Embedded with the Dolores Park sleep-in protest of park closures

Milk Club President Tom Temprano organized last night's Dolores Park "sleep in"
Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

It’s 1am on Monday (10/28) night in Dolores Park, and I’m wrapped in a sleeping bag scientifically engineered for warmth. Surrounded by 50 or so people, I’m staring at the stars while a Franciscan friar clad in brown robes shows me a Jimmy Fallon skit about Twitter on his iPhone.

“Hashtag shut the fuck up!” Questlove says to laughter of a live audience. This isn’t exactly how the homeless spend their nights, I think to myself.

But that’s why we’re here. Sup. Scott Wiener wants to close these parks from midnight to 5am, and that’s right when the homeless need them the most. The people here are sleeping in the park to show empathy, to show the homeless they’re not alone, and to protest’s Wiener’s legislation on the eve of its consideration by the Board of Supervisors.

Wiener says closing the parks will help police combat graffiti and vandals, and it will keep the parks safe.

That’s a red herring, a loaded statement that the people here feel in their bones is untrue. To my right, Tom Temprano, the bearded president of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, is crouching, surveying the scene. He brought the activists to sleep in Dolores Park tonight because he feels the real targets in Wiener’s proposal are the homeless.

“This would be a vote that would criminalize poverty in San Francisco,” he said to the 50 or so activists earlier, around 9pm. At that point, they were all standing. Now they’re horizontal, trying to live the night as if we were homeless ourselves in solidarity with human beings -- those who eschew feather beds for the grass.

But not always by choice, like we have tonight.

The wind is blowing just enough to remind us we’re in San Francisco, but not enough to make the night like hell frozen over. Brother Juniper, a friar enamored with Jimmy Fallon and immigrant rights, gets up to ferry some people across Dolores Park to a bathroom in a house occupied by a brotherhood of Franciscan friars.

“We preach by doing,” another of the friars, Brother Paul Joseph, said earlier. The friars are in solidarity with the activists in their own way, by providing relief and warmth.

The homeless don’t have that option, and the protesters here acknowledge that. Ryan is a 20 year old from Sacramento, and he says he is privileged. This assuaged any eye rolling on my part, because isn’t it always the young ones who protest? But his earnestness was tempered with compassion. He told me he got angry, deeply angry, when he heard the park closure could lead to the homeless losing the parks as a place to lay their head.

“I’m not normally pissed,” he said.

I turned over in my sleeping bag as I thought about what he told me, and tried to think about why those here were so young. The folks I recognized as near or over 40 were the friars, who were deeply connected to the homeless. But then, there was also Gabriel Medina, an organizer with Our Mission: No Eviction, and a Mission resident.

Medina was the first person I met that night, and he and I connected as locals before we connected as reporter to interviewee. He’s a San Franciscan born and bred, like me, and went to Lowell High School. To him, caring for the homeless is a deeply San Franciscan tradition. As he noted, St. Francis was compassionate.

“We have people who are homeless outside (my work),” he told me. “From Guillermo to Alberto to Junebug. We call services to help them. Some want the help, others don’t. Some would rather sleep in our doorway. They feel hassled in the SROs. It can be dangerous there.”

He was frustrated that there were no easy answers. But what he was certain of, he said, was that criminalizing sleeping in a park was not an answer.

Suddenly the sprinklers by the playground spark to life, and half of us are up like a shot. I regrettably leave my friar friend behind as I snatch up my laptop, phone, and the sleeping bag my gracious boss lent me. We’re near the tennis courts, and the sprinklers turn on one by one and are coming towards us, like some sort of movie villain wanted to taunt us before soaking his victims.

Maybe more sprinklers would be more of a threat to the homeless than Wiener’s legislation, I think sleepily.  

One of those I see running is Michael Celaya, a 26 year old who told me he’s here because so many of his LGBT community are among the homeless. A cynic would say it’s a talking point of the activists with an axe to grind, but Celaya is not one of the usual suspects. He believes the gentrification by tech is inevitable, but that means our responsibility as a city is even greater.

To him, Wiener’s proposal to close the parks signals the supervisor’s departure from representing San Franciscans.

“The city is ours, the radical fairies and the rest,” he says. Wiener isn’t radical anymore. Celaya grips the brim of his straw hat and says “we want to see ourselves represented.”

The sprinklers scared a few of the protesters off, who went home to hopefully warmer environs. As the 22 of us left lay back down, couples curl up together, and a woman tells a story to a friend in sign language by electric lamplight. Her dog’s eyes follow her hands as they dance.

I fall asleep staring at the fog.

“Wake up, you’re on TV!” says one of the activists. Don’t hold me to knowing who it was. It was three hours later, and I’m arching my back as I wake up. A TV news van is blaring a light in our eyes, and Tom Temprano is rousing everyone. Soon it will be five, the hour that would allow the homeless back into the parks, so it’s time for us to go as well.

I walk over to Temprano and ask him to tell me something that sums up the night.

“Spending the night in Dolores only strengthened my commitment that we remain committed to prioritizing space for the homeless,” he said. “Did that sound alright? I didn’t get a wink of sleep.”

It sounded right, I said. As the crowd of activists scatter into the morning, some sleepily, others energetically, I notice that some stay behind. They’re on the tarps, eating the leftover food, huddled alone.

It was only an hour later as my first cup of coffee rouses my senses that I realize they may not have been activists. Maybe they have more to lose from Wiener’s legislation. Maybe they were taking advantage of a place to be safe.

I’m home now, heading back to bed. Do they even have a bed? I’ll never know.