Amid skyrocketing housing prices and rising inequality, the number of unhoused people across California is booming. Homelessness in San Francisco has spiked at least 30% since 2017. In Oakland, it’s grown by nearly 50%. As more people have been forced onto the streets, encampments have popped up from Los Angeles to the Bay Area and in other city centers. But while advocates push for more affordable housing solutions, instead city governments have been cracking down on unhoused people with increasingly punitive measures that criminalize homelessness. In a special report, Democracy Now! traveled to San Francisco to speak with unhoused people and their advocates about conditions there.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to the second part of our special coverage of the homelessness crisis in California. Amid skyrocketing housing prices and rising inequality, the number of unhoused people across America’s richest state is booming. Homelessness in San Francisco has spiked at least 30% since 2017, this according to the San Francisco Chronicle. In Oakland, it’s grown by nearly 50%. As more people have been forced into the streets, encampments have popped up from Los Angeles to the Bay Area and other city centers across the state.
But while advocates push for more affordable housing solutions, they say city governments have been cracking down on unhoused people instead, with increasingly punitive measures that criminalize homelessness. In San Francisco, advocates say police sweeps of their belongings happen nearly every day.
Well, we recently returned from Democracy Now! — Democracy Now! recently returned from San Francisco to speak with unhoused people and their advocates about conditions there. We first met Kelley Cutler, a volunteer with the Coalition on Homelessness, under the freeway just outside of the downtown San Francisco area, where a number of unhoused people had set up tents and makeshift shelters.
KELLEY CUTLER: My name is Kelley Cutler. And we are down on Division. And this is an area where a couple years ago we had a bunch of encampments, over 300, within a few-block radius.
AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about who lives under the freeway here? Tell us the story of Neil.
KELLEY CUTLER: There was this gentleman, a 70-year-old disabled veteran named Neil Taylor. And I used to come down and see him every time I would go out on outreach. He had been out here for a few years, because he said that with his wife dying, that he could no longer live in the house where she was. And he ended up dying in his tent right under the freeway over there. He was a veteran and was working on getting into housing, but it didn’t come soon enough. And there was one time that he was in the emergency room, and the city was coming through and doing a sweep. And I try to stop them. I said, “This is Neil’s stuff. At least bag and tag.” And they said, “No,” and they threw all of his belongings, from his music that he wrote to his walker, and they threw it into a crusher truck and demolished it.
AMY GOODMAN: How typical is this?
KELLEY CUTLER: This happens every day. If you walk around, it’s not one person here or there that will share this kind of experience. It’s everyone.
AMY GOODMAN: Describe what happens, what gets taken.
KELLEY CUTLER: The number one thing that the city tends to target are tents, because they focus on tents and visible homelessness. The mayor had put out a press release earlier this year saying that since she became mayor, that the tent numbers have decreased, I think it was 34%. And we said, “Well, does that mean that there’s that many more resources that were available? Like, what happened?” What the reality is, is that they’re going through and they’re taking people’s tents and as well as the rest of their belongings. They will give them a misdemeanor, a 647(e), for illegal lodging, and take their tent as evidence and leave them there.
AMY GOODMAN: And then what happens when they’re scattered, when the encampments are broken down by the authorities? Where do they go?
KELLEY CUTLER: Well, there isn’t really anywhere to go, so people will oftentimes go to the next block, or if they’re pushed out even further, they will just scatter to wherever they can be where they’re not going to be harassed. People experiencing homelessness are often the victims of violence and targeted. And it’s a regular occurrence that we hear about. And so, by breaking up community and support, just, you know, it would be the same for housed people, where if you’re breaking up protection and safety, it’s people are going to get hurt.
AMY GOODMAN: We’ve come under the highway and have come up to a kind of makeshift cardboard shelter. A man has emerged from it. His name is Moon. So, we’re going to talk to him right now.
This is your cardboard shelter?
