrict camping in public and sleeping or lodging in vehicles.” Albany, one of the 58 cities and towns of varying size, surveyed in the study, has seven legal restrictions regulating the behavior of the homeless, five of which pertain to sleeping, camping and lodging.

Protecting Development

In one of three in-depth case studies, the authors zero in on the Bay Area’s most famous city. They found that in San Francisco, citations of the homeless for activities like sitting or lying on a public sidewalk during the daytime or begging in an unauthorized place, “sharply increased in general election years (2008 and 2012).” They also found that San Francisco’s favoring of municipal codes over state laws reflected a desire for “responsiveness to shifting political realities” in the application of anti-homeless measures. The study includes a comment from Michael Nevin, a lieutenant in the San Francisco Police Department’s Operations Bureau, focusing on homeless outreach, who states that law enforcement is “done at the behest of city government” and municipal codes speak to topics that “would have gotten the attention of the political powers that be, and they’ve decided that they want San Francisco to focus in on certain things.”

In other words, the homeless are caught in a political game—a game whose costs are soaring. A government study conducted between 2004 and 2009 looks at homeless policies in a number of U.S. cities, San Francisco among them, and shows that the average cost of jailing the homeless ($87 per day) dwarfs the cost of providing them shelter ($28 per day). And these figures are only part of the story. Other costs associated with the over-policing of the homeless include exorbitant emergency room bills and considerable allocations of resources for court processing and police work.

If it’s significantly more expensive to criminalize the homeless than to provide them with housing, why is this unproductive and inhumane paradigm a growing trend?

A glimpse at the agenda of San Francisco’s current mayor can help explain. Before Ed Lee was appointed by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to finish out Gavin Newsom’s term, he was a San Francisco city administrator with a reputation for slashing government spending. Since taking office in January 2011 and winning the mayoral election in November of that year, Lee’s political résumé has expanded. Perhaps his most noteworthy achievement, which he himself touts, is his contribution to San Francisco’s latest tech boom.

At a 2013 “Disrupt” conference hosted by the news website TechCrunch, Mayor Lee told a sympathetic crowd what it wanted to hear. “Every city in the country is attempting to do what we're already accomplishing,” Lee declared. He was referring to the enormous increase, during his tenure, in the number of jobs in the city’s growing high tech industry, each of which he said creates around four additional jobs in the service and supply sectors (i.e. jobs that typically don’t pay living wages).

The tech industry has certainly grown tremendously in San Francisco under Lee’s leadership. In his 2013 State of the City address, he boasted that the city has become the “Innovation Capital of the World,” with the number of San Francisco tech employees more than 50% greater than when he took office. Aside from forging warm personal relationships with many tech CEOs, Lee has engaged repeatedly in a practice favored by city officials for courting big business—corporate welfare. One example of this practice, revealed by the San Francisco Examiner, sheds light on Lee’s priorities: in 2012, the mayor’s chief technology officer urged the city treasurer to soft-pedal the collection of back taxes from the online-based short-term rental service Airbnb.

Another example—the most famous one—was Lee’s lobbying for a series of tax incentives to encourage social media giant Twitter to keep its headquarters in the Mid-Market area of the city. The proximity of this long-neglected neighborhood to the city’s downtown area made it a likely candidate for the kind of urban renewal Lee has embraced. Indeed, the tax break was extended to Twitter and a handful of other tech companies that recently set up shop in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. It will cost the city tens of millions of dollars in revenue, money it badly needs for, among other things, supporting the thousands of people living on its streets.

Many of those people live around the corner from Twitter in the city’s Tenderloin district. The Tenderloin is ground zero of San Francisco’s housing crisis. Its high concentration of food banks, health clinics and other low-income services draw many of the city’s homeless to the neighborhood. According to a June 2014 San Francisco Chronicle exposé on homelessness in the city, Lee considers this juxtaposition of tech wealth and abandoned human capital an embarrassment. But so far that embarrassment has only spurred the kind of action that guarantees the homeless are endlessly cycling from street to jail to street. Chronicle reporter Heather Knight notes that Lee “has focused on the homeless — if at all — with an eye to clearing them from Mid-Market Street and surrounding alleys so those areas, now home to major tech companies, can be cleaned each morning.”

Anti-homeless laws, like the sit/lie measure passed in 2010 that makes it illegal to sit or lie on a San Francisco public sidewalk during the daytime, are crucial to pushing the homeless out of areas reserved for high-end development. Enforcement of these laws has risen steadily each year Lee has been in office. In the past few years, San Francisco has issued an average of 3,200 citations to the homeless for infractions that are largely unavoidable for a person without a home and a place to be during the day.

According to Paul Boden, executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, which commissioned the UC Berkeley report, the criminalization of homelessness can be traced directly to the rapid development of retail stores and restaurants now occurring in the downtown San Francisco area. Lobbying collectively as neighborhood associations or business improvement districts, proprietors “put incredible pressure on the mayor,” he says. “And they push for these laws on the state and local levels.” The motivation, according to Boden, is profit. “The main goal is: if we get rid of these people, other people will come to the downtown areas and spend their money,” he says. “But the hindrance to having people come downtown and spend money is the presence of poor, homeless people.”

While empirical studies have found no evidence to support the theory that economic activity increases when anti-homeless laws are implemented, the business logic seems impossible to shake.

Quality of Life

Lee’s pursuit of large-scale development projects coupled with a variation of trickle down economic growth might explain his apparent apathy toward the homeless, but it doesn’t explain why someone known for being fiscally responsible would promote a law enforcement strategy whose costs are known but whose benefits are not.

Probing this question requires a widened scope. Quality-of-life policing—cracking down on minor infractions like public drinking and loitering on a sidewalk—emerged in the era of Ronald Reagan. Zero-tolerance enforcement, a militarized war on drugs, as well as the “welfare queen” and other racialized caricatures all gained prominence in the political climate of the 1980s. So did the crisis of homelessness we’re still facing today. The year 1983 saw the sudden advent of emergency shelters nationwide in the wake of a 77% cut to the budget of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. This was one year after James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling published an essay in The Atlantic titled "Broken Windows," which called for an assault on nonviolent petty crimes associated with poverty, since these were said to presage the decline of neighborhoods. Countless criminologists and public policy experts have criticized the theory, but it is extremely popular with police chiefs and politicians on both sides of the aisle.

If there were any doubts about the staying power of quality-of-life policing or the bipartisanship of the tough-on-crime mentality, then Bill Clinton’s “Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act” (1998) did away with them. Aside from advancing Clinton’s notorious welfare reform, the legislation assigned stricter rules to the distribution of public housing. One of its provisions called for the “termination of tenancy and assistance for illegal drug users and alcohol abusers.”

From this vantage, it isn’t hard to recognize that law enforcement has seldom been tied to material improvements in communities—at least not poor communities. As San Francisco police lieutenant Michael Nevin candidly observed, policing in the United States is less about optimizing public safety and more about the wills of politicians.  

But those wills may be changing. Responding to grassroots demands for a Homeless Bill of Rights, California State Senator Carol Liu introduced in February 2015 a "Right to Rest" bill, which would guarantee everyone the right to sleep and rest in public space. If passed, the bill could roll back many of the codes criminalizing homeless activity and would go a long way toward redefining what we mean when we say “quality of life.”

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