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How San Francisco Is Forcing Its Gay Population Onto The Streets

Even before the sexual abuse, Olivia’s life was characterized by tremendous struggle. Growing up in Amman, Jordan as a member of a tight knit family, her difficulties long preceded any awareness that the male gender she was assigned at birth didn’t quite fit.

Severe dyslexia made her different from other children, and her constant struggle to answer the teacher’s questions resulted in generous amounts of bullying. Her feeling of remove from society only worsened after a family vacation when she was in the fourth grade.

“We were staying at a hotel,” she recounts while tucking her hair behind her ear. It dangles just above her shoulder, looking unkempt as though somewhere she’d seen a picture of Kurt Cobain and decided to model herself accordingly. “We all went to dinner and I left early to go to the pool and this man wanted to play games and I didn’t know what was going on, I was thinking that he was just a guy, and he ended up getting me up to his place and he sexually abused me. My parents found out right away. And my father, he had never been homophobic to me because he didn’t know then that I was gay or transgender, but, over time, I realized these things. And, over time, he associated homosexuality and transgender with pedophiles. And I felt that.”

As Olivia continued to age, the stew of traumatic experiences along with the onset of adolescence and a burgeoning sexuality combined to create an untenable situation. She had to leave Jordan. And so she did, choosing to enroll in a post-graduate program in Utah meant to better prepare her for a university education. In quick succession, Olivia dropped out of school, came out as both queer and transgender to her parents (who retaliated by cutting her off financially), moved to Wisconsin for a boyfriend she’d met online (he turned out to be abusive as well), and hopped a bus to San Francisco. She arrived here last May with no plan or money. At 20 years old, she was homeless.

San Francisco occupies a sacrosanct place in the LGBTQ community the world over. Long before its current association as the global capital of tech and startups, this was a place where the LGBTQ community could gather and live an open and accepted life. For many people like Olivia, this promise is allure enough to justify living on the streets, which is borne out by the ugly statistics. Every two years, the San Francisco Human Services Agency releases a biennial homeless count. In 2013, the agency solicited information on sexual orientation for the first time, discovering in the process that 29 percent of the city’s roughly 6,436 homeless residents identify as LGBTQ. The number is nearly twice the national average, and its publication set off a predictable round of hand wringing and head scratching. How is it that the city of Harvey Milk could fail an already at-risk population?

On the face of it, the high number of homeless LGBTQ makes a sort of intuitive sense. As a shining light of sensitivity and acceptance, the city is bound to attract those escaping prejudice in their places of origin. This was certainly the case with Olivia, whom I met at Larkin Street Youth Services, a local non-profit that offers housing, counseling and job training for homeless youth under the age of 25. Stories like hers are sadly commonplace, characterized by young people travelling to this city as strangers devoid of safety nets or social networks, stepping off the bus only to find themselves in the U.S. city with the highest median rent. Fueled by a remarkable tech boom characterized by multi-billion dollar valuations and average salaries in the six figures, even the cheapest parts of San Francisco are very expensive.

Though it’s an often repeated narrative, this story does not fully explain the 29 percent rate. “LGBTQ homelessness actually has as much to do with evictions as it does people arriving with no plan,” offers Jennifer Friedenbach, Executive Director of the Coalition on Homelessness. “You really aren’t going to see elderly members of the LGBTQ community that are asset broke suddenly coming to San Francisco. The problem, in terms of the differential [with the national average], has much more to do with displacement.” Unlike Olivia, who arrived in this city homeless, many of the LGBTQ people living on the streets were forced to leave their homes, and for one reason or another chose to live on the streets rather than seek shelter in a more affordable community.

Bevan Dufty, a former city supervisor and Mayor Ed Lee’s current appointment as the Director of Housing Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement (HOPE) has identified displacement in the data he’s seen. “When you look at the numbers from the homeless count and the 29 percent, it’s steady and represented by young people 18 – 24, by adults, and by seniors. In many cities, you do see numbers this high for the youth population, but you don’t really see it for adults and seniors. That’s what makes this unique.”

