Who Banishes? City Power and Anti-homeless Policy in San Francisco

By David J. Amaral (University of California, Santa Cruz)

Homelessness is a pressing concern facing cities throughout the United States but is especially pronounced in urban California. The state is home to roughly a quarter of all people experiencing homelessness in the country, more than two thirds of whom are unsheltered (about double the national rate). In his 2020 State of the State address, California Governor Gavin Newsom devoted the bulk of his attention to the issue of homelessness, claiming that “the California Dream is dimmed by the wrenching reality of families, children and seniors living unfed on a concrete bed.” This year, following the social and economic disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, the governor’s 2021 budget dedicated $4.8 billion to addressing the state’s homeless crisis, representing a dramatic increase in homeless-related spending at the state level.

Ten years earlier, however, as mayor of San Francisco, Newsom was a driving political force behind a proposal that would criminalize sitting or lying on city sidewalks. (Newsom’s early political success is often attributed to his “tough love” approach to homelessness.)

Policy responses to homelessness can take a variety of forms. Local governments can dedicate funding to supportive services and shelters, or they can pursue more a more punitive approach. “Anti-homeless” laws, like the sit-lie ban pushed by Newsom in 2010 or laws banning panhandling, loitering, camping in parks or sleeping in public, have been used to exclude unhoused people from public spaces for decades. Researchers have devoted considerable attention to examining the (often biased) enforcement practices of these laws, their questionable constitutionality, and the consequences for the populations they target. However, despite frequent claims that these laws are adopted primarily to appease the local business community, or in response to resident concern and activism, there has been relatively little effort to deliberately assess the political factors that give rise to anti-homeless laws. What leads a city to adopt policies intended to banish the visibly poor from urban public space?

My recent research uses an ensemble of methods to investigate the political forces behind the adoption of two anti-homeless policies in San Francisco: the 2010 sit-lie ordinance (branded “Civil Sidewalks” by supporters) and a 2016 law banning tents on sidewalks. I began by analyzing public records (including testimony before the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, statements published in city voter guides, and data on campaign contributions) to establish the cast of political actors involved in the debates over the laws and to determine their preferences. Next, since both proposals were eventually put to city voters as ballot measures, I analyzed precinct-level election results to determine whether any neighborhood characteristics were associated with higher levels of support for the laws. This let me measure whether electoral support for the anti-homeless laws was associated with the homeownership rate, political ideology, racial/ethnic composition, or the number of “homeless concerns” 311 service requests submitted in neighborhoods. Finally, I looked beyond policy adoption and attempted to assess whether enforcement patterns betrayed more subtle evidence of power.

Findings indicate that these two anti-homeless policies were not simply adopted in response to pressure from the business community or mobilized residents but depended on the joint efforts of a loose-knit coalition of political actors – what I call the city’s anti-homeless regime. Campaign contributions from the chamber of commerce, industry associations, and the city’s tech elite allowed campaigns in favor of the anti-homeless proposals to vastly outspend opponents of the laws. However, it was the neighborhood merchants who played a particularly important role in encouraging action from local government. Supportive local officials, for their part, used their authority to put proposals on the ballot and leave the decision to city voters. Ultimately, votes were the key resource required for enshrining the proposals into law, and neighborhoods with higher concentrations of homeowners and registered Republicans were consistently more supportive of the anti-homeless proposals. Absent any of the unique resources contributed by members of the anti-homeless regime, it is far less likely the laws would have been adopted.

Enforcement of the sit-lie ban also appears to have prioritized members of the anti-homeless regime. In the five years following its adoption, the law was most stringently enforced in The Haight, the neighborhood home to the merchants who vocally mobilized for the law’s adoption, and in low-density residential neighborhoods. Tent and encampment clearance, on the other hand, appeared to be less biased to prioritize particular neighborhoods or land use types and more shaped by administrative capacity. Both findings contradict frequent claims that anti-homeless laws are most strictly enforced in downtown districts and near tourist or retail destinations.

Ultimately, these findings should inform how we think about power dynamics and policymaking in cities today. While debates over anti-homeless laws in other cities are unlikely to play out exactly as they have in San Francisco, the actors and resources that shaped the debate in San Francisco will likely prove influential in other cities as well. We should also continue paying attention to the more subtle mechanisms through which urban power is expressed. Long after laws regulating the use of public space are adopted, the manner in which they are enforced will continue defining winners and losers in less obvious but still impactful ways.

Read the UAR article here.

Photo by Naomi August on Unsplash

Author Biography

David J. Amaral is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His research focusses on urban neighborhoods, poverty, inequality, and political participation.