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Will the Super Bowl benefit San Francisco's homeless — or just displace them?

Photo courtesy of flickr user Christina B Castro // Resized and cropped
Embarcadero One reflection in puddle


Super Bowl 50 is about to touch down in the Bay Area. While the game is taking place in Santa Clara, San Franciscans will host many of the visiting fans and fanfare. 

Starting this Saturday a very temporary, very commercial event center will pop up on the last four blocks of Market street and across the waterfront. It’s called “Super Bowl City presented by Verizon.” The area will be blocked off for a seven-day festival of games, food and marketing gimmicks.

It’s open to the public, but apparently that doesn’t mean everyone is allowed to be there. In August, Mayor Ed Lee told a San Francisco Chronicle reporter that homeless people will have to move elsewhere.

“We’ll give you an alternative, and we’re always going to be supportive,” he said, “but you have to leave the streets.”

If Mayor Lee could remove all homeless people from the streets of San Francisco in time for the Super Bowl it would mean he was either a miracle worker or criminal mastermind. But that’s not what he actually said.

Sam Dodge, who runs the city’s HOPE office on homelessness, says he never made an official announcement.

“Phil Matier pulled something out of context and sold a lot of newspapers,” says Dodge, “That’s why you’re asking me about it. So it works for their business model but it’s not the plan or announcement or intention for the city.”

Here is what the Mayor meant: Homeland Security will seal off a zone around the 13-block Super Bowl City area; they’ll be checking ID’s and bags as people enter. No one will be allowed to stay after hours.

According to Dodge there’s only eight to twelve people who regularly sleep on the streets in question. Marina Shemelyana is one of them. She’s outside the Embarcadero BART station at around ten at night. Unlike the few people in suits rushing underground to commute back home, she and her friend will be sticking around for the night. They carry bags and blankets and make their way down Market street looking for a good spot to camp out. She knows she’ll have to go elsewhere next week.

“I know,” she says, “they’ve been kicking my homeless people from this area, trying to clean it up. Rude—police is rude as hell.” She says people like this area because it’s special; it has a view, “it’s close to water.” It’s also well-lit, with a lot of activity so it feels safer, but it’s not residential so Shemelyana doesn’t feel like she’s really bothering anybody. She says she expects to be off the street in a month or so anyway. Bouncing in and out of housing is something she’s used to, she’s been doing it for a decade. She says she’ll move elsewhere next week; it’s a small adjustment for her.

But it’s a big deal to Jennifer Friedenbach, the Executive Director of the Coalition on Homelessness. She says a simple-sounding relocation can escalate for the people being moved around.

“They’ll just have the police come, they’ll confiscate people’s properties they’ll spray down their areas with water or chemicals,” she predicts. “They ticket people, they do unlawful searches of their property, they run warrant checks on them, they arrest them. When they give them tickets they can’t pay them, they go to warrant it destroys their credit they get kicked off the housing waitlist—it’s just a nightmare for everyone.”

Friedenbach says she saw this kind of treatment in September when the same area was cleared for a Super Bowl pre-party.

Other Super Bowl host cities have faced similar challenges preparing for the game. In 2013, New Orleans police forcibly dispersed homeless encampments, opening temporary shelters and closing them the day after the game. Indianapolis, on the other hand, conducted outreach to bring its homeless population into shelters prior to the game in 2012 and didn’t interfere with those who declined.

In San Francisco, temporary shelters have opened up in rec centers, churches and nonprofit centers like St. Anthony’s all along the southeast neighborhoods and the Western Addition.

The city is preparing to add 1,100 beds this winter—temporarily doubling it’s capacity. They’re not all available, yet, because there are still a lot of vacancies. That’s the thing, even though San Francisco doesn’t have a bed for every person on the street, the city has spare beds. That’s because many if not most people prefer to avoid shelters.

HOPE Director, Sam Dodge, says he wants to make shelters viable and attractive so the folks at Justin Herman Plaza are not put out by the festivities. But really, he’s got more on his mind this winter.

“I’m not concerned about the Super Bowl, I’m concerned about El Nino.” That’s the real reason for the big shelter overhaul.

“I think that everyone's aware of the extra media attention the Super Bowl brings and I think it becomes a metaphor,” says Dodge, “we're not talking about homelessness and the Super Bowl, we're talking about anxiety about the future of San Francisco and whether this is going to be a place that we're all going to enjoy or whether this is going to become a Disneyland for the rich. It really has less to do with the actual interactions between police and the homeless.”

It’s not just a metaphor when the city is spending public money, though. The city now estimates it will spend about five million dollars, mostly on transportation and police. Mayor Lee promises the city will make more than that back in sales and hotel taxes during the event.

With regards to the larger conversation about San Francisco’s priorities, Sam Dodge says our homeless services depend on our tourism industry. In fact, because tourism has grown recently, the city’s budget has, too.

He says San Francisco invests more in homeless services than any other city he knows of. The city spends about $130 million annually on direct homeless services. That’s 1.5% of its total budget.

“We're big kids,” Dodge says, “we can walk and chew gum at the same time.”

Dodge thinks his department will be over-prepared to weather El Nino. He’s ready to get back to his main focuses—engaging new populations through the Mission Navigation Center and connecting more people to services and permanent housing.

So, while Super Bowl City presented by Verizon is directly displacing maybe a dozen people, San Francisco’s HOPE office has thousands of others to think about.


Crosscurrents homelessness