The city is finally cleaning up its streets — but will it last?
In the face of mounting challenges related to drug addiction, homelessness, and urban deterioration in San Francisco, municipal authorities are cleaning up the city’s streets. This is in anticipation of the impending Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit, which is expected to draw over 20,000 attendees, including California Governor Gavin Newsom, President Joe Biden, and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The ongoing cleanup also sheds light on decades of progressive Democratic policies, now characterised by open-air drug markets, car smash-and-grabs, organised retail crime, and tragic deaths of despair.
Preparations for Apec include the clearance of locations known for open drug use, such as the Nancy Pelosi Federal Building — a city block that has recorded nearly 30 deaths and over 150 suspected overdoses in the first half of this year. But are these measures actually solving the problem, or moving them to other parts of the city?
San Francisco’s strategy encompasses the relocation of homeless encampments, an augmented law enforcement presence, and systematic dismantling of tents in specific neighbourhoods, particularly those in proximity to Apec venues.
The practice of displacing encampments in preparation for major events in California mirrors past occurrences, such as during the Oscars and Super Bowl, underscoring a recurrent pattern wherein political leaders seek to present a positive global image by addressing visible social issues. According to a January 2022 report by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, California’s homelessness crisis constitutes 30% of the nation’s homeless population, a disproportionately high figure considering the state’s share of slightly less than 12% of the total US population.
Stringent security measures are currently in place for the upcoming Apec event, with both local and federal authorities implementing restrictions on unhoused residents within a designated “secure zone”, overseen by the US Secret Service. This secured area, demarcated by imposing gated fences evoking certain dystopian imagery, will be subject to federal charges for any infractions occurring within or near the Apec event zone. Law enforcement agencies — including the SFPD, Highway Patrol, National Guard, FBI, and CIA — express unequivocal commitment to maintaining order and security, departing from the customary leniency observed in San Francisco prosecutions.
There is a prevailing sentiment among San Franciscans that the city is fostering an illusion of progress while circumventing the fundamental causes underpinning homelessness and drug addiction. Questions have been raised over the timing of this cleanup initiative and its precedence, given that the Apec conference comes hot on the heels Newsom’s recent “climate-focused tour” in China.
Ironically, this visit has prompted scrutiny of leaders’ commitment to addressing the root causes of homelessness. Fentanyl-related overdoses persist as a significant issue in San Francisco, with the city poised for a record-breaking number of fatalities this year. In 2022, California led the nation in total deaths from fentanyl (6,453) followed by Florida (5,083) and New York (4,950). It is unclear whether Biden or Newsom will have the courage to press Xi on the topic this week. China, after all, is the world’s primary source of the precursors of illicit fentanyl — responsible for more than 90% of the drug in the United States.
The cleanup effort is nothing more than a hasty attempt to save face and conceal the adverse effects of Democratic progressive policies. Still, the speed at which the downtown area has been cleared up shows that when there is impetus, it can be done. It is a shame, then, to see that politicians like Newsom only seem to act when it is politically expedient to do so.