City’s blacks still facing racism issues 

click to enlarge A man, identified as 36-year-old Bernard Warren, was forcibly removed by a police officer from a Muni bus that he was sleeping on after it reached the end of its line. - COURTESY PUBLIC DEFENDER’S OFFICE
  • Courtesy public defender’s office
  • A man, identified as 36-year-old Bernard Warren, was forcibly removed by a police officer from a Muni bus that he was sleeping on after it reached the end of its line.

As the month of February celebrating black history has come to a close, it is a good time to reflect on The City's battle with racial injustice and our treatment of our black neighbors. We know our city is dramatically losing our black population — and that the housing crisis is the largest factor driving that change. As folks are driven out of town to far reaching suburbs, the very fabric of community and the support that encompasses, disintegrates. Extensive commutes cut into family time, community support disappears and raising children becomes ever harder as families are spread far and wide.

In the middle of the last century, black San Franciscans were hit hard by wrongheaded redevelopment decisions, and then hit again in the 1990s by poorly managed rebuilds of public housing that displaced residents.

Today, rising rents and unfettered real estate speculation are not just driving the black population in San Francisco downward, but pushing them into the streets. Homelessness affects blacks at a significantly higher rate that any other racial group across the United States and here in San Francisco.

Racism and the resulting systemic inequality is a driving force of homelessness. Black San Franciscans are four times more likely to experience homelessness and Latinos are twice as likely. While less then 6 percent of the population of San Francisco is black, African-Americans make up a quarter of the homeless population. Among families with children, blacks are more than eight times more likely to experience homelessness. In 2014, whites made up only 14 percent of the homeless family population, while black families made up more than half — and San Francisco is treating them with shameful disregard.

On a recent night at a church shelter, one school-age boy wet his bed. As the shelter has no showers and no change of clothes, he was forced to go to school with wet clothes. It is not uncommon for parents to have to make a hard choice between missing school or getting to the shelter late and filling up. We are not faring much better with our babies. Recently at that same shelter, a Latina gave birth to a boy — she was released from the hospital and spent the night, babe in arms, with her husband on a mat on the floor of a church. She was in a cramped dark room with more than 25 other families. Her husband tried desperately to make sure their newborn would not spend his first night at risk of communicable diseases in a congregate setting — he went to the hospital social worker, to the Department of Public Health, even to the Mayor's Office to no avail. Three weeks into the child's life, things have not changed.

For blacks who sleep outside, as there never are enough beds for everyone, our city ensures they have constant contact with the police — even when they are doing something as harmless as sleeping. A recent video released by Public Defender Jeff Adachi shows a black man asleep on Muni and getting rousted by a police officer. Not only did waking up the man not necessitate a police call, but the officer demanded that a clearly exhausted person move more quickly than is humanly possible. The officer aggressively shoved the slow-moving man, escalated the situation, pepper-sprayed and struck him and then sent him to spend two weeks caged in jail. This account only further underscores how bad it is for homeless blacks — being asleep and vulnerable to the elements in a racist society is no easy ride.

San Francisco is doing some things right — investing in public housing will deeply benefit the black community. However, there are some simple things The City could do to honor its commitment to ending this travesty. The City can ensure that our emergency family shelters have showers and a call-in line to make reservations. Beyond what should be quick and easy, The City should make sure homeless households have access to a large proportion of affordable housing through subsidies. Lastly, until the time that all San Franciscans are housed, those outside have a right to rest without being criminalized.

While celebrating black history, please remember that homelessness is a black issue — and all of us deserve a safe and decent place to call home.

Jennifer Friedenbach is executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.

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