Last month, a group of property owners in San Francisco took matters into their own hands.
According to the SF Examiner's Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez, they pooled together $3,900 through a GoFundMe, bought two-dozen boulders, and placed them on the sidewalk in an attempt to obstruct homeless people who'd been living in camps there.
Then a reporter for Hoodline was tipped off about their existence, and the great San Francisco turf war of 2019 began.
With examples of "hostile architecture" already flowing readily through the cultural discourse—and California homelessness in the ether after Donald Trump's recent, strange comments on the topic—these boulders became the latest symbols of massive inequality in the Bay Area. "San Francisco's clumsiest metaphor," wrote local scribe Joe Eskanazi. Every area news entity covered the story, so it wasn't surprising when (presumably) homeless advocates rolled the boulders out from the sidewalk into the street overnight.
San Francisco's Department of Public Works (DPW) put them back in their original position, but then they were rolled out again. And then it all happened again. After the fifth rollback, DPW gathered the boulders and brought them away to wherever, but the story wasn't over. As DPW head Mohammed Nuru told reporters, one potential solution might be "larger boulders."
You know, so they're not so easy to roll into the street.
This is only a shocking response if you didn't know that DPW—which, to reiterate, is a public agency—have themselves previously used boulders as buttress against homeless encampments. The boulders are simply the obvious next tactic of a city, region, and country that don't know what to do about the unsheltered population. And unless this trajectory shifts, these solutions will only continue to get more absurd, eradicating public space for many who need it.
Cities have long provided owners plenty of allowances for using the space outside of their official property lines. When homeless people inhabit that space, owners might feel entitled to tell the city what to do with them through complaints—griping on the phone, yelling at city council meetings, or whining online on digital platforms like Nextdoor until someone does something. As there is no broader program in place, the imagination of that something seems to amount to getting those people out of the area, nothing more. Activists call this the "leaf-blower" approach to solving homelessness.
"There are so many micro-struggles over space in San Francisco and the Bay Area right now," said Manissa Maharawal, assistant professor of anthropology at American University. A slightly different battle for space that Maharawal linked to the boulder saga was San Francisco's recent brouhaha over e-scooters. "[Tech companies] don't ask permission to do, they just do," she explained. "And they expect the city to play catch up with them."
It's Facebook's infamous "move fast and break things," but as unofficial policy, and not just in tech, but housing. Put boulders out, unleash a fleet of scooters, hell, go ahead and roll out an entire bus system specifically for tech workers without oversight. Maybe the government will regulate later, maybe not. This ethos has obviously been welcomed by business leaders, but often criticized by the activist-minded. "People were like, these scooters just landed in public space, they’re taking up sidewalk space, there's no permits for them, no public process,” Maharawal said, striking a contrast with the laws non-tech-innovators must follow. "On the other hand, people in public spaces who have no place else to go are given tickets all the time."
The tickets, the boulders, this entire leaf-blower approach—they're are all parts of the same trend. A 2016 report from UC Berkeley Law School found that California cities were enacting "anti-homeless" laws such as limitations on sleeping, camping, and lodging in record numbers. The latest barrage came earlier this year, when the city of Berkeley instituted a ban on recreational vehicles that park on city streets overnight. Despite the region having a reputation as liberal paradise, this type of public space erosion is, in the eyes of many activists and critics, systemic and insidious.
It's worth considering how things got this bad. Why have there been no real solutions to homelessness in an area of the country so flooded with wealth? Why does the "most liberal" city in the country consistently have a shelter bed waitlist that’s over 1,000 people long?
"Increasingly, urban spaces are reliant on tax bases from their economy, so they're not there to provide a service that goes against their incentives," said Sean Parson, associate professor of politics and international affairs at Northern Arizona University. "Increase property values to increase your tax base, [which] means any money spent on homeless services can't be spent on things that could help develop their economy."
Larger debates between liberals and conservatives, as Parson sees it, are clarified in how each group views any given city's homeless population. Conservatives, he said, tend to see them as invaders, with rumors always lingering of how they’re coming in from other parts of the country. Liberals, on the other hand, might see them as poor victims of the urban environment, folks that just need rehab or a jobs-training program to get them back into the rental market. But it's at least possible that neither ideological camp sees the homeless as actual community members, as people with a right to be part of the city.
"There are tensions between people making their retirement money or general incomes through property, and houseless people who are constantly displaced," Parsons said. "And the mainstream establishment doesn't want to upset too much of the housing market with affordable housing."
There are theoretically ways to combat this—say, getting rid of the California Constitution's Article 34, which puts the kibosh on dreams of massive public housing, or drastically overhauling the state's Prop 13, the 1978 tax revolt that continues to incentivize owners to store their wealth in property. But without the political will, it's a tough haul. That is, until this eventual death spiral leads to more dramatic clashes for space between the homeless and the wealthy. At its most extreme, the race feels like one between an uprising and a pogrom—social housing or barbarism.
In the meantime, the continual erosion of spaces for homeless people to physically reside means a disappearance of city-space for the larger population.
Years ago, I covered the eviction of a homeless encampment on the border of Berkeley and Oakland. Theirs had been a purposeful community—self-governing with rules on drugs, alcohol, and nightly curfew—set in a patch of open, unused grass near a public art sculpture and known as "Here/There." The rest of the space would be used to walk dogs, or just to chill out on a hot day. But after a death in a different, nearby encampment, the group was evicted from the space. To keep them from coming back, the transit agency BART, which owned the land, put up a spiked fence around the perimeter. This has the effect of closing off the space to anyone except the workers who, every few months, trim down the grass.
"One thing about anti-homeless laws is that people often miss the big picture around what's happening to public space more broadly," Maharawal said, mentioning how those moved by the boulders don't disappear. They didn't suddenly get housing. They simply moved somewhere else nearby where, soon enough, the property owners there will try their own solution, now with the fresh precedent of the city condoning such an organized and reactionary response.
"What are we going to do," Maharawal asked, "fill the entire city with boulders?"
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