At yesterday's Recreation & Park Commission meeting on Dec. 2, hundreds of San Francisco residents turned out to urge commissioners not to replace the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council (HANC) Recycling Center with a community garden. Their pleas fell on deaf ears.
It didn't matter that a sunnier spot for a community garden had already been identified in the same area, with funding approved by the commission more than a year ago. It didn't matter that thousands of people use the recycling center every month, and that the nonprofit bolsters community gardens throughout the city with donations and funding. It didn't matter that we’re in a recession and there were jobs on the line. It didn't matter that HANC pays rent to a city department facing a $12.5 million deficit, but the community garden would cost $250,000.
All that mattered in the end was that Rec & Park, and Mayor Gavin Newsom, wanted the HANC recycling center out. They thought removing it might discourage homeless people from sleeping in the park and hanging around the neighborhood. After nearly four hours of listening to residents urge them not to do it, the commissioners yawned and pushed the eject button. They unanimously voted in favor of the community garden. A 90-day eviction notice is expected to go out to HANC today.
The fight over HANC’s eviction has been described as a political battle between progressives and moderates, a showdown between heroes who stand up for public safety versus intimidating thugs and the lefties who enable them, and even a sequel to the sit /lie controversy. I think there’s an 800-pound gorilla sitting in the middle of this fight that no one wants to talk about: Class.
Community gardens are wonderfully empowering. I used to volunteer at one at a public housing complex in North Carolina. It was especially important for people who lived in that low-income community, since they benefited from nutritious produce that also lowered their grocery bills. Under the city's plan for this new, gated community garden, 30 of the 40 garden plots will go to area residents. Given the affluence of that neighborhood, the garden beds will likely go to people who can afford organic groceries at Whole Foods without breaking into a sweat. For well-to-do San Franciscans, growing produce is not a means of survival -- it's about feeling good, and being green. By itself, there’s nothing wrong with that.
The problem is that it will be installed at the expense of a long-standing community resource that employs 10 people and lightens the load for hundreds of others during a recession, when people are truly struggling to get by. The Rec & Park Commission has essentially decided that this parcel of public space should be taken from a nonprofit that benefits people of all classes, and given to a small number of residents who've voiced complaints about “quality-of-life issues.”
In its current function, the HANC Recycling Center is empowering to many different kinds of people. Most aren't homeless. Tough-as-nails Asian grandmas show up with bags full of cans that they can exchange for some extra spending money. Urban gardeners purchase native plants in hopes of pleasing native insects and birds. People on fixed incomes get a small financial boost by turning in recyclables.
A small number of the HANC Recycling Center patrons do sleep outside. In order to earn small amounts of cash for things like food, many of them have to go digging around in garbage cans, which is gross and humiliating. Why would someone paw through the garbage for hours, battling bees and germs, and then haul smelly bottles uphill in a shopping cart just to make a few bucks? My guess is that it's to ward off desperation. They make their own work, and they get to eat.
"Some of them may use drugs," one of the speakers acknowledged last night. "But," he paused for dramatic effect. "Some of us use drugs, too."
When sit / lie was under debate, critics wondered where the homeless were supposed to go, if they couldn't sit on the sidewalks. Often, the reply was that they could go to the parks. But this latest attack on the homeless shows that they aren't welcome there, either.
This is an opinion piece.
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