Cruel Streets: Criminalizing Homelessness in San Francisco

Over the past thirty years, cities across the US, and increasingly across the globe, have adopted variants of “quality-of-life” policing. Central to these efforts have been local ordinances aimed at curbing visible poverty, suppressing “anti-social behavior,” and removing the homeless from public space.  My dissertation entitled Cruel Streets: Criminalizing Homelessness in San Francisco examines the causes, practices, and consequences of criminalizing homelessness in the contemporary metropolis. By relating ethnographic observations in the political and bureaucratic fields with those between interactions of state officials and homeless individuals, the dissertation reveals novel forms of the criminalization of poverty, tracing how homelessness is turned into a criminal activity by state classifications, institutional transformations, and populist politicization thanks to, rather than in-spite of, provisions of welfare and rhetoric of assistance. It also uncovers novel forms of the penalization of poverty, disclosing how policing can be directed by urban change, economic organizations, community groups, and agencies of poverty governance tangential to the criminal justice system and how this policing’s infra-penal forms of punishments, such as citation, move-along order, and threat create detrimental consequences for the poor.

 The dissertation draws on over two years of participant observation that triangulates enactive and observational methods of ethnography and braids the standpoints of the unhoused and of those who manage them. One year was spent studying homeless regulation from below: I spent 229 nights embedded on the streets, in shelters, and in daily welfare hotels with those experiencing homelessness, and even more days accompanying people accessing services, courts, hospitals, and jobs or gathering resources through panhandling and recycling. Another year was devoted to studying the field of homeless management from above through observations on ride-alongs with police officers, public health workers on street outreach, and sanitation workers tasked with encampment cleanings; sitting in office hours with shelter social workers; and working in city hall as the research assistant to the director of the Mayor’s Office of Homelessness. Over these two years I attended over 100 public forums, association meetings, and city-hall hearings, while serving as a key organizer with the Coalition on Homelessness’ Human Rights Workgroup. Across these viewpoints I witnessed nearly daily interactions between police and the unhoused through arrests, citations, and move-along orders on the streets as well as policy processes and struggles over the policing of homelessness in the halls of power.

 In addition, the dissertation draws on two original community-based survey and interview studies with homeless San Franciscans (n=350 and n=600), analysis of thousands of government documents and emails accessed through public records requests, and quantitative geospatial analysis of nearly four million 911 and 311 call records of “homeless concerns.” Together these methods provide a transactional ethnography by analyzing the interactions and perspectives of the police and policed, and a structural ethnography by analyzing how, when, and why these interactions occur due to broader structures of state, market, and community institutions that constrain and enable these interactions. This methodological synthesis of the micro-interactionist and structural traditions of ethnography allows me to mate the social theories of Bourdieu’s bureaucratic field and symbolic domination with Lipsky’s street level bureaucracy to unveil social determinations of interpersonal relationships between the poor and agents of the state as well as their broader social functions. The dissertation is composed of a trio of articles:


(1) Therapeutic Penal Populism: Policing Poverty in the Progressive City

Despite the growing wave of criminal justice reform and the resurgence of progressive politics in several major US cities, punitive policies against the poor such as anti-homeless laws and quality-of-life policing initiatives persist and expand. How can we explain this persistent punitiveness in the progressive city? This article explains how discourses and practices of welfare and medical provision for the extremely poor are used by politicians and policymakers to legitimate and enact increased policing of the city’s unhoused. In contrast to the portrayal of a “punitive turn” marked by the downgrading of the welfare state and upgrading of the penal state, the first part of the paper draws on archival records (1983 – 2008) to document how new anti-homeless laws and policing initiatives in San Francisco have been paired with the expansion of homeless services. The second part of the paper analyzes the city’s recent passage of an anti-camping ban as a ballot measure. Drawing on observations of policy-makers and stakeholders conducted while working in the Mayor’s office of homelessness when the measure sparked battles between city supervisors, as an organizer with the city’s homeless advocacy group fighting the measure, and observations at homeowner, business, and community associations meetings, I show how discourses of housing, shelter, and medical treatment were mobilized to support the ban. Building on Durkheim’s conception of punishment as an emotive and communicative device and the criminological theory of “penal populism” that describes how electoral advantage of policy takes precedence over penal effectiveness, feeding off of “tough on crime” emotional reactions, this article develops the concept of therapeutic penal populism. I argue that punitive policies against the poor continue to be driven by a symbolic politics for electoral advantage, but increasingly require the rhetorical and policy accoutrements of therapy to make them palatable to a liberal citizenry. Unfortunately, as the subsequent articles reveal, the welfare, medical, and social provisions with which these penal policies are paired are wholly inadequate and result in increased criminalization, punishment, and deprivation of the unhoused.


(2) Complaint-Oriented Policing: Regulating Homelessness in Public Space. American Sociological Review. 2019.

