#boycottSanFrancisco All You Want, But Don’t Forget Ed Lee’s Compassion For Those The System Failed
San Francisco: we have a reputation as a libertine city, a place of nonsensical liberalism, perversity, and $8 avocado toast. Although that reputation is (mostly) well-earned, it’s not exactly the whole picture. I expect even the #boycottSanFrancisco folks know that, deep down.
After the sudden death of Mayor Ed Lee yesterday, critics noted that he had died just days after Kate Steinle’s killer, the undocumented immigrant Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, was exonerated by a local jury on charges of murder and manslaughter. Some blamed Lee’s defense of San Francisco’s sanctuary city policy for Steinle’s killing. Lee’s death prompted some on Twitter to call him an “unrepentant enabler of Kate Steinle’s killer,” while another said, “karma’s a bitch.”
Many have accused Lee (and San Francisco) of lacking compassion for Steinle. But it’s entirely possible to have compassion for Steinle — whose untimely death was the result of a series of improbable failures — and also for Garcia Zarate. Garcia Zarate was so unhappy in his native Mexico that he returned to the U.S. again and again, ostensibly seeking a better life, but ran afoul of the country’s racist drug laws several times. He moved to San Francisco shortly before the day he wound up sitting in a chair on Pier 14, where he discovered a fabric bundle underneath. When he picked it up, the gun inside — which someone else had stolen from a Bureau of Land Management ranger’s car — went off, a bullet bounced off the pier and struck Steinle.
Anyone could have picked up that bundle and accidentally killed her or someone else. It wasn’t Garcia Zarate’s undocumented status that made it happen. And it wasn’t Ed Lee’s protection of undocumented immigrants that made it happen, either. Garcia Zarate was ICE’s responsibility, not San Francisco’s.
As a child of Chinese immigrants and an attorney who worked on behalf of low-income Chinese families, Lee well understood the challenges immigrants face, undocumented or no. San Francisco became one of the first sanctuary cities in 1989, meaning that local police and sheriff’s officers would not expend resources to do the work of ICE. It also meant that local authorities could not hold immigrants for ICE unless they had violent felonies on their records or were currently facing charges, which Garcia Zarate didn’t and wasn’t. There are many good reasons for sanctuary cities; chief among them is that it’s easier to investigate and prosecute criminal activity when potential witnesses don’t fear deportation if they talk to local police.
When Donald Trump was elected president last year, Lee defended San Francisco’s longstanding status as a sanctuary city. He assured local immigrants and their children that this wouldn’t change:
City Attorney Dennis Herrera even sued the Trump administration over threats to yank funding from the city, and won.
Immigrants are not the only group in San Francisco that Lee showed compassion for. As the homelessness situation grew increasingly visible, especially with the rise of tent encampments, Lee responded by pushing for so-called Navigation Centers across the city. Unlike traditional shelters, Navigation Centers allow homeless residents to bring their partners, belongings and pets with them, and don’t require residents to be clean and sober (often an impossible requirement for people who lack access to other forms of pain and psychiatric medication). These shelters offer a respite from the streets and an opportunity to begin connecting with services homeless folks need most, including healthcare.
He also created the new Department of Homelessness & Supportive Housing, aimed at bringing more of the city’s homelessness services under one roof, with the goal of ending homelessness for 8,000 people within four years. Given that this happened in 2016, it’s too soon to see whether those efforts will pay off. But, before he died, he asked the city’s Board of Supervisors to declare homelessness a citywide emergency and fast-track the creation of new homeless shelters, which the Supervisors approved just hours after his death.
It’s a fair criticism to say that Lee’s policies also accelerated homelessness in the city. He approved enormous tax cuts for tech companies like Twitter to come in, creating many new high-paying jobs without boosting housing to match. Landlords and property owners, recognizing they could be making more money in a scarce rental market, evicted low-rent tenants in favor of spendier ones. In 2016, the San Francisco homelessness point-in-time count showed that 71 percent of the city’s homeless residents had once had homes in San Francisco. Lee’s administration was slow to push for more housing, slow to restrict Ellis Act evictions, and opposed restrictions on Airbnb’s exploitation of the market.
It’s fair to say that no San Francisco mayor, including Ed Lee so far, has been able to make much of a dent in homelessness. But his policies are the first in many years that have the potential to really work. And they’re among the first to recognize the inherent humanity of San Francisco residents living in shelters, on the streets, in cars and in tents.
Undocumented immigrants and homeless folks have something in common: they’ve been failed by the system. Immigrants often come to the U.S. fleeing something awful — war, gang violence, poverty, domestic abuse. We talk big about wanting them to go through the proper channels to citizenship without recognizing that the proper channels to citizenship are convoluted and broken and take years to make happen. Homeless folks become homeless through a series of misfortunes, almost none of which are their fault. Lost jobs, industries dried up, mental health issues, PTSD. And if homeless folks hadn’t suffered trauma before they became homeless, there’s little doubt that living on the streets is trauma enough. The pervasive view of homeless and undocumented folks is of people too lazy to do things properly, who would rather sponge off the system than look after themselves. Instead, these folks live a reality that is difficult for more privileged folks to imagine — and would rather pretend doesn’t happen to “good” people. But it does.
And, “good” or not, people deserve compassion.
That’s what Ed Lee knew. He wasn’t a flashy mayor like Willie Brown or Gavin Newsom. He suffered a heart attack shopping at Safeway after a long day — a workaday San Franciscan like many of us. He didn’t forget that those struggling the most in his city needed a strong voice on their side.
At the end of the day, that’s what the most marginalized folks need. A kind word, a leg up, a way to amplify their voices. Ed Lee knew that. Why don’t San Francisco’s critics?