As a mantra, Mayor London Breed has told the people of San Francisco that “we don’t do sweeps” — organized roustings of homeless people and their tent encampments, even if those individuals have no place to go.
But text message exchanges between Breed, police Chief Bill Scott, and other staff — published after an anonymous public records request — show that the mayor frequently asks her staff, including the police chief, to “clear,” “clean,” and “fix” specific areas around the city — areas where, at times, she was merely going on about her day.
“Man sleeping on bench on Hayes st near gough. Can someone come ASAP. I’m in the area having lunch,” reads a message from Breed to Scott and Sean Elsbernd, her chief of staff, and others on August 22, 2019.
“Copy. We are sending a team,” Scott replied.
“Police are there but we need to clear it out and clean it up. 800 block of market in front of Walgreens” Breed wrote to Scott, Elsbernd and others the next day.
“800 block of Market in front of Walgreens cleared,” Scott replied hours later.
“Thank you. Let’s keep that block safe and clean. It is our bread and butter,” Breed replied.
Using the San Francisco Police Department’s public records portal on February 16, an anonymous individual requested text messages between Breed and Scott. It was posted to the publicly viewable site on May 25 and bandied about on social media.
So-called “sweeps” of homeless people and encampments have been a flashpoint between the mayor’s office and homeless advocates, who have criticized this mayor (and her predecessors) for moving the homeless from place to place without having sufficient shelter space for them.
Kelley Cutler, a human rights organizer with the Coalition on Homelessness, was not surprised by the texts. “It basically spelled out what we’re seeing anyway,” she said, noting what she described as the city’s complaint- and enforcement-based response to “visible homelessness.”
“Visible homelessness isn’t the issue,” she said. “The issue is the lack of resources. This was another example of what that actually looks like.”
While Breed has consistently denied that the city performs sweeps of homeless encampments, the text messages, many dated in July and August of 2019, show that Breed is directly ordering them. Moreover, the messages reveal that Breed engages in a pattern of not merely ordering large encampments cleared, but mobilizes the police force to address the individuals she sees, as in the Aug. 22, 2019 exchange and those below.
“Homeless man laying in grey blanket near bus stop at mcallister and Hyde,” Breed wrote to Scott, Elsbernd and others on July 30, 2019.
“The next day she wrote: “There is a guy on the ground on market near theater and farmer’s market.”
“We don’t do sweeps,” Breed told the New Yorker in a story that published yesterday, the same day the trove of her text messages became known. “I don’t think law enforcement is the right approach,” Healthy Streets Operation Center (HSOC) head Jeff Kositsky said in the same article. “And I can tell you the chief of police agrees with me.”
He did, in that article: “It’s not a crime to be homeless,” Scott told the New Yorker.
Andy Lynch, a spokesman for the mayor, said that Breed is constantly in contact with department heads “responsible for the state of our street” at the operations center. “When she is out in the community, she makes sure to highlight areas that need attention so that HSOC is aware of the issue and can respond,” Lynch said.
“HSOC does not ‘sweep’ people away,” Lynch added. “They lead with offers of shelter and services, and can only ask someone to move for temporary street cleanings, or if there is a shelter bed available for the person and they refuse to take it or accept services.”
He said the mayor has made it a priority to open shelter beds for people experiencing homelessness.
Kositsky, whose office coordinates responses between the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, San Francisco Public Works, and the police department, told Mission Local that Breed’s texts can easily be misread as insensitive, when in fact they are not.
“She comes at all of this work based on a deep sense of compassion,” he said, noting that the mayor’s direct style can often be read as harsh.
“She never ever asked me to do something that wasn’t rooted in wanting to see a person get assistance,” Kositsky said.
He said he’d often receive text messages from Breed, when he was director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, and he was included in many of the texts to Scott caught up in the public records request. “I wouldn’t work for someone who was asking me to do something that was unethical,” he continued. “I was never asked to do something that I was uncomfortable with.”
Kositsky remembers the Aug. 22, 2019, incident when Breed asked department heads to engage with the person sleeping on a bench on Hayes near where she was having lunch. Kositsky and the Homeless Outreach Team, not just the police, went out to the man and tried to help him, he said. “He was an old person who did not want assistance,” Kositsky said. “He was quite abusive to the HOT team member. We did our best.”
“We tried to be really responsive to these calls,” he added, noting that it’s always the intention of the city to offer shelter to the homeless and that “the majority of the times it did,” except when advocates have informed him of situations where shelter was not offered.
Aside from the mayor directly ordering the clearing of the homeless, some text messages note that Breed often uses a gym at SFPD headquarters on Third Street. On March 24 of this year, Scott informed Breed that an SFPD staff member tested positive for COVID-19.
“Dang, does he use my gym?” was Breed’s only reply.
The mayor’s office did not directly respond to Mission Local’s questions around this comment. “From the beginning of this pandemic, the Mayor has been focused on ensuring the health and safety of essential” city employees, Lynch said. “She received daily updates from these department heads about steps being taken to ensure they had proper protective gear and were instituting precautionary safety measures.”
The messages also expose a less-than-cordial relationship between Breed and Scott, as Breed’s directives are often demanding or dismissive.
“6th and market and 7th and market are embarrassing,” she wrote to Scott and Elsbernd on March 4 of this year at 6:05 a.m.
Scott said he was making “tweaks” to his coverage — and that coverage is heavier during busy hours but “lighter” late at night.
“I’m tired of excuses and repeating myself,” the mayor wrote back. “Fix it. It’s the same corners.”
Two sets of text messages are below.
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