It’d be easy to ignore the white signs posted along the chainlink fence that lines the massive PG&E yard on 18th and Harrison streets; they blend in with the rest of the signs directing employees on where to park, and what the facility’s hours are. But the small, blue-and-white signs marked with a city seal are not for staff or even people walking by — but instead for the unhoused residents of the area.
“Please respect this neighborhood,” they read. “Do not set up tents in this vicinity. NO LODGING ZONE. The City and County of San Francisco recently worked to resolve illegal encampments in this area. Lodging on public property without permission is unlawful. Cal. Penal Code. 647(e). If you need shelter or if you see tents in this area please call 311.”
Now, one on Harrison Street has been edited, slightly. A strip of red tape has crossed the messaging out, and a new, nearly-identical sign has been posted underneath. “Please respect your neighbors: ask people living in tents if you can help them,” it reads. “NO BIGOT ZONE. Forcing people living on the streets to ‘move along’ is unethical. Support services, not sweeps. SFPD and DPW recently removed your unhoused neighbors and stole all their property on the orders of Mayor London Breed. If you see tents in this area, please do not call the cops.”
.@PGE4Me and @sfgov have teamed up for the ugliest collaboration in recent SF history: putting up official city signs banning people from “lodging” outside the utility company’s property. We decided to make a few changes: pic.twitter.com/9Z2KwQ2hru
— These Are Our Neighbors (@NoBigotZone) July 12, 2019
The activists behind the edited sign first saw the anti-homeless messaging posted along the edge of the yard several weeks ago.
“Right away we thought we should do something in response and had a flurry of ideas,” the anonymous groups tells SF Weekly. With the goal of crafting a clever counter message that wouldn’t immediately be noticed by authorities, they drafted their own version of a sign and posted it on the fence last Monday. As of Thursday morning, it was still up.
The messaging was all highly intentional. “We wanted to create a call and response to each of the phrases, and interrogate the connotations,” the group says. “The people we’re talking about aren’t other, they are a part of this community. Seventy percent of homeless people in S.F. had homes in the city, and the other 30 percent came from the larger Bay Area. It helps people to reframe folks that are on the street as our neighbors, instead of some vagrants.
“The phrase ‘Please respect this neighborhood by not coming here’ ” – there are so many things that are amoral about that framing,” they add. “Those who have a home are allowed to be here, and those who aren’t are not? It’s demonizing.”
As for specifically calling out Breed — that was also highly intentional.
“We feel like Mayor Breed bears the most responsibility for this,” they say. “She can stop the sweeps, and chooses to defend the interest of the wealthy instead. We wanted to make sure we called her out by name as well as the city agencies that enact the sweeps, like SFPD and DPW.”
Turns out, it’s pretty easy to make a sign. Once the wording had been finalized the layout was designed, mimicking the city’s version. An order was placed with an online sign company, and the new version arrived three days later. All told, it took the group around two weeks from first spotting the signs to posting an updated version.
The city’s signs posted around the PG&E yard are only the latest evidence in San Francisco’s continued war on the poor. Mayor London Breed famously stated in 2018 that there was a 34 percent reduction in tents citywide thanks to the continued sweeps of camps. But a recent round of data proves that a reduction in tents isn’t equal to a reduction in people; the Homeless Point in Time Count showed an increase of 2,285 people who are without homes compared to 2017.
And while the Department of Homelessness has claimed success through its Healthy Streets Operation Center — which can be deployed through calling 311, as the sign states — it tends to be police and public works employees who respond to the majority of these calls, not social workers or medical professionals. They do not have the correct training to interact with people with mental illness, substance use issues, or in need of social services.
Knowing that 311 system is dangerously flawed, the sign activists propose that anyone concerned about a homeless person living in their neighborhood simply ask them directly if there’s anything they can do to help.
In the meantime, the ease of this sign-making project is opening other doors. The group wouldn’t say if they had other specific actions planned, but did imply that their work isn’t over.
“Every time the city and corporations collaborate to sweep the streets of people there should always be a response of some kind,” they say. “The people need to defend our neighbors from other-izing, from bigotry, from denying the right to exist. We hope to continue to respond to current and future efforts from the city and corporations. There are signs all over the place.”