Sprinklers Off, Still Homeless

Homeless man on sidewalk(Photo: Ed Yourdon/Flickr)Recently, my Facebook newsfeed exploded with outraged posts about a Catholic Cathedral in San Francisco that had installed an automatic sprinkler system to dump water on homeless people who tried to sleep in the church’s doorway. All over the country people were scandalized by the hypocrisy of the church, by the inhumanity of risking the health of the poorest people in the city. Worse, they’ve installed this system during a drought!

Within the week the church announced it will take down the sprinklers and stop dousing the homeless.

Congratulations outraged Facebook friends; we fixed it. You can now go back to your routine of looking the other way when you see your neighbors asking for money on your front steps.

Reading through all the hype, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit bitter. Yes, I’m bitter at the church for installing such an outrageously heartless sprinkler system. But really what bothers me is that this is just one particularly headline-worthy example of a bigger system that targets poor people in both mundane and shocking ways on a daily basis. And now that this sprinkler system is gone, we can all go back to pretending the other system doesn’t exist.

But in reality, there is a war against homeless people going on right now that extends from the church steps in San Francisco across the Atlantic to London storefronts, where the local government has installed concrete spikes to prevent people from sleeping in front of businesses. It’s happening in Shandong, China, which has installed “pay-per-minute” benches that surprise you with protruding spikes if you overstay your welcome. It’s happening to Los Angeles, where city politicians are fighting to prevent people from feeding the homeless.

In my own town of Berkeley, just across the bay from San Francisco, the city council, rallied by our Downtown Business Association, is working to pass a set of ordinances that would prohibit sleeping on public sidewalks, asking for spare change, using blankets and setting down belongings in our downtown area. In a city with significantly more homeless people than shelter beds available, this amounts to criminalizing behaviors that people engage in to survive.

These laws are passed explicitly to allow local police to target poor people, and homeless people and those with disabilities, and displaced communities of color will bear the brunt of the attacks.

And things are only getting worse.

As new tech companies pop up all over the Bay Area, rents are skyrocketing. One woman in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights just saw her rent increase 400 percent, from $2,145 per month to $8,900 a month. The city is bearing the brunt of this wave of gentrification, but its ripple effects are deeply felt in Oakland and Berkeley, in Richmond, in Vallejo and farther. As more and more wealthy tech workers move to San Francisco, people are being forced from their communities, from their cities, to places they can afford. For those who can no longer afford rent, this means moving into a car or onto the street.

For those on the streets, gentrification means intensified policing and a rising threat of incarceration. UC Berkeley Law’s Policy Advocacy Center recently reported a dramatic increase in “anti­-vagrancy” laws that further criminalize the already marginalized homeless population, pushing people into jails, out of sight and out of mind. San Francisco is currently pushing to build a new jail in the city – I guess to provide housing for people displaced by these measures.

When the Catholic Church dumps water on a homeless person, that person spends the whole day cold and wet. But when the city government makes it illegal to be homeless, that person lives in constant fear of being brought to jail for sleeping in public or asking for money.

I’m bitter because I don’t want to see any more Facebook posts with sensationalist headlines until I see those in my community who are still able to afford rent fighting the evictions that are putting our neighbors out on the streets; until I see hundreds of people in the streets fighting the criminalization of our houseless neighbors; and until we stop turning our heads and refusing to acknowledge the humanity of the homeless people suffering on our doorsteps.

I’m glad the sprinkler system is shut down. Now let’s go confront the capitalist system that started it all.