Behind the Uproar: What Really Led to the Homeless Shelter Protests in San Francisco?

San Francisco homeless

You may have heard about the recent conflict between supporters and opponents of a plan to build a homeless shelter in affluent San Francisco neighborhood Embarcadero. In several meetings intended to lay out plans for the shelter, residents of the neighborhood booed and mocked city officials. Many walked out. Others attended in support of the shelter, carrying signs with rallying cries like “Hate has no home here.” The conflict between the two sides has only escalated since.

The homeless shelter planned for Embarcadero is a 200-bed Navigation Center. The difference between a traditional homeless shelter and a Navigation Center is the latter hosts drop-in social and medical services. It allows for storage of belongings, and people can bring their partners and pets. It provides only temporary shelter but connects residents with permanent housing and other resources.

These chaotic meetings have made headlines across the country. Understandably, shock and outrage are the reactions of many reading the stories. It’s difficult to imagine that the idea of something so positive and hopeful could spark such extreme opposition.

Is it truly surprising, though?

It’s easy to scorn the affluent residents—the NIMBYs (“Not In My Back Yard”)—for their lack of compassion. What’s really at play, however, is a long history of stigmatization, misunderstanding, and fear. It extends beyond San Francisco and affects the homeless around the world.

If we are going to end homelessness once and for all, we need to understand how situations like this develop. We need to act on two fronts: understanding and changing the policies that have led us here and correcting how society views the homeless.

The Problem with Housing in San Francisco

On any given night in San Francisco, there are 7,500 people experiencing homelessness. Of these, 58% have no shelter at all. Homelessness isn’t on the rise—it’s just becoming more visible. Recent construction projects have revealed encampments to people who might not have noticed. There are also more people utilizing tents and similar structures for shelter than before.

Trash, needles, and human feces litter crowded homeless encampments throughout the city. Leilani Farha, United Nations Special Rapporteur for Adequate Housing, describes these conditions as “a cruelty that is unsurpassed.” She makes the bold statement that they’re a violation of human rights. Farha also says conditions for the homeless in San Francisco are comparable to the slums she’s seen in Mumbai, Delhi, Mexico City, Jakarta, and Manila.

San Francisco, and the nation at large, came to struggle with wealth inequality when President Reagan signed the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit into law in 1986. What this act did was allow the private sector—that is, corporations—to have more control over low-income housing. Corporations began selling social housing, which the poor depended on, for profit. They also bought up large amounts of real estate and charged exorbitant rents. This made them impossible to afford for even those in the middle class. The richer grew richer, and the poorer grew poorer.

This economic inequality between the top 20% and the working class has had a profound impact on housing. It creates wealthy communities like Embarcadero, which stand in stark contrast to the tent communities.

Richard Walker, UC Berkeley professor emeritus, told Recode, “These [new developments] have precisely been carved up, to secure protected environments, protected communities for the well-to-do, in most cases. Then, the rest is left to the working people.”

But What About the NIMBYs?

The top 20% created affluent and exclusive neighborhoods like Embarcadero, but what is maintaining the prejudice their residents have against the homeless? To understand this issue, we need to understand homeless stigmatization.

The complaints voiced loudly and angrily by opponents of the shelter centered on crime, drugs, and sanitation concerns. They express concerns for the safety of tourists and children. The Bay City Beacon reports that one speaker compared the Navigation Center to a compost bin, saying it doesn’t belong in “San Francisco’s front yard.” Residents even went so far as to create a GoFundMe campaign to collect lawyer’s fees so they can fight against the city in a campaign called “Safe Embarcadero For All.”

What these statements and actions imply is that homeless communities—and homeless people—are unclean, dangerous, and ugly. There are many myths and prejudices about the homeless that have existed as long as society has been separated into economic classes. They serve a purpose in that they allow us to look the other way, refuse to share what we have, and pretend the problem doesn’t exist.

Change the Perception

The discrimination facing the homeless of San Francisco is nothing new. It’s existed around the world throughout history and existed in San Francisco long before the Navigation Center was proposed.

The city took a strong and ambitious action to help a worsening crisis, which became the catalyst for this conflict. Such an action rattled the narrative about homeless people, which too many have been taught and become comfortable with. Knowing this background helps us see the bigger picture and understand what a major, societal problem we are facing. The real challenge isn’t to build more housing—it’s to change the way we view the homeless. After that, real change becomes possible.

There are plenty of ways you can act to end the stigmatization of homelessness. You can support the work of Invisible People, which works to break down prejudice by casting an honest, humanizing light on people suffering. Continue to read our articles and share what you learn with others. Get out there and volunteer among the homeless yourself and break down your own preconceived notions and prejudices.

Finally, advocate for policy change to counteract wealth inequality. More affordable housing isn’t the only thing we need. When the rich can no longer target and profit from the poor, a variety of resources and opportunities will open up.

Victoria VanTol

Victoria VanTol


Victoria VanTol holds a master's degree in social work. She is a therapist and freelance writer specializing in topics related to social justice and mental health.

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