Neutralizing Poverty: Governing Homelessness in San Francisco

Colloquium | November 13 | 12-1:30 p.m. | 170 Wurster Hall

 Global Urban Humanities

Since the 1980s anti-homeless laws criminalizing sleeping, sitting, and panhandling in public spaces have increased across the US and abroad, with the most rapid rise occurring in the past decade.  While legal studies have tracked the spread of these laws, we know very little about their on-the-ground implementation, impact on the unhoused, or role in the broader reproduction of poverty and inequality. Drawing on a multi-sided ethnography in the city of San Francisco, living alongside unhoused campers and shelter inmates on the one hand, and working alongside city managers, social workers, police officers, sanitation teams, and advocates on the other, this presentation addresses each of these questions.  In contrast to scholarly portrayals of quality of life policing as top-down command and control campaigns by city officials or being largely guided through individual officer discretion, I explain how a penal populism of complaint-oriented policing driven by citizen calls on city services also directs the policing of poverty. Rather than seeing the police as merely agents of punishment, aggressively locking up low-level offenders, my research illustrates how police work with and against various agencies and politicians to neutralize homelessness by leveraging discourses and resources of sanitation and medicalization to invisibilize and depoliticize poverty. For the unhoused this results in a pervasive penalty - consistent punitive interactions with state officials that most often do not result in arrest, but nonetheless exact material and psychological harm. A process that not only reproduces homelessness, but also deepens racial, gender, and health inequalities among the urban poor. 

Chris Herring is a PhD candidate in Sociology at UC Berkeley and Fellow at the Center for Engaged Scholarship. His work has appeared in Social Problems, City and Community, CITY, ACME, Teaching Sociology, and edited volumes of Urban Studies, Social Movements, and Community Based Research.

 sarahhwang@berkeley.edu, 3604488322