The July 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

Corruption at Oakland Housing Authority

Shot Through the Heart in S.F.

Legal Challenge to Cruel Attacks on SF Homeless

GRIP's Shelter in Richmond

HUD Plans to Demolish Public Housing in New Orleans

Fresno Homeless Attacked

Stonewalling by Bush's ICH on Homeless Issues

Are We Not Our Brother's Keeper

Congress Refuses to Raise the Minimum Wage

Beyond Prisons: Challenge to the Prison System

Penal Servitude

The U.S. Racial Wealth Gap

Poor Working Conditions for Immigrants

AFSC Sues Defense Dept. for Surveillance

Surveillance and Orwell's 1984

Enron's Good Fight

Poor Leonard's Almanack: On Self-Realization

July Poetry of the Streets

Child Slavery on African Cocoa Farms

The Worth of Education in the Phillipines


June 2006

May 2006

April 2006

March 2006

February 2006

January 2006

November 2005

October 2005

September 2005

August 2005

July 2005

June 2005

May 2005

April 2005

March 2005

February 2005




Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

A Legal Challenge to Cruel Attacks on Homeless People in San Francisco

by Terry Messman

San Francisco public works employees are accused of seizing shopping carts and assaulting homeless people. Robert L. Terrell photo

The Dolan Law Firm, the same San Francisco firm which won a jury verdict of $61 million in total damages in a lawsuit against Federal Express for racial harassment of two employees, has now taken on the case of a homeless man who charges he was beaten by Department of Public Works (DPW) employees who confiscated his property unlawfully.

Christopher B. Dolan, the head of the law firm, and Attorney Joshua Watson have decided to take the case of the homeless man, and will put the legal weight of a San Francisco law firm with significant resources into an attempt to try to change a longstanding series of abuses in which San Francisco police and DPW workers have unlawfully seized and discarded the belongings of homeless people.

In an interview with Street Spirit, Watson said, "There's an unfortunate series of events going on right now in the Tenderloin. There's a problem in that the officials that work for the Department of Public Works have been going out at night in a program in which they're supposed to go along with police officers and pick up trash that's on the street. But what they've been doing is using that as an opportunity to target homeless people."

Watson said that two DPW employees recently came into the Tenderloin at night to seize the property of a homeless man in his 40s, a man who has become his client. "One of the DPW workers came to take his property and to pick up things he had no right to pick up," Watson said.

When his client, whose name Watson cannot reveal pending litigation, told the DPW workers that the things they were confiscating were his essential belongings, and not trash to be hauled away, one of the DPW workers assaulted the homeless man. Watson said, "Multiple witnesses agree that my client didn't instigate a fight in any way with the DPW employees. Instead of stepping back and moving on, the DPW employee physically assaulted my client and beat him."

At that point, the homeless man asked the other DPW employee for assistance, but that worker refused to intervene, and refused to call his supervisor. The result, Watson said, was that "my client ran away and was later treated at the hospital. His property was stolen and thrown away."

The Dolan Law Firm is preparing to file a complaint with the City of San Francisco on behalf of the homeless man. If the complaint is rejected -- and San Francisco officials have routinely rejected nearly all such complaints out of hand for years -- the firm will file a lawsuit.

In the course of investigating the case, Watson has talked to people who witnessed the assault and confiscation of the homeless man's belongings, and has also found other homeless people who have been abused by DPW clean-up crews.

He said, "I met a woman with a terribly tragic story. She has chronic asthma, very, very serious asthma, and she had her medicine in her shopping cart. In the night, DPW came without any police around, and they took her shopping cart and all the belongings in it. She told them, 'I am asthmatic. I have my medicine in my shopping cart and I need to get it out.' And they wouldn't give it back to her."

A DPW worker coldly told the homeless woman, "Well, if your asthma is so bad, why don't you go get some more medicine?" The DPW employees then hauled away all her belongings and discarded them. And, in fact, the woman was forced to take their sneering advice to "get more medicine" because she soon had an asthma attack and ended up in an emergency room at San Francisco General Hospital.

"There are two problems with this," Watson said. "One is the very human response that you have right away: If somebody has medicine, you shouldn't be taking it from them. And quite aside from that is the legal issue, that you can't be stealing property from people."