Once anti-homeless measures are passed, how are they mobilized and enforced? While scholars have documented zero-tolerance policing and emerging tactics of therapeutic policing in these efforts, little attention has been paid to 911 calls and forms of third-party policing deployed to govern public space and the poor. Drawing on an analysis of 3.9 million 911 and 311call records and participant observation alongside police officers, social workers, and homeless men and women residing on the streets of San Francisco, this paper elaborates a model of complaint-oriented policing to explain additional causes and consequences of policing visible poverty. By situating the police within a broader bureaucratic field of poverty governance, the paper demonstrates how policing aimed at the poor can be initiated by callers, organizations, and government agencies. Extending Bourdieu’s theory of the bureaucratic field to cover the agencies of the state tasked with managing the destitute and applying the theories precepts to ethnographic analysis it tracks how police officers manage these complaints in collaboration and conflict with agencies of health, welfare, and sanitation. Expanding the conception of the criminalization of poverty, typically centered on incarceration or arrest by police, the study reveals previously unforeseen consequences of move-along orders, citations, and their threats that dispossess the poor of property, create barriers to services and jobs, and increase vulnerability to violence and crime. It captures an infra-punitive forms of police action that destabilize the unhoused and further entrenches marginality.


(3) Public Spaces of Punishment, Private Spaces of Care: Shelters as Tools of Criminalization

This article examines the dynamic relationship between the street and shelter and recasts them as part-and-parcel of a single socio-spatial continuum managing the unhoused. I explain how the expansion of shelter supports and directs the increased criminalization of homelessness in public space, further untangling the relationship of the penal and welfare state developed in the first two articles. First, I document how police repression increases immediately following the opening of new shelters in the neighborhood’s in which they open. Second, I reveal how shelter beds are used as a privileged and increasingly necessary tool of the police to arrest, cite, and confiscate property of the unhoused. Third, I elaborate how politicians point to shelter expansion as justification to promote further anti-homeless ordinances.  The article concludes by disclosing how these methods collectively work to produce the territorial stigmatization of the homeless on the street as undeserving and “service resistant” to further weaponize shelters as tools to extinguish visible homelessness in public space.

Additional collaborative publications drawing from the dissertation research are also included below:


A growing literature is looking beyond incarceration to understand the extent to which the criminal justice system perpetuates poverty and inequality. This paper examines how anti-homeless laws, the most prominent and rapidly growing subset of quality of life laws in US cities today, produces various forms of police interactions that fall short of arrest, yet have wide-ranging impacts on the urban poor. Because such interactions are largely untracked by the state, and in turn under-scrutinized by scholars, our study provides one of the first assessments of the effects of quality-of-life policing on marginalized groups drawing on a citywide survey of those who have recently experienced homelessness along with 43-in-depth interviews. Our analysis elaborates the mechanisms through which consistent punitive interactions, including move-along orders, citations and destruction of property systematically limit homeless people’s access to services, housing, and jobs, while damaging their health, safety, and well-being. Our findings also suggest that anti-homeless laws and enforcement fail to deliver on their promise of reducing urban disorder, instead creating a spatial churn in which homeless people circulate between neighborhoods and police jurisdictions rather than leaving public space. We argue that these laws and their enforcement, which affected the majority of study participants, constitute a larger process of pervasive penality - consistent punitive interactions with state officials that most often do not result in arrest, but nonetheless exact widespread and deep material and psychological harm. This process not only reproduces homelessness, but also deepens racial, gender, and health inequalities among the urban poor. 


Formed in 1987, the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness has been organizing against the criminalization of poverty for over 20 years. In collaboration with sociologists, we conducted a PAR study about the effects of the criminalization of homelessness in San Francisco. This chapter discusses 1) how our participatory research process enhanced the quality of data and worked as a vehicle for organizing 2) how our project impacted the organization, city, and narrative on the criminalization of homelessness and 3) how we confronted assumptions about expertise as we worked to establish homeless people as leaders and experts in the local policy arena.  Our successes, struggles, and process will be useful to other researchers and organizers designing and implementing projects that establish the expertise and leadership of directly affected communities.

Public-Private Parasites: How Business Improvement Districts Criminalize Homelessness. In Progress. with jeff garnand.

Over the past three decades, Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) have proliferated across North America and more recently abroad. Over this same period time local anti-homeless laws have expanded making it illegal to sit, rest, or ask for money in public spaces. While recent studies have explained how these public-private partnerships engage in advocacy to pass such anti-homeless laws, we know little about how these organizations enforce such laws once they are in place and the impacts they have on the unhoused. Drawing on an analysis of 3.9 million of 311 and 911 call records, administrative data, and interviews with BID and city officials we elaborate how BIDs criminalize homelessness in the city of San Francisco. We argue that BIDs, which are private entities, use their publicly granted powers at the expense of their host, to draw increased policing, sanitation, and even social service resources from the city, displace homelessness into surrounding neighborhoods, all while advocating for costly policies that criminalize poverty and restrict public space across the entire municipality.