Tue, Oct 08, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Boulders become flashpoint in San Francisco’s homeless crisis

In a city where new technology millionaires street-park their Teslas and pay for their multimillion-dollar condos in cash, more than 8,000 people are forced to sleep in the streets each night

By Vivian Ho  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Yusha

They appeared seemingly from out of thin air last month: two dozen knee-high boulders, at first glance, unremarkable, placed with remarkable precision along a sidewalk in a quiet alley in San Francisco.

Within days, they became a flashpoint for a city in the midst of a homeless crisis.

Residents of the Clinton Park alley, located north of San Francisco’s trendy Mission District neighborhood, funded the rock installation to deter loitering after what they described as a year of flagrant drug-dealing and unpredictable behavior. Housing advocates and other civic-minded critics were quick to call the boulders out as anti-homeless architecture.

“Boulders don’t stop people from drug dealing, but they do stop people from sleeping,” Coalition on Homelessness executive director Jennifer Friedenbach said.

So began a tale of Sisyphean feats.

An artist put the boulders up for sale on Craigslist. The post was flagged and taken down. Activists rolled the rocks off the sidewalk and into the street.

The city, which was not involved in the installation, placed the boulders back.

The boulders ended up in the street again. Back on the sidewalk. Back in the street.

At the heart of this whole saga is a simmering frustration, coming in from all directions, at one specific issue. In a city with a US$12 billion budget, where new technology millionaires street-park their Teslas and pay for their multimillion-dollar condos in cash, more than 8,000 people are forced to sleep in the streets each night.

On one end of the spectrum, there are advocates such as Friedenbach, who calls the crisis “a fundamental human rights violation.”

Their concern is for the unhoused, for their ability to access the help and resources they need to get off the streets and into a stable environment.

On the other end of the continuum, there are the quality-of-life complaints and frustration with the city’s seemingly inability to spark much change — the qualms with how visible homelessness affects the housed.

Chris Herring, a sociology doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, analyzed 3 million 311 calls in a paper published in the American Sociological Review and found that calls regarding the homeless increased by 781 percent in San Francisco between 2011 and 2017.

“People complain about seeing homelessness. They complain about poop and needles,” said Danielle Baskin, the San Francisco artist who put the boulders up for sale on Craigslist. “They’re complaining about having it affect their daily commute because they have to step over someone’s sleeping bag. I don’t feel that bad for people who are complaining about homelessness. I feel bad for the homeless people themselves, but I think that nobody knows what to do. That’s the issue.”

This sentiment was heavy over the alley this week, after the city removed the boulders at the behest of neighbors. They had been fed up with the constant attempts to roll them into the streets and are working with local officials to figure out a next step.

One Clinton Park resident, who asked not to be named, stood across from the sidewalk in question, which, for the moment, was clear of any encampments or activity. He was supportive of the boulders, though he wanted planters “because people do view boulders as hostile.”

However, he is also supportive of more housing, more shelters, more drug treatment, more mental health treatment and better solutions altogether.

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