Some dozen San Francisco drag queens came together Tuesday afternoon to distribute food, clothing, and other essentials to the homeless under the 101 freeway near 13th and Harrison, laying out dozens of items outside the SoMa Streatfood Park and serving up hot meals they cooked that morning.
“Some of us got together and thought ‘Hey, let’s just do something,’” said Simone, one of the drag queens involved. “We’re hoping that this is something that keeps going.”
More than 100 tents have sprung up on the Mission-SoMa border in the last few weeks, and organizers said they were reacting to news stories that the city’s downtown was being swept clean of the homeless in advance of the Super Bowl.
“I am super angry at the Super Bowl pushing the homeless where they have nowhere to go,” said Jolene, a drag queen whose day job is in tech and said her industry is “partly responsible” for the homelessness issue in the city.
“We’re spending millions of dollars on what we feel is a very frivolous sporting event,” said Piranha, one of the main organizers of the event in reference to the $5 million the city is spending on the game.
The drive came together in just two days after a group of queens — who were frequently “lamenting the state of our city” — decided on Sunday night to gather as many donations as possible and head to an area well-known to many of them.
“When I walk home after drag, they walk me home, they’re part of this community,” said Snowflake, another drag queen, about the homeless in the area.
Dozens came out to gather items and eat freshly cooked penne pasta. Jackets, socks, pants, shoes, toothpaste, toothbrushes, tampons, trash bags, necklaces, bracelets, and more were laid out on the ground for any and all to take, the queens flitting about helping some to lug away their catch or serving food to others.
One homeless woman, Anna Held, immediately went for the lone tent in the pile of items.
“Is this taken?” she asked one of the organizers.
“Go for it,” the organizer replied.
Held said she was in an abusive relationship and had suffered one of her worst bouts last night, when her partner ripped her tent and left her without shelter in the rain. The new tent, she said, was a saving grace.
“The fact that I’m able to have somewhere where he doesn’t know what it looks like — I’m gonna go back and cry,” she said. While gathering blankets, socks, and anything else she could use for the cold, Held jumped as a man dropped off a new winter jacket and asked if she could have it, tearing up when he handed it over.
“Oh my god,” she said, hugging the black coat and crying. “When someone takes everything from you, and then strangers come and give you something — it just means a lot…You guys are awesome for that.”
Homelessness has been a hot-button topic leading up to the Super Bowl. Last summer, Mayor Ed Lee said the homeless would “have to leave” the downtown area ahead of the sporting event, and just last week KQED reported that Supervisor Scott Wiener said tent encampments “need to go away.”
The topic gained steam after Fusion published a piece last week alleging that dozens of homeless people said they were being herded from downtown area to the freeway overpass, an allegation also recorded by government transparency advocate and blogger Michael Petrelis.
A Mission resident then started an online fundraising campaign to buy tents for the homeless, which raised more than $23,000 in six days, surpassing the original $2,000 goal. At the same time, two seamstresses from the Mission’s Praxis sewed waterproof blankets and recruited volunteers to help distribute them to homeless people citywide.
Filmmaker Michael Reiner also produced a video interviewing the homeless after learning that they would be asked to leave downtown for the Super Bowl.
“I wondered about the people who’d be affected by the Mayor’s plans to move the homeless away from Super Bowl City. I wanted to ensure they would be seen and heard, even if they weren’t seen during the Super Bowl,” Reiner wrote in an email. “When I went out, I didn’t know what to expect from the city’s homeless. What I found is a community of good, kind-hearted people who are in a horrible situation and need support.”
The sweeps prompted a follow-up investigation from San Francisco Magazine — which found no evidence of official corralling of homeless people — and a column in the San Francisco Chronicle decrying the donation of tents to the homeless as enabling homelessness, an argument the homeless themselves pushed back against on Tuesday.
“That pisses me off,” said Mamma Donna, a homeless woman at Tuesday’s clothing drive. She said the city should focus on providing “trash cans and bathrooms” if they want the area cleaned up, and said she becomes furious when people “tell us we can’t have shelter.”
“We’re all products of our environment, and if the mayor and the people want to see that changed, they can change the environment,” she said.
Most were not interested in talking politics, however, content to sort through the clothes and shoes to fill black trash bags with new goods. Some stayed just a few minutes, gathering what they wanted and hurrying off to one of the dozens of encampments in the area. Others stayed much longer, chatting with the drag queen organizers over rice and beans or meticulously choosing the most useful items.
“This is a big value,” said Kathy Scott, a transgender woman who said she is a domestic violence survivor and veteran. On and off the streets since being kicked out by her father at age 13 for being gay, Scott has been in San Francisco for the last three years but avoids the shelter system because she said it’s transphobic.
Instead, she tries her luck on the street, and said everything provided in the drag queen giveaway was “so useful.”
“This all is really, really good,” she said. “They care about us.”