When the Eureka Valley branch of the San Francisco public library closes at night, its staff are required to turn off the free Wi-Fi.
The reason? To keep homeless people from gathering outside the building.
The library, located at 16th and Pond streets near Market Street, has been limiting after-hours internet access since August, 2022, following complaints from residents and pressure from District 8 supervisor Rafael Mandelman. The change is one of a raft of measures taken to make the sidewalk directly across from the library — which, for years, had been the site of an encampment — less inviting.
“It was the worst spot in the district,” said Jackie Thornhill, legislative aide to Mandelman. She said that residents had frequently complained about loud music, crime, and “antisocial behavior” associated with the 16th and Market encampment.
In addition to limiting the library’s Wi-Fi, the supervisor’s office advocated for a mural behind the tents to be repainted, and for a nearby trash-can-storage area to be dismantled. Sections of the sidewalk were also transformed into spots to grow plants, reducing potential camping space.
Together these measures appear to have had the desired effect; you are a lot less likely to see anyone camping opposite the library today. But some advocates have criticized the changes as an attempt to “sweep away” problems rather than tackle them head-on.
“All these kinds of efforts are based on the premise that if you make it difficult for homeless people, then they will disappear,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition on Homelessness. “But these things actually exacerbate homelessness.”
Friedenbach said that free Wi-Fi is crucial for homeless people to access services, make calls, apply for benefits and jobs, and deal with healthcare. She said that many homeless people sleep during the day because it is safer to be awake at night, making after-hours internet access especially important.
And internet access is not just an issue for unhoused people. Data from the 2021 American Community Survey suggests that around 7 percent of San Franciscans have no access to the internet at home.
According to Kate Patterson, spokesperson for the San Francisco Public Library, there have been two direct email requests from the public asking for the nighttime Wi-Fi to be turned back on. One, made in mid-March, has been published by Twitter user HDizz, who obtained the email via a public records request.
The complainant wrote on March 5 that the library’s internet had been a “lifeline” for an unhoused friend who recently got sober. They added that their friend was in a “crisis,” and that the free Wi-Fi helped them communicate with services and friends.
“So please, please, I beg you, please have the wifi on all the time,” reads the email.
The pseudonymous Twitter user HDizz, who often publishes unearthed intergovernmental emails, noted that limiting internet access runs counter to San Francisco’s Digital Equity Strategy Plan, which notes that libraries should “serve as a connectivity safety net for all residents.” Thornhill said that the policy of shutting off Wi-Fi after-hours does not contradict the plan, because internet access is still available throughout the day.
The idea of limiting after-hours internet at the library has been considered since at least 2017, when then-District 8 supervisor Jeff Sheehy requested that the library limit its internet availability to discourage encampments and theoretically reduce crime.
In response, the library put together a study to compare crime levels with the Wi-Fi on and off. The library found that incidents of criminal activity were higher over the six weeks it kept nighttime internet on, compared to the six weeks it was off, but concluded that it was impossible to say if the change was because of the Wi-Fi or simply due to statistical noise.
“Sample sizes of criminal activity are very low in this experiment, and could be generally random in nature,” reads a report on the study. “The connection between Wi-Fi access and criminal activity is not readily apparent.”
The study also confirmed that Wi-Fi was used fairly frequently after the library closed, with late logins accounting for roughly 16 percent of total usage. Some 526 unique devices accessed nighttime internet during the six-week experiment, while police incidents were recorded 16 times.
Back in 2017, the library decided to keep its nighttime Wi-Fi based on this study. In 2021, then-Chief of Branches Catherine Delneo reaffirmed its findings while pushing back on another request from a neighbor to turn off the internet at night.
But the library changed course last year. City Librarian Michael Lambert met with Mandelman’s office to discuss limiting the Wi-Fi on Aug. 1, 2022, according to Thornhill. According to Patterson, the practice of turning off the nighttime internet began the next day.
Thornhill said that Lambert had made the decision to limit the Wi-Fi before meeting with staff from Mandelman’s office. Lambert and other officials at the library were not available to be interviewed for this article.
Despite the library changing tack in Fall 2022, Patterson reaffirmed its 2017 findings that nighttime internet access is neither directly nor significantly related to crime.
“We have no new findings since we issued that report,” said Patterson. “We can confirm that incidents such as vandalism and other criminal behavior at the Eureka Valley Branch Library remain low and consistent with previous years.”
The Mission branch of the public library also received complaints about encampments during the pandemic, and was urged by some residents to shut down night-time internet. But the Mission library chose not to change its policies.
“Eureka Valley Branch is the only branch that turns off its Wi-Fi after business hours,” said Patterson.
Thornhill said that the Wi-Fi change was one small part of Mandelman’s plan to remove the encampment from 16th and Market, and was based on 16 resident requests. She said that the move was about “improving conditions in a specific location,” rather than providing a solution to homelessness. She added that Mandelman has separately called on the mayor to increase funding for new shelters and temporary housing.
For Friedenbach, these efforts to remove the encampment were a waste of time, and resources that could have been better spent getting people help: “I would have loved to have seen that amount of effort go into fighting for the people out there.”