MOON TOMAHAWK: Yeah, this is my cardboard shelter. Yes, it is.
AMY GOODMAN: How long have you been here?
MOON TOMAHAWK: In this particular spot?
AMY GOODMAN: Yeah.
MOON TOMAHAWK: Oh, maybe a month or two. That’s about the longest I’ve been in one spot, you know, a long time out here, so…
AMY GOODMAN: And you built this?
MOON TOMAHAWK: Yeah, yeah. This isn’t the first one I’ve built. I’ve actually built about four of them, five of them.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about living out here under the freeway? Why are you here?
MOON TOMAHAWK: Well, I found myself in — a year or two ago, a couple years ago, in an unfortunate situation, and I ended up on the street. And so, I kind of flocked to this group of people and found a little bit of a safety net here with them, because it’s the only way to really live out here in any kind of security. And I just been kind of going day by day to get everything. It’s extremely difficult living on the streets, being homeless, especially in the — I don’t know if it’s different elsewhere, but here it is. So, just at the moment, trying to get things together so I could get off the streets.
AMY GOODMAN: Where were you born?
MOON TOMAHAWK: I was born here. It’s very odd to being homeless in the city you’re born in.
AMY GOODMAN: How long have you been homeless?
MOON TOMAHAWK: About two years.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you see yourself getting out of this situation? What could help you get out of it?
MOON TOMAHAWK: I see — I do see myself getting out of the situation. Once you get into the situation, it’s extremely difficult to get out. It’s kind of like a pit drop. They’ll wake you up at 4:30 in the morning, every morning for two weeks.
AMY GOODMAN: Who is “they”? The police?
MOON TOMAHAWK: The police, DPW, people that work for the city. They’ll wake you up every morning, 4:30 in the morning. And if you don’t move fast enough, they’ll take your things, and then you have to get your things all over again.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you get them back?
MOON TOMAHAWK: No. No, you can’t. They say you can, but you can’t. I have several, several friends — all of my friends out here have tried to go get their things back, and never, ever have I seen anybody successful at it.
AMY GOODMAN: What kind of services are provided for you to help you get out of this situation?
MOON TOMAHAWK: Well, they have — supposedly have navigation out here, but — that they can take you and give you a stay. Last time they offered me a seven-day stay, which a seven-day stay doesn’t help me at all out here.
AMY GOODMAN: In a shelter?
MOON TOMAHAWK: In a shelter — because then I’m just back out here and on the street.
AMY GOODMAN: Couper, as we tour around this freeway system and the people who are living below, you’re called “the people’s medic.” You were a firefighter, disabled. You’re in the streets. Talk about the conditions and the medical condition of people on the streets.
SHANNA COUPER ORONA: There’s a lot of issues out here with a lot of injuries due to just being out on the street in general, as well as, you know, fights and things like that. But the basic all-in-all is, when the cops do these sweeps, people get stressed out. They get — because you have to get your stuff moved within an hour or less than that. And so, people end up hurting themselves, breaking fingers, arms — there’s been two broken legs — splitting their head open, just trying to get that stuff quickly so they don’t get arrested. So, the stress that these sweeps cause cause injuries like that.
But also that we don’t have running water our here, so people that do use, that inject drugs, you know, they’re all clean — they use clean needles, majority of them, but bacteria is a killer of many. And there’s a lot of abscesses out here due to bacteria and things getting on the — because people can’t keep their hands clean. There’s nowhere — restaurants or places will not allow people that are homeless in to use the restroom, even to wash their hands. So, that causes issues, you know, because people can’t be clean. And when they’re not clean, infections and things pass person to person. So, I’m seeing a lot of that, abscesses as well as a lot of broken bones, due to having to move within minutes or within less than a half-hour or so. It’s increased in just even the last year and a half. I’ve noticed more injuries like that.
AMY GOODMAN: Will people go to emergency rooms?
