SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – As game day nears, San Francisco has faced increasing criticism over its spending on Super Bowl events, failure to get reimbursed by the NFL or Super Bowl 50 host committee, and its sweeping of homeless camps in the area surrounding the “Super Bowl City” site in Justin Herman Plaza.
Homeless advocates protested outside the site of San Francisco’s Super Bowl City on Wednesday, where homeless encampments were cleared in advance of a nine-day celebration leading up to the Super Bowl game in nearby Santa Clara on Feb.7.
“We’ve got rich people partying so poor people need to get out of here for a while,” Paul Boden, executive director of the San Francisco-based homeless advocacy group Western Regional Advocacy Project, said.
This past August, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said homeless people would “have to leave the street” for Super Bowl festivities “not just because it is illegal, but because it is dangerous.”
The mayor announced a plan to move homeless individuals living in the Super Bowl City area to a transitional housing facility in the Mission district or to an estimated 500 new units of supportive housing planned to be opened by the end of 2015.
The city moved 24 homeless people from Justin Herman Plaza into a housing center before construction started on the event site last month, according to Sam Dodge, director of the mayor’s Housing Opportunity, Partnership & Engagement (HOPE) program.
“The reason people found refuge in that area is that it can be relatively safe and a place where people can find a quiet area to rest,” Dodge said of the Super Bowl City site. “We know that would not be possible as they fence up the whole area and move in this massive stuff.”
However, several critics saw the mayor’s decision to relocate the homeless as an attempt to keep tourists from seeing the unpleasant realities of poverty and social inequality in one of the nation’s most expensive cities.
“Right now because a bunch of billionaires are coming into town to have a party over a football game, poor people, artists and everyone they don’t want around are being told to get out of their town,” Boden said of the mayor’s plan.
Critics also say the list of banned items for Super Bowl City sends a clear signal that homeless people are not welcome at the event. The rules ban shopping carts, tents, large bags and “any item deemed inappropriate or hazardous by Super Bowl City security.”
“We do know they are cutting off a pretty large area of the city and not allowing people into that large area,” Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness, said. “So they are barring homeless people from a public event through virtue of their banned items list.”
Lee’s office responded that those items were banned for security reasons, not to exclude the homeless.
“When it comes to large-scale events like the Super Bowl, there are concerns that organizations like Homeland Security and others have about it being vulnerable to violence and terrorist activities,” Dodge said. “I don’t feel that’s an unreasonable concern, but I also share the concern of advocates that we make sure that all sorts of events are accessible and welcoming for everyone.”
A few days before the Super Bowl City center opened on Jan. 30, a homeless couple sat on a concrete plaza next to where construction crews erected tents and stages for the pregame celebration.
Angela Lawrence, a 50-year-old woman who said she became homeless after losing her job with Microsoft, said she and her boyfriend have dealt with an increased and more aggressive police presence in recent weeks.
When police wake her up in the middle of the night and force her to move her belongings, Lawrence said she sometimes has no choice but to leave things behind, even though she used to consider herself a “tree hugger” before losing her job.
“When they move you in the middle of the night, I have to leave my trash,” she said. “I hate that.”
Despite the mayor’s announcement this past August, Lawrence said no one from the city had informed her of an opportunity to find shelter during the Super Bowl celebration.
“If they want us to go away then provide a place, especially in the winter,” she said. “Many people I know want to be indoors. There’s gotta be an amicable solution. We would go if someone offered.”
Lawrence recalled finding a tent on the sidewalk and picking it up to see if it had any holes and could be used when a police officer wrote her a ticket for illegal camping, despite her insistence that she was merely inspecting the tent.
Friedenbach, of the Coalition on Homelessness, told ABC 7 News this week that failure to pay fines for such tickets can result in arrest warrants for homeless people, which causes them to lose their place on a wait lists for shelters.
“It keeps them homeless, and the wait list is closed so you can’t [get] back on the wait list,” Friedbach said.
As the 13th largest U.S. city by population, San Francisco ranks eighth nationwide in its number of homeless. The city had an estimated 6,775 homeless people in 2015 with 64 percent living outside of shelters, according to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report.
However, Dodge said because many people experience homelessness at different times throughout the year, the true number of homeless individuals in San Francisco is closer to 20,000. The city has approximately 1,300 shelter beds, but there are often about 30 vacancies a night because many choose to stay on the streets, he said.
The city has made considerable investments in tackling the issue, spending more than $167 million on services and outreach to address homelessness in 2014.
Dodge pointed to the construction of the new Navigation Center in the city’s Mission district as a model for future supportive-housing centers to transition individuals from life on the street to permanent housing.
The Navigation Center, which opened in March 2015, houses up to 75 individuals. The facility provides people with 24-hour access to food and showers with no curfews, minimal rules and consultations with social workers and benefits counselors to help them move to more permanent housing.
“The goal now is to take these successes and build a department around them and have the whole system working as one,” Dodge said, adding the mayor has announced plans to launch a new department focused solely on homeless services.
When asked about criticism San Francisco has faced over allegations officials planned to hide homeless people from tourists during the Super Bowl, Dodge said he finds the idea of keeping San Francisco’s homeless population a secret from visitors impractical.
“If you talk to any tourist who has come to San Francisco, I’m sure they will attest that San Francisco is not hiding its homeless,” Dodge said. “The truth is that San Francisco is a place that cares passionately about its homelessness situation and wants to see no one experiencing homelessness.
“It’s not about hiding homeless people. It’s about ending their homelessness with housing. That’s a challenge we face not just in San Francisco but across the nation, and we want to make progress with that goal.”
But reassuring statements from city officials have not stopped critics from drawing a contrast between a multimillion-dollar Super Bowl celebration and the plight of the city’s poorest citizens.
During Wednesday’s protest outside the Super Bowl City site, one protester held a sign reading: “One Super Bowl ad ($5 million) costs enough to immediately house 500 people.”
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