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The Imperfect Host, Part Five: Seeing The Invisible In Super Bowl City

San Francisco's inequalities are well known, but are hard to see because of how invisible the poor have become. Life outside the walls in Super Bowl City is rough.

by Tarin Towers
Feb 4 2016, 7:45pm

Photo by Tarin Towers

This feature is part of Super Bowl Week at VICE Sports.

I ended my Wednesday across the street from Super Bowl City, sitting on the ground outside the Market Bar restaurant in the Ferry Building, eating free food off a compostable bamboo plate. Dinner was cold steak in gravy, roasted chicken, and an entire container of quinoa salad, with homemade apple pie for dessert. The food was tasty, and it was leftovers not from a tech lunch catering company, which was my first guess, but from a shelter in Tom Brady's hometown of San Mateo, which is almost exactly halfway between Super Bowl City and Levi's Stadium. Two guys had driven the food up to feed a gaggle of hungry protesters, who were relaxing after three hours of chanting and marching that culminated in a low-speed chase by a gaggle of cops.

The protest didn't infiltrate Super Bowl City, which is just as well considering that dozens of vehicles were dispatched to deal with the protest, a fleet with enough combined room to transport a few hundred people to jail. After circling the entirety of Super Bowl City, the march returned to where the rally began in front of the Ferry Building, where dinner was served.

Lots of people enjoyed the food: the protesters, some of whom were homeless themselves; assorted homeless people who would wander up the Embarcadero with or without food; and several people who just happened to be walking by. After those present had eaten their fill of the couple dozen trays of meat, the dudes were going to take the rest in their van down to the tent encampments along Division Street to feed residents who most likely were exhausted not just from living under a freeway overpass but from talking to journalist after journalist, from San Francisco and beyond, about whether they were ousted from downtown and what they thought of Mayor Ed Lee.

Read More: On The Edge In Super Bowl City

In a way, it doesn't matter what Sam Dodge or Ed Lee himself says in the way of clarifying those unfortunate and much-quoted "the homeless will have to leave" remarks. Those words may have been taken out of their immediate context, meaning the phrases and sentences Lee used at the time about providing care and services. But that one phrase could not and cannot be removed from the larger context, which is that San Francisco is a city of rampant and almost unimaginable inequality. Former state Assemblyman and San Francisco City Supervisor and one-time mayoral candidate Tom Ammiano said at Wednesday's rally, in a speech about why San Francisco can't seem to make progress on solving the homeless crisis, "Is it Ed Lee? No. Is it the developers? No. It's a lack of political will."

The light rain stopped a few minutes before I sat on the ground outside the Ferry Building with my plate of food. I was grateful, and the journalist sitting on the sidewalk next to me filing a story from her imperiled laptop was grateful; so were both the Super Bowl City protesters and the Super Bowl City guests and workers. I'd bet none of us were as grateful, for the break in the rain and the food and the moment's rest, as the people who sleep in tents, and I'd bet that they in turn felt less gratitude than the people who sleep in bus shelters, and on and on down to the folks without even a sleeping bag.

I took a walk down Division Street last Saturday after spending the day at the Justice for Mario Woods Protest and the grand opening of Super Bowl City. Mostly, I was checking out the rumors that the tents had been cleared by the Department of Public Works, as I did regularly over the course of reporting this series. "I heard they swept all the tents," someone would tell me or message me; I'd go to check it out, and the tents would still be there. I'm not saying that DPW or the cops didn't move the tents or roust people out or take anyone's belongings. What I can say is that the sidewalks on the north side of Division were fuller some days than others, but never empty, never fenced off as was repeatedly rumored to have happened. Fences have been constructed cordoning off some stretches of pavement nearby, however, which has made the sidewalks more crowded with belongings and lean-tos and tents along the fast-moving street that divides the Mission District from South of Market.

Susan, it is indeed pretty wild. — Photo by Tarin Towers

I left Division at Folsom and cut across Trainor Street behind Rainbow Grocery, where several tents occupied a stretch I've never seen tents on before, a fact some of the many other local writers on this beat have noted. I cut over to Harrison and headed east into the Mission, where I saw a wide array of belongings on the sidewalk. I couldn't tell if they'd been abandoned or if maybe they were evidence of a botched relocation. I started taking pictures. A woman stood about a hundred feet away, and she said "Hey, isn't it wild that you can see that Super Bowl sign all the way from here? Doesn't it look strange over all this garbage? I bet that would make you a good picture." She was right.

She introduced herself as Susan Honey Cunningham, 61, and she explained that the goods on the sidewalk—as well as the blankets she was hanging on a chain-link fence nearby—belonged to a friend of hers with a broken leg who was off at General Hospital having it looked at. She was helping him out because his tent had flooded, not because of any rain but because her friend happened to set up camp in a spot with sprinklers. She didn't have to spell out that there was no lawn or garden on the block. The sprinklers are there—during a crushing drought, no less—to discourage campers, which probably explained why no one else had picked that spot for their tent.

