A Public Plaza, But For Who?

A massive SFPD mobile operation has rolled into UN Plaza, dictating who is allowed to use a central city space.

Tracy Mixon has struggled to find secure housing for years. She’s been in and out of shelters, but when living on the streets, she often gathers with friends at UN Plaza, a large, brick-paved swath of open space off Market, between Seventh and Hyde streets. It used to be a popular spot; on any given afternoon it teemed with people shopping at the farmers market or grabbing lunch from food trucks at Off the Grid. With Civic Center station directly underground it also functions as a transit hub, and is a frequent hangout for unhoused people from around the city who meet up to play chess or catch up with old friends.

But for the past few weeks, the plaza’s demographic has changed. When farmers market vendors pack up and head home, the vast space is left a vacant wasteland. Police fences pop up around the large, Brutalist water fountain to prevent people from sitting on its edges, and groups of cops chat outside a massive Mobile Command Center vehicle. Even more officers cruise through the area on sporty Honda motorcycles. On a recent afternoon, SF Weekly counted 14 cops in the plaza. Aside from a handful of commuters walking through on their way somewhere else, it sat empty.

A San Francisco Police Mobile Command Unit sits at U.N. Plaza, Sept. 25, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume)

Police Chief Bill Scott justified the mobile operation at a Police Commission meeting earlier this month.

“There are a number of illegal behaviors that are commonplace there; drug dealing, quality of life issues, public urination, just bad behavior,” he said, disclosing that since the beginning of the year, a total of 588 incidents within 500 feet of UN Plaza resulted in 637 police bookings and citations.

“We really want to make that public space usable and user-friendly to anybody that wants to come and enjoy it,” Scott said. “We’re committed to making that public place safe for everyone, and you will see a large presence of officers there for the foreseeable future.”

Who is allowed to use the plaza for recreation and who isn’t has yet to be verbally clarified, but it’s been made pretty clear that unhoused people are not welcome. Since the Mobile Command Center moved in, the plaza has been notably devoid of people pushing shopping carts or hoisting big backpacks.

“They’re being shoved into the Tenderloin,” says Mixon, who’s also a peer organizer for the Coalition on Homelessness. “I’ve noticed people being pushed into Hayes Valley. They’re being funneled everywhere, but there’s still no place to go, it’s crazy.”

Those that are welcome, however? Customers of the farmers market, and those who can afford a $13 gourmet food truck pizza for lunch. On those days, office workers, kids, and groups of people can be spotted hanging out on the cement walls or napping in the sun — activities often considered loitering or illegal lodging for those who appear homeless.

Nevertheless, based on the tweets coming out of Tenderloin Station, police view the operation as a success. “With strong community support, SFPD Tenderloin Officers & @sfpublicworks crews took decisive, well-planned steps toward restoring UN Plaza today. This historic plaza is looking beautiful tonight,” they tweeted on Sept. 11, including a photo of the plaza devoid of people.

(Kevin N. Hume)

Mixon doesn’t believe more enforcement is the answer.

“At this point, there’s not enough resources here, for anyone. Especially for a homeless adult, a single adult. There are some good organizations in the Tenderloin … but they can only do so much. By 7, 7:30 all the places to go are full. Therefore, you have all the people out here that don’t have anywhere to go,” she says, gesturing toward the plaza.

It’s an issue that concerns local advocates and politicians.

“We have to make sure we aren’t simply pushing the problems into other areas, because if that’s the result, then we are just rearranging the deck chairs,” Supervisor Jane Kim told the chief during the Police Commission meeting.

But while arrests and citations are easy to track, the displacement of unhoused communities isn’t. And with only one dataset available, it’ll be hard to prove that the Mobile Command Center is anything but a success.

Nuala Sawyer is SF Weekly’s news editor.
nsawyer@sfweekly.com |  @TheBestNuala

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