SHANNA COUPER ORONA: No, they usually won’t, just because they’re looked down on by hospital staff. They’re treated differently. And they don’t want to deal with being looked at like that, because one thing I hear constantly out here on the street is that, like, “I wish people would stop looking at me like that. I wish they would stop, you know, treating me like that. I’m a human; I’m a person. I have feelings.” You know, and so, and that’s a lot — people don’t usually say that. We have a tough skin out here. We have to. So, when we go to ask for help, when we ask for help, we’re in dire need of help. And so, when someone goes to the hospital and they get treated poorly, they’re more likely not going to return.
And also the sheriffs, you know, they reside there pretty much, and they run people’s names. When you come in with an injury, they want to know why you have that, why did you get stabbed or whatever. If you have a warrant or something, they’re going to arrest you. And then, you know, that’s going to keep them away from healthcare all in all.
So, people come and — I was dubbed a street medic by people out here, and people come get me all hours of the night, day, whatever. And I grab my medical bag, and I go to wherever they are, because I’m glad that they are asking for my help, because I give it to them whenever they need it.
AMY GOODMAN: Are you still living on the streets?
SHANNA COUPER ORONA: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you foresee a time when you won’t be on the streets?
SHANNA COUPER ORONA: I would love to be inside. That’s the one thing that is — it’s been a long time since I’ve, like, been inside. And I really — I mean, this is — it’s not my choice to be out here, and it’s hard to be out here. And it takes a lot out on you being here, having to watch our back constantly. I mean, I’m very well respected out here, so I don’t have a problem, but I’m getting kind of tired. I would like to be inside. I’m sick of being cold, sick of being wet. I’m sick of, like, you know, wondering if my house is going to be there when I get home. You know? I want to be — live a little normal life again, and hopefully soon, hopefully.
AMY GOODMAN: What would help you get there?
SHANNA COUPER ORONA: Housing. Housing. I live on a small disability check, and I can’t save up enough to even get first, last and deposit. And I would love to just, like, have a place I could vacuum the floor or do dishes. You know what I mean? I took those things for granted before. I would give anything for that now. I hate — I hate dishes. But I would give anything to put my hands in some warm water and, you know, do dishes. You know, like, I miss it. So, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Shanna Couper Orona. We went with her to the Tenderloin in San Francisco, where she showed us Hospitality House, a community center that’s also home to the Coalition on Homelessness, and spoke to advocates there about the origins of homelessness in San Francisco. But first I asked Couper how she ended up living on the streets.
SHANNA COUPER ORONA: Divorce led me onto the street. My ex-wife is a civil litigation — works for a big civil litigation law firm in San Francisco, and we lived in Diamond Heights in San Francisco here for 10 years. And when we divorced, I lost everything, and I had nowhere to go. And I depleted my savings, my everything, you know, stayed on friends’ couches. Hotels are very expensive. And then, ’til I kind of — I had nowhere left to go. And so, San Francisco streets, here I come. So, yeah, that’s how I ended up without having a home. I can pay rent. Just it’s hard to come up with that $3,000, first, last and deposit, so it makes it very hard to save up that money when you’re buying your food, you’re trying to stay in hotels, you’re trying to stay safe on the streets. You know, you waste a lot of money by trying to survive.
AMY GOODMAN: How dangerous is it for a woman on the street?
SHANNA COUPER ORONA: It’s pretty dangerous. I mean, you have to really have your wits about you. A lot of women, they camp together. They’ll be around, you know, so that they can keep each other safe. Women, we get propositioned constantly for, you know, anything you can imagine under the sun. And if you’re not — a lot of women get taken advantage of here.
JENNIFER FRIEDENBACH: My name is Jennifer Friedenbach. I’m the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.
AMY GOODMAN: Is the problem of homelessness worse than it’s ever been?
