SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA – Police arrive to help escort vehicles blocked by protestors of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation global trade summit headed for the Moscone Center on November, 12, 2023 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Kent Nishimura/Getty Images)
Hundreds of unsheltered people living in tent encampments in the blocks surrounding the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco have been forced to leave by city outreach workers and police as part of an attempted “clean up the house” ahead of this week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation’s annual free trade conference.
The action, which housing advocates allege violated a court injunction, was celebrated by right-wing figures and the tech crowd, who have long been convinced that the city is in terminal decline because of an increase in encampments in the downtown area.
The X account End Wokness wrote that the displacement was proof the “government can easily fix our cities overnight. It just doesn’t want to” (the post received 77,000 likes). “Queer Eye but it’s just Xi visiting troubled US cities then they get a makeover,” joked Packy McCormick, the founder of Not Boring Capital and advisor to Andreessen Horowitz’s crypto VC team. The New York Post celebrated the action, saying that residents had “miraculously disappeared.”
The potentially illegal displacement of the homeless population appears to be part of a broader government effort to make the area more comfortable for foreign leaders attending APEC. In addition to clearing encampments, the city re-paved sidewalks, added amenities to parks, put up murals, and picked up trash ahead of the conference.
California governor Gavin Newsom did not deny that APEC had inspired the changes, saying at a press conference last week, “I know folks say they’re just cleaning up this place because all those fancy leaders are coming into town. That’s true, because it’s true.”
Despite Newsom’s candor, the details around the city’s decision to displace the homeless population are difficult to parse. Zal Shroff, the acting legal director of the civil rights organization Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, told Motherboard that “the city’s operations around APEC have largely been a black box.”
Legally, the city cannot threaten to arrest or cite unhoused people when they don’t have adequate shelter space, a result of both a 2018 federal ruling and a more recent court injunction that reinforced the ruling. But Shroff, whose organization has been handling the court case that led to the injunction, said that it was impossible to move hundreds of people to crowded shelters so quickly without threat of force.
“We do know that it was forcible displacement,” Shroff said, adding that had “heard reports of people being told that they’d be arrested if they did not leave the area.”
Javier Bremond, a human rights organizer for the Coalition on Homelessness, similarly told Motherboard unhoused people he spoke with said they were forced to leave the blocks surrounding the Moscone Center. “It was pretty standard sweeping,” he said.
A representative from San Francisco’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) would not say whether police were sent to the Moscone Center in its statement to Motherboard, only that “dedicated outreach interventions” would be “focused on the conference vicinity and offering safe places for people experiencing homelessness” during APEC.
As part of an ongoing court battle, a judge had ruled that the city is required to give the Coalition on Homelessness and the Lawyers’ Committee 72 hours notice before an encampment sweep so that the groups can act as observers. Shroff said they received no such notice, adding that the Coalition has also not seen an uptick in “bag and tags,” in which the city locks up and labels items that unhoused people own, which is legally required during an encampment sweep.
While the city is allowed to perform encampment sweeps when there’s a hazard or people are blocking the sidewalk, an appeal court ruling last year banned San Francisco from threatening unhoused people with arrest or citation while performing encampment sweeps.
The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit brought against the city by the nonprofit Coalition on Homelessness, which accused the city of violating its own stated policies, as well as the 2018 federal ruling that said cities cannot force people to move from encampments when shelter space is overrun. (San Francisco has been fighting the injunction for months.)
KQED reported last week that San Francisco officials had set aside 56 beds at a nearby intake shelter for people living on the outskirts of the Moscone Center in anticipation of the action. But the city’s overall unsheltered population is over 5,000, and city data shows its shelters are at 92 percent occupancy as of November 14, meaning it would have to add 2,000 beds to legally cite or arrest unhoused people.
Despite moving some shelter space around and opening new beds ahead of APEC, the city is not close to reaching that threshold. HSH said it was not budgeted to add shelter capacity specifically for APEC, but that shelter space did open up on November 10, a day before the beginning of the conference, which runs from November 11-17.
Bremond, the human rights organizer, said some people had accepted shelter offers, but others “were just told to move for the time being and then they could come back next week.” He added the city should have taken more “precautions” ahead of the event but that it instead felt that the unhoused population had been “swept under the rug.”
This year’s free trade APEC conference, held annually among Pacific Rim countries since 1989, has brought out more than just leaders like Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos Jr. As the conference began on Saturday, thousands of protestors from across the country arrived, part of the No To APEC Coalition, which is comprised of over 150 grassroots organizations that believe the conference is a pretext for “driving down wages, stealing land from peasants and indigenous people, driving forced migration, destroying the environment, plundering natural resources, and pumping up corporate profits.”
Bremond lamented that the well-resourced APEC Conference could not pay for hotel rooms or added shelter capacity for people experiencing homelessness. He said that the homeless sweeps were emblematic of how the city treats its most vulnerable residents.
Despite the criticism of the city’s actions, HSH told Motherboard that it believed the conference was an opportunity for the city to showcase its homeless strategy in action.
“The APEC conference provides an opportunity to spotlight San Francisco’s commitment to this issue and demonstrate our City’s innovation, resilience and determination to find lasting and meaningful solutions,” an HSH spokesperson wrote in an email.