The Super Bowl is Over, But Questions About What Really Happened to the Homeless Remain

Now that the Super Bowl is over (sorry, Panthers fans) and Justin Herman Plaza can return to its usual state, we may ask: How did the city do taking care of the homeless during the big hoopla?

Well, a Washington D.C.-based league of lawyers dedicated to protecting the homeless says we did a bang-up job that future Super Bowls should emulate. Also, we did a terrible job that possibly violated people’s rights and put them in danger.

It’s complicated.

[jump] The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which bills itself as “the only national legal group dedicated to ending and preventing homelessness,” is using San Francisco as a case study for how the NFL can blunt future Super Bowls’ impact on homeless populations. NLCHP’s senior attorney Tristia Bauman visited San Francisco earlier this year and, by and large, was impressed by what she found.

“We toured the Navigation Center, and it’s a really good, innovative model,” Bauman says. “And we found that there are some really great personnel and wonderful local advocates. We think other cities can learn a lot from San Francisco.”

When I pointed out that the homeless problem seems to be getting worse, Bauman acknowledged this was true, but argued that there’s only so much any city can do when economic factors align to exacerbate a crisis that had already been bad for decades.

The NLCHP will monitor — ”indefinitely” — the cases of roughly two dozen people that outreach teams brought to the Navigation Center ahead of the Super Bowl to see how many of them end up in permanent housing, and will use the results as a model to counsel the NFL and future Super Bowl host cities.

So, a happy ending after all? Not quite.

“The people in and around the Super Bowl City site were handled well,” Bauman says. “But we do hear stories about sweeps outside of Super Bowl City. Cities have always done sweeps ahead of the Super Bowl, and we oppose the criminalization of life-sustaining activities.”

Funny thing about that: The mayor’s office and the police department swore blind all last week that no such thing was happening. Mayor Ed Lee characterized the efforts to move the homeless from Super Bowl sites as simple outreach. Sam Dodge, the mayor’s point man on homeless outreach, denies that anyone was moved or that any property was seized.

Lt. Michael Nevin, coordinator of the San Francisco Police Department’s homeless program, acted incredulous when asked. “Tell me where these alleged ‘sweeps’ and acts of intimidation are occurring? I would like to know.”

And yet: “People we trust — people like Sam Dodge — swear to God it’s not happening,” Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, said last week. “But the homeless swear the exact opposite. It’s one thing if we hear it once or twice, but we’re hearing it over and over again. People’s suitcases throw into dumpsters, people told, ‘We’ll throw your stuff into the hopper if you don’t move.’ It’s definitely happening.”

Friedenbach also criticized the mayor’s office for fast tracking Justin Herman Plaza residents into the Navigation Center ahead of a waiting list of people that sometimes takes months. “Is it good for those people? Sure. But is it fair?”

Some homeless groups say they didn’t hear a peep about any additional hassle during the festivities. “I have heard nothing. I’ve read the same stories as everyone else, but I’m not aware of any buzz among our clientele,” says Kenneth Reggio, director of Episcopal Community Services. “That doesn’t mean it’s not happening,” he adds.

But Mary Howe of the Homeless Youth Alliance says she heard “tons of complaints” from people “pushed block by block” from their normal hangouts. She even contends she saw city workers tossing out tents and suitcases at encampments, despite official denials. And the Examiner brought us the story of Channell Jones, a homeless woman who allegedly lost her job after being rousted too many times.

Friedenbach says that normally they’d corroborate complaints with public record requests, checking for an increase in citations for nuisance laws. But they can’t this time, because the database that tracks such things is on the fritz. And has been since September.

Yeah, you’re not the only one who finds that a touch suspicious. But the database is operated by the courts, independent of the SFPD, and it would be quite a conspiracy that brought the two together to collude on this for months on end. Still, “the timing is weird,” says Friedenbach.

Sam Dodge (whom Friedenbach says she trusts, despite the inconsistencies in their testimonies) acknowledges that some people were skipped to the head of the Navigation Center line for the Super Bowl, but says it was because there was a risk of losing track of them if they were pushed out of their usual haunts before getting help.

As for the complaints, he’s heard them himself and spent days on the street searching for corroboration, and says he could confirm nothing. Curiouser and curiouser.

Now that the hoopla is over, we may never know for sure what really happened on our streets this winter. That’s the nature of the problem — the homeless live between the cracks, and any hassles they suffer are just as easy to overlook or ignore as the homeless themselves. There’s no big play for fixing what ails the city once the Super Bowl leaves. There’s just a long slog.

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