Hosing of Homeless Woman Ignites Furious Debate at San Francisco

. . . And discloses a city on the edge of vigilantism.

AP/Jeff Chiu, file
Tents on a sidewalk at San Francisco, April 21, 2020. AP/Jeff Chiu, file

San Francisco residents are in turmoil about the arrest Wednesday of a 71-year-old art gallery owner who was captured in a widely shared video spraying a homeless woman outside his business with water from a hose.

Some residents who spoke to the Sun welcome the prosecution, while others, even while condemning the gallerist’s actions, say the incident is emblematic of a city at its breaking point and on the brink of vigilante justice.

Business owners already harmed by Covid are having to play social worker and security guard to the unhoused mentally ill and addicted people camping outside their doors. While the city does little to help, these people leave needles and human refuse on the street, openly use drugs, and behave erratically.

“I think we are at a boiling point as a city. I think people are very frustrated,” a San Francisco native and tech entrepreneur, Michelle Tandler, who has a large Twitter platform after posting mainly about the city’s recent struggles, tells the Sun. Ms. Tandler supports Mr. Gwin’s prosecution but warns that an inadequate response to the addiction crisis puts the city “on the brink of vigilantism.”

The 14-second video of gallerist Shannon Collier Gwin that instigated a police investigation was shot by a bystander on January 9. It captures Mr. Gwin leaning against a fence as he holds a hose and sprays a homeless woman who is sitting on the ground.

“Hey, just move. Move,” Mr. Gwin yells after turning off the hose. Pointing down the block, he demands: “You gonna move?” The woman yells back but her words are indecipherable. Her belongings are spread on the sidewalk around her. She is barefoot.

The original tweet of the video tagged local political leaders and news outlets, and outrage spread quickly. Like many viral videos, there is no context for the incident. 

On Wednesday, the San Francisco district attorney, Brooke Jenkins, released a statement to Twitter. It said that, following an investigation by the San Francisco Police Department and a review of the evidence, her office had issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Gwin. “The alleged battery of an unhoused member of our community is completely unacceptable,” Ms. Jenkins wrote. “Mr. Gwin will face appropriate consequences for his actions.”

The homeless woman declined to press charges but the San Francisco Police Department said it “developed probable cause to obtain an arrest warrant” anyway. Mr. Gwin was booked and charged with battery. He faces up to six months in jail and a $2,000 fine.

Ms. Jenkins also condemned the vandalizing of Mr. Gwin’s business that occurred in the days after the video’s release. No arrests have been made for those crimes. The responses to Ms. Jenkins’s tweet range from applause to anger.

“Hundreds of dealers of illegal fentanyl,” one of them said, “are walking around within 6 blocks of city hall. Yes [sic] you waste resources on this?” Another said, “Translation: SF DA will prosecute local hardworking small biz owners that are fed up with their storefronts being destroyed by homeless junkies, dealers, and schizophrenics from other cities, while continuing to defend and welcome the latter with open arms.”

There are nearly 8,000 unhoused people in San Francisco and, in pockets of the city, tents obstruct sidewalks, people openly deal and consume drugs, and trash and syringes litter the street. In December, a federal judge issued a temporary order barring the city from clearing tents or confiscating the belongings of homeless people.

Public outrage over the city’s failure to prosecute fentanyl dealers and those who break into cars and commit other property crimes, even while looking the other way amid open-air drug use and tent cities, led in part to the recall in June of the former district attorney, Chesa