Her friend's tent was there in the gutter, airing out, because it had gotten soaked through. "And it didn't even have a rubberized bottom," she said. "So all his bedding got wet, everything. Total mess."

Susan, like many people in more and less precarious housing situations, described herself as "between places," and explained that she'd won a spot in Mercy Housing—a nice, subsidized apartment in a staffed building that takes a third of a person's disability check or other income for rent—but they didn't call her and sent the paperwork to the wrong address, so she didn't get her slot. She was working on taking care of that.

"I heard the mayor was setting up a Department of Homelessness," she said, "but I don't believe it." I asked Susan what she had heard about what Mayor Lee was actually doing about homelessness, and she said several of her friends had gotten places through the Navigation Center, and that what the city needed to prioritize was setting up more of those. "There are so many empty lots and buildings, and if you set up what's called 'a community of care,' it's a community within a community, so you don't need to get the lot rezoned or anything."

Susan had a lot to say about zoning that I didn't quite follow, but San Francisco zoning and planning laws are so byzantine that I took her word for it. She said she had set up such a place, a sort of board and care, maybe 15 years ago, and told a story of inspections and capricious city workers that sounded like a cross between Brazil and Kafka. It was baroque and also entirely within the realm of possibility.

The several cities by the Bay. — Photo by Tarin Towers

Offsides

The protest Wednesday evening—estimated by news organizations as having a couple hundred attendees and by organizers as having thousands—was called "Tackle Homelessness." The rally and march featured vividly painted tents to represent the encampments and was organized by a group called "Not So Super SF," spearheaded by Jennifer Friedenbach, of Coalition on Homelessness, and by "Broke-Ass" Stuart Schuffman, a writer and gadfly. Schuffman ran against incumbent Mayoral candidate Ed Lee on a platform that included finding solutions for affordable housing and curing homelessness. The basic premise behind protesting against Super Bowl City's presence in San Francisco is that, as Supervisor David Campos put it at the rally, "The San Francisco that we see every day is not the San Francisco Ed Lee wants to show the world. The homeless are not leaving."

Not So Super SF says they've identified about 20 locations in Districts 5 and 6, home to Super Bowl City, where homeless people have been rousted from the spots they call home. They suggest printing posters featuring photographs of homeless people and posting them at the spots they've been displaced from. If that were me, I'd feel a little singled out, even if they blurred my face like they did on the posters on their Web site. But that is just me, maybe, and I don't live on the street.

Among the things putting on a journalist hat for this story has taught me is a broad skepticism for even beliefs I myself hold. I don't know that I have much ability to be objective about the homeless situation in terms of my sympathies, but I'm not sure that photographing a homeless person to represent a particular spot does much more than create a false sense of object permanence.

For instance, I know Rolf and Stephan are no longer at the bus stop where they spent the weeks preceding the opening of Super Bowl City. I also know they weren't chased away with pitchforks and torches. I don't know where they've been sleeping, although they gave me a couple clues, but putting their picture on an empty bus stop would not indicate that they'd been ousted nor that they'd been housed, and it might attract unwanted attention. Seeing as how their spot is within the perimeter, they're more "ousted" than most, but both men had been offered shelter in the Navigation Center more than once and turned it down. That's not quite the same as having the sprinklers turned on while you are trying to sleep in an industrial neighborhood. It's complicated.

Here to help. Mostly. — Photo by Tarin Towers

S.F. Confidential

I understand it's important to identify your journalistic sources to the fullest extent you can, but I spoke to a lot of people for this series who wished to remain unidentified. I have most names down in my notebooks, including the "The Invisible Man," in case for some reason a Journalistic Ethics Command Center demanded I prove they exist.

There is one name, however, I promised I would neither divulge nor even write down, although I remember the person's name and I know where I could find them again. This person made me promise not to identify them by name, age, gender, physical description, or even homeless status, for a great and understandable fear of retaliation from the people in a position of power over this person's life. I do feel comfortable saying they have a life history that includes being homeless and experiencing a wide array of venues within San Francisco's citywide shelter system. (Not all shelters in the system are staffed or managed by San Francisco agencies; some are operated by nonprofits and some by churches.)

I've heard shelter horror stories over the years from both staff and clients of homeless shelters, as well as from the activists, social workers, agency staff and homeless people I talked to for this story. My contact went into depth about what they'd seen in their history in the shelter system, and described mismanagement of shelters and a lack of compassion bordering on malice from some workers. Both theft and drug sales were common, not all facilities without disability accommodations are described as such in shelter listings, and some offered only six hours between lights out and wake-up call. The buildings my contact detailed are understaffed, and when one person is keeping overnight watch for a floor of dozens of people, staff can get both jumpy and bored. That boredom can be both annoying and dangerous.