At 60 years old, Garland Kyle is an unfortunate example of this trend. He moved to San Francisco in 1978, attracted by the radical sexual politics of the city. Though he would eventually earn a Masters degree in Public Health and publish in high-minded publications like the Journal of Sex Research, he made his living over the years as a landscape architect. In 1992, he and his partner, an ESL instructor, moved into a two bed, two bath apartment on Russian Hill.

As members of the city’s gay middle class, Garland and his partner were both veterans of the gay rights movement, and beneficiaries of its early successes. “It was easy to negotiate rents in the early 90’s,” he says, “Even in a nice neighborhood like that, there wasn’t the same housing pressures. The city wasn’t expensive like it is now.”

In 2009, Garland’s partner died from a simultaneous combination of lung, gallbladder and brain lesion cancers. The loss of income, combined with the country’s recession and San Francisco’s fast rising cost of living, created a perfect life storm. “He passed in June and I managed to hang on, paying the rent until December by selling my possessions and borrowing money. The landlord wanted me out, though; we’d been in a rent control unit for over 25 years. As soon as I was late with the rent, a three day notice followed by a court summons appeared in the mail.”

Garland agreed not fight his eviction in exchange for a $10,000 settlement, all of which was quickly spent on moving costs and repaying debts. He left the city for a while, living with friends in Berkeley and Salinas, eventually returning to San Francisco a year ago because it was home and he’d always managed to get by here. For roughly the first two weeks of each month, his social security check covers the cost of living in an SRO, or single room occupancy; these low-income motels, which rent rooms by the week, are common in many cities. The rest of the month is spent getting by in public spaces. “Sometimes I stay up all night, or maybe I’ll just ride the bus,” he explains. “The pews at St. Boniface church are actually a great, safe place to nap, which is surprising. Homophobia is everywhere on the streets, and I’ve had knives pulled on me at shelters.

For a wide range of housing activists and service providers Garland’s story is an emblematic one. They see older LGBTQ displacement in San Francisco as a direct result of a recent surge in evictions that have stoked fears of mounting inequality and gentrification. The city’s Residential Rent Stabilization and Arbitration board reports that total evictions increased by 13 percent from March 2013 – February 2014, while Ellis Act evictions, a particularly controversial form of removal, rose 86 percent over that same period.

Passed in 1985 by the California State Legislature, the Ellis Act’s proponents claim that it provides crucial protection for property owners, especially homeowners, to insure their right to occupy their property and to protect against potentially ruinous financial harm caused by overly restrictive local government regulations on housing providers. The measure allows owners to evict all of their tenants at once (in fact, individual in-building evictions are prohibited), thus negating leases that are often protected via rent control.

Quantity of evictions, however, offers an incomplete picture of displacement. When faced with Ellis notices, most residents opt for buyouts, much as Garland Kyle did. These private cash settlements allow the renter to walk away with something in his or her pocket, while the landlord is saved time, paperwork, and, most importantly, avoids the five-year waiting period that the Ellis Act mandates before the property can be brought to market again.

Brian Basinger is the co-founder and Director of the Aids Housing Alliance. As as an HIV+ gay man who lived through eviction and homelessness, he is intimately aware of the unique challenges that surface when veteran members of the community lose their housing. “When LGBTQ people get displaced from San Francisco, we lose access to welcoming neighborhoods where we are safe to be ourselves,” he explains. “We lose our social networks, culturally competent medical providers, and our chosen family. We also lose access to a broad array of civil rights protections that we have invested decades of our lives in securing.” The results can be tragic, as was the case with Jonathan Klein, a 61-year-old HIV+ gay man.

In 1984, Klein and his business partner Peter Greene co-founded Now, Voyager, a gay and lesbian travel agency in the Castro, San Francisco’s most emblematically queer neighborhood. In the pre-internet days, gay travel agencies offered a very specific benefit.

“It was a different world then,” remembers Peter Greene. Over coffee two blocks from city hall, he celebrates the thirtieth anniversary of the business. “At the time, there were few groups like ours around the country, so we were known here, early on, as one of the first for all gay travel. We had an 800 number and we’d advertise in the Advocate and people would call us from little towns all over, from Tennessee or Alabama, desperate to have someone to talk to about that sort of thing. It was an emotional experience, in the sense that they wouldn’t even reference their own sexuality. They’d use codewords and say, ‘I’d like to travel with people like you.’”