JENNIFER FRIEDENBACH: The ability for folks to get off the streets is a lot harder, because the rents are so high in San Francisco, so people are on the streets for longer. And they’re much more visible, because their healthcare is a deteriorated. Their mental health and, you know, the addiction disorders sometimes are a lot more visible than they have been, because long-term homelessness really causes some problems.
AMY GOODMAN: The tech companies that are coming into San Francisco, how do they affect what’s happening, the whole issue of gentrification?
JENNIFER FRIEDENBACH: Yeah. So, there’s a dramatic effect on a couple different levels. I think for homeless people, of course, the housing prices skyrocketing. But there’s another piece of it, and that is that all renters in San Francisco are insecure. And so, for us, we’ve seen kind of a shift in some of the attitudes of folks, because renters are seeing themselves in the eyes of other homeless people, because they themselves feel like they’re at risk. So, our movement has really gathered a lot of strength over the last few years. We’ve had a lot of people who have come out of the woodworks that have really thrown down because they see this as potentially affecting them.
AMY GOODMAN: I see posters around President Reagan, going way back: “From Reagan to Bush, for twenty-five years, a spirit of abandon.” And then “The Trump Agenda: Privatization, the Walling Off America.” Going back to Reagan and the deinstitutional of people from mental institutions, how does that affect what’s happening on the streets today?
JENNIFER FRIEDENBACH: That actually was a movement from mental health consumers, who were being locked up and being really mistreated inside institutions. And, you know, unless somebody is harming someone or harming someone else or can’t actually take care of themselves, you know, they should be housed in the community. What failed in that process is, is that we never ended up doing the community care that was supposed to take place instead of the institutions.
The other thing that Ronald Reagan did do is that he cut everybody off of Social Security when he was the president. And what that meant is that people had to reapply to get back on Social Security. The folks who fell off were the folks with mental illnesses who could not navigate that system. Those were the folks that were using their Social Security checks to pay for their boarding care beds. And that’s why we saw this huge number of mentally ill people on the streets back in the early 1980s. Now, we never took corrective action, and we’ve made a lot of decisions since that have made the situation even worse.
AMY GOODMAN: And what’s happening under Trump?
JENNIFER FRIEDENBACH: Under Trump, I mean, we’ve got, you know, of course, inaction, but we have massive cuts to the housing choice vouchers. We have him putting in charge of Housing and Urban Development, of HUD, Ben Carson, who basically believes that HUD has no responsibility around homelessness, and when it is in fact the defunding of that same agency is what created homelessness in the first place. So, I mean, we’re talking about a massive tragedy under Trump.
JOE WILSON: Joe Wilson, executive director, Hospitality House.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you think is the solution to homelessness in San Francisco?
JOE WILSON: A home. And we have to build the kind of housing that’s affordable for very low-income people. Homelessness and poverty are economic problems that have economic solutions. These are not due to behavioral pathologies. And we have to encourage each other to see the economic solutions that are actually within our grasp. We are spending now more than a trillion dollars on weapons of mass destruction every single year. Every hour in this country we’re spending upwards of $200 million — right? — on weapons of mass destruction. That could go a long way toward solving the homelessness crisis, the poverty crisis in our cities across the country. And it would do well for all of us to invest in better elected leadership, so that we can make better decisions about what our people really need. It is absolutely a national responsibility. It is first and foremost a federal responsibility to make sure all of our people have the basic needs that allow them to thrive, not merely survive. And to evade that responsibility, to shift it to someone else, is not leadership. Right? That is escapism, and that is cowardice. And unfortunately for us, homeless people are victimized by poor decisions at multiple levels in our government.
AMY GOODMAN: Joe Wilson, executive director of Hospitality House in San Francisco. He himself was once homeless. To see our special report on California’s criminalization on growing homeless encampments in Oakland, go to democracynow.org.
When we come back, hundreds gather this weekend to remember the 40th anniversary of the Greensboro massacre, where Ku Klux Klansmen and American Nazis attacked a group of anti-racist protesters in broad daylight, killing five people. Stay with us.