As my contact described it, some shelter staff have friends and favorites among the clients—some of these because of their own housing history—and when lights-out time comes, they invite their pals up to the desk to spend the next couple hours jawing, which disrupts the ability of the shelter clients to sleep. Let me remind you that these are adults, many elderly or disabled, sleeping in cots or mats on the floor; they're not here for a slumber party, and would be anywhere else if they could. They came to the shelter because it promised to be a safer and quieter place than the street, and in some venues they have to wake up at 5am if they want the 6am breakfast before they're kicked out for the day.

In my contact's experience, the more dangerous part of staff boredom and capriciousness is that if a client ticked off the shelter staff, for whatever reason, they could have their shelter reservation status changed in the computer overnight, when management wasn't around, and subsequently be forced to move out, find a new spot for themselves and their belongings, and start over again on wait lists and service placements. (Some shelters within the system are places where a person gets a locker for their bags and can stay for a length of time rather than having to check in and out, hoping for a bed, every day.)

My contact also believed that some staff members would give placement priority to their friends, again by adjusting data in the computer. "When it's staff vs. homeless, they always believe the staff," they said.

Keep it moving. — Photo by Tarin Towers

I asked if other staff ever reported such misdeeds, and my contact's belief was that fear of retaliation was too great and that San Francisco's whistleblower laws were insufficient to protect staff who wished to report such mismanagement.

It crossed my mind when reporting this story to check into a shelter myself, but while some shelter beds are vacant each night, it's also the case that there are only a third as many beds as there are homeless residents of San Francisco. I thought it would be irresponsible of me to risk displacing a person from a place to sleep just to see if the experience of sleeping in a shelter is as bad as many homeless people say it is.

When I moved to San Francisco more than 20 years ago, I split a 2-bedroom apartment on 17th and Valencia for $750, total. There were more panhandlers on that stretch of Valencia then than there are now, and I remember one woman who would ask me if I could help her find a shelter. By this I mean that she asked this question, on a regular basis, for about six years. I had different kinds of interactions with her, including a few futile attempts to actually help her find a shelter. My apartment and her panhandling beat were near the Mission Police Station, and once I offered to go in and ask the cops for a shelter list. "They don't know anything," she said. Since a shelter clearly wasn't what she was looking for, I took her words to heart and left her alone.

Today, a passerby seeing this same woman could whip out their cellphone and call 311 to locate a walk-in shelter or use the 311 app to connect the woman with the Homeless Outreach Team, who could help her with other services and get her into the reservation system.

I often wonder what happened to this woman. I wrote a poem about her a while back, which concluded, "How can she have found shelter, when so few of us ever will?" That's a grand question for a 24-year-old to ask, although I still like the poem. I remember a similar encounter I had about ten years ago with a woman outside the 16th Street BART Station who claimed to be a refugee from Hurricane Katrina. She talked about how hard it was to find services and how she couldn't get into a shelter. By this point, I had personal experience with the San Francisco social services network, and I told her exactly what offices she could visit to get a referral or a list of shelters and free food and so on. She, of course, was not interested in the system. She wanted money. She may or may not have been from New Orleans. It didn't matter. I tried to give her what she asked for, but I couldn't give her what she needed.

Let me be clear on this: There is no shame in wanting enough money to live on, and when the system fails you, you may in fact feel like asking for cash is the simplest and best thing to do. Money houses people, it feeds people, it lets people wend their way through society in all sorts of ways, and until housing is considered "a right, not a commodity," as Tommi Avicoli Mecca put it at the Tackle Homelessness rally, money will provide fixes that the social safety network doesn't, and can't.

At Super Bowl City, people stood in line for a chance to ride a stationary bike that would power a cascade of lights; play a life-sized iPhone dance game; peep through virtual reality goggles; or take a selfie in front of the giant gold "50" under the Ferry Building. They didn't pay to get in or for any of the attractions. The booths were paid for by their sponsors, phone companies and credit cards and healthcare networks.

The social contract, from keeping the trains running to surrounding the protesters with police, was paid for by the City and County of San Francisco. The lines for dinner at a soup kitchen or an examination at an urgent care clinic are as long as the lines to take a picture of yourself in a quarterback costume. Both are free and open to the public. Which lines should we make shorter? Which ones do you think we will?

If you are in San Francisco and concerned about a homeless person, or if you want to know where there is an open shelter bed available, call 311 rather than 911. The Homeless Outreach Team will be on duty during Super Bowl Week, just as they are all year round.

See all of VICE Sports' Super Bowl 50 coverage here.