Economy

San Francisco City Worker Faces Discipline After Refusing To Help Tear Down Homeless Man’s Mini-House

CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Risberg

A homeless tent encampment along Division Street in San Francisco, before it was cleared by police and city workers in late February.

A San Francisco Public Works employee who refused to help police tear down a homeless person’s dwelling may face disciplinary action, city officials say.

In a video uploaded to YouTube on Friday, an unidentified woman employed by the city describes the police department’s decision to tear down a homeless man’s tiny house on the side of a road. She is sitting inside her truck, pointing her camera at cops and bright-vested city workers on the curb. The police have just ordered the workers to dismantle the structure, and she has refused to help.

“I don’t want no parts of it so I’m gonna sit in my truck and watch,” the worker says in the video. “Like I told them, it ain’t right, and karma’s a bitch. And I don’t want no part of it.”
Later, she tells someone outside not to use any of the equipment from her truck for the tear-down because she’s unwilling to participate even passively.

The video was uploaded by the Coalition on Homelessness, a local advocacy group that’s been critical of the city’s approach to the homeless for years. The group told the San Francisco Examiner that the woman insisted they post the video despite their warnings she might get in trouble.

A Public Works official confirmed to the Examiner that she is indeed in jeopardy. “In general, we expect our employees to carry out their assigned tasks,” Department of Public Works (DPW) spokeswoman Rachel Gordon said. “To refuse could be construed as insubordination, and subject the employee to disciplinary action, dependent on the findings of a thorough and fair investigation.”

The episode is a useful reminder that policy decisions made by elected officials have to be executed by working people who may disagree with what they’ve been asked to do. There are scores of stories from all around the country of politicians ordering city workers to destroy homeless people’s property. The resulting images and video footage are often heartwrenching, but public employees can’t necessarily afford to take a stand and put their job on the line in the way this unnamed San Francisco worker has done.

“Everyone from DPW, even the San Francisco police, they’re all really frustrated about what’s going on,” said Coalition on Homelessness human rights organizer Kelley Cutler in an interview. “DPW in that particular area has a really good relationship with the people down there, so the turnaround, asking them to do that, it’s really upsetting because they’ve built those relationships.”

Sending workers out to rip down tents and other makeshift shelters is bad policy, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. That group, which represents a broad coalition of stakeholders in the advocacy and policy communities, has been urging cities to stop raiding and dismantling tent cities since last summer.

The federal working group isn’t looking to promote or foster such encampments either. Cities should treat the spontaneous communities as a bridge toward permanent housing solutions for homeless people rather than simply leaving campers to their own devices forever. But “the forced dispersal of people from encampment settings is not an appropriate solution or strategy, accomplishes nothing toward the goal of linking people to permanent housing opportunities, and can make it more difficult to provide such lasting solutions to people who have been sleeping and living in the encampment,” the group wrote in an August advisory.

Still, many cities treat such camps as criminal.

It can be difficult for local officials to resist public pressure to erase camps that neighbors find unsightly or threatening. “Everyone on the front line knows this is not how you address it,” Cutler said. “The problem is the city is responding to complaints. They’re reacting by doing sweeps or telling people to move along, but we all know there’s nowhere to go.” She added that the people caught up in the videotaped incident that may lead to punishment for a DPW worker had been camped just a couple blocks away days earlier, when another sweep shuffled them down the road.

But caving to public distaste doesn’t just do zilch to build homes or hire service workers. It may actually reduce a city’s overall homelessness funding. The formula governing federal homelessness funding allocations now docks points for cities that maintain or promote policies to criminalize homelessness.

Indianapolis recently veered the other direction. A law passed in February will require that city’s leaders to give encampments a full two weeks’ notice before an eviction, and prohibits evictions entirely if the city can’t prove it has the resources available to move residents into permanent supportive housing immediately.