Now, Voyager initially flourished, though Greene would eventually sell his share to Klein around 1998. “AIDS had decimated the community and I was ill myself and, frankly, I didn’t think I had long to go. All of my friends had fallen off, and that incentivized me to sell the business, thinking about what I wanted to do with the time I had left.” The parting was amicable and, since Greene, unlike Klein, lived above the office, he still helped run the business whenever a body was needed.

In July of 2012, Klein’s apartment was served with an Ellis eviction notice. He struggled with what to do next while sleeping on Greene’s couch. While he wasn’t broke, his business was hurting, and the loss of his rent-controlled unit made it impossible for him to stay in San Francisco. He simply couldn’t afford the city. A down payment was placed on a spot in Palm Springs, but depression over the impending loss of his social and medical network, of the city he’d lived in and loved since the 60’s, was considerable.

In November of that same year, Greene was himself hit with an eviction notice. “They come with their expensive lawyers; they’ve got all the money… And it doesn’t matter that I was an upstanding member of this community. I got AIDS in 1985 and it doesn’t matter that I went through clinical trials to help save myself and everyone else.” His eyebrows, like his beard, are the color of salt and pepper and he tears up at regular intervals, as rage and sadness trade control of his voice. Although it’s peak lunch hour and the doors and windows are closed, the long and steady horns of the cab drivers protesting Uber headquarters across the street threaten to drown out all conversation.

On April 8, 2013, Jonathan Klein committed suicide via the Golden Gate Bridge. “The night before, he’d asked me if I would open the place for him in the morning. I went down there at 11:00, and on the computer I see in an email, ‘I’m sorry that I have to do this; I know it’s going to bring a lot of pain to a lot of people.’”

In fact, the Castro, has been the hardest hit by the Ellis Act in recent years. According to the Anti-Eviction mapping project, 294 buildings in the Castro consisting of 837 units were evicted via Ellis from 1997 – 2013. The Mission, a neighborhood that contains a large transgender population, was the second most impacted, with 158 buildings and 455 units cleared.

Few explanations exist as to why these specific neighborhoods have been so targeted, though one compelling theory is offered up by John Ellis (of no relation to the State Senator for whom the Ellis Act is named), a local architect who focuses on sustainable urbanism and is a veteran of public housing design. “The Castro is one of the oldest parts of the city,” he says. “It survived the earthquake and fire, and a lot of the buildings are 19th-century buildings of great character and appropriate size. The Castro and the Mission offer building types that are much more interesting and flexible.”

Outrage over this trend is a reason for one of the most controversial and aggressive measures on the local ballot this cycle. If passed, Proposition G would impose a sales tax on all multi-unit properties flipped in a 5 year window. Proponents of the bill which was first drafted by Harvey Milk in the late 70’s, see this step as a means to slow the astronomical cost of real estate in the city. By taxing the process, activists hope to cool the market for residential property, which they see as inexorably linked to tenant eviction and, ultimately, gentrification.

“We treat housing as a commodity, point blank, rather than treating it as something that is a social good with social value, something that can keep a diversity of people inside city limits,” explains Quintin Mecke, the proposition’s campaign manager. “We have to stem this idea that people’s housing is a vehicle for profit.”

On the first Monday in October, about the time San Francisco’s unofficial and brief “summer” begins, many of the city’s most visible grassroots activists and community leaders stage a rally in support of G on the steps of City Hall. State Senators, city supervisors and community activists all take turns addressing the small crowd via a portable PA system. A group of counter-protesters quickly assembles as well, chanting “NO ON G!” loud enough that they temporarily drown everything else out. A middle-aged Chinese woman walks around, passing out flyers which outline how the proposition will have a detrimental impact on the middle class by driving housing prices up even further.

Reacting in kind, G’s supporters re-direct the sound system so that it points directly in the faces of their opponents. One elected official grabs the microphone and shouts, “We are at war right now! Halloween has come early! Don’t let these goddamn monsters around us beat us!”

A particularly riled up counter-protester breaks ranks with her side, running at the speaker and thrusting her “No!” sign close to his face. For a moment, everything is an amorphous cacophony of accusations, and neither side will step down.

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