Watson called it theft when DPW employees deliberately seize needed possessions from homeless people even when they are physically present at the time and can identify their belongings as they are being hauled away.

Watson said the homeless woman with asthma is still fearful after having her medications confiscated. He said, "Now she always carries her medications -- and they're significant medications because she's got steroid pills and inhalers and all kinds of stuff -- and she carries them now in a fanny pack that she keeps very tightly attached to her waist because she's terrified that they're going to come and take her medicine and she's going to have another episode."

Watson said his investigation shows that these abuses are not isolated instances, but make up a disturbing pattern of harsh treatment, beatings and property seizure occurring in the Tenderloin.

"Unfortunately, one of the things that has happened is that this pattern of behavior, which has gone on for quite some time, has been escalating, and it appears to me that it has been escalating under Mayor Newsom's direction," he said. "And the people at DPW are so rarely restrained in their behavior that it's grown out of control. They go out and they attack people and take property they have no right to. And when they take that property, they don't inventory it; they don't give that person a receipt for the property so they can come back to pick it up. They don't have an administrative hearing - they just throw it away."

Watson said this recent seizure of homeless people's belongings is connected to a second program where DPW workers go around the city picking up shopping carts they believe may have been taken from supermarkets. Then the Department of Public Works "charge the supermarkets 90 bucks a pop to get their shopping carts back," Watson said.

It is one thing for city employees to confiscate an unattended shopping cart that is clearly marked "Safeway." He said, "Unfortunately, what's been happening is that the DPW employees, even when the police are not present, will go and they will take the shopping cart, and they will take the property in the shopping cart, and they will simply throw it away. What's unfortunate is that this represents the little property that homeless people have."

He said that in some instances, DPW workers go beyond aggressive enforcement into actual assaults of homeless people.

"I mean they physically beat them," he said. "I've been going around speaking with homeless people in the neighborhood in putting together the case, and one of the things I've been told, and this is very disturbing, is that that kind of violent behavior, and that sort of taking belongings without justification, happens more to people who are black and homeless than to people who are white and homeless. On some level people say, 'Oh well, there's injustice in the world and of course poor people get a bad shake.' But it's really not okay to beat people and it's not okay to steal from people, even if they're poor, even if they're homeless and they're black."

The resources of the Dolan Law Firm are being put into the case in the hope of creating a change in these abusive practices. Watson said, "What I'm hoping is that this case will have enough of an impact that it will make people pause. We will not only be suing the City, but we will be suing the individual persons who are responsible for these sorts of attacks. My hope is that when it becomes personal to them and comes back to roost on their pocketbooks, that they'll take a second look and do what's right."

Cruel practices directed against homeless people are so institutionalized in the city government that they appear to be merely the routine functioning of an impersonal bureaucracy, rather than the acts of inhumanity that they actually are.

"One of the things that I find most distressing is institutionalized cruelty and violence," Watson said. "One of the bad things about our society is that we take our acts of violence and our acts of cruelty and we farm them out to somebody else, and we have people go out and do those things for us. Then we turn our heads, and pretend that it doesn't happen, or that it doesn't happen for our benefit. So a person in San Francisco can walk down the street and say, 'I give $20 a month to Oxfam, so it doesn't matter if homeless people are being beaten around the corner from me. I don't want to have to see them.'

"What I really hope this suit will do is to highlight for people in this city that when they choose to support things like the plans Mr. Newsom has put forward, what they are really supporting is the beating of poor people. And I don't think the people of this city really want that."

The Dolan Law Firm sued Federal Express for racial harassment of two of its employees, and won a huge jury verdict of $61 million in total damages. Christopher Dolan litigated the case in which Federal Express had discriminated against two workers and treated them in a degrading manner based on race.

Watson said that Dolan gives the other lawyers at the firm "an opportunity to do social justice cases and to use the platform that he has made to promote social justice." Dolan has walked the younger associates through the process of becoming accomplished trial attorneys, Watson said, "and yet still staying true to our values and the way the law should work."

1515 Webster St,#303
Oakland, CA 94612Phone: (510) 238-8080, ext. 303

E-mail: Spirit

© 2002-2006 STREET SPIRIT. All rights reserved.

Published by American Friends Service Committee

Editor and Web Design: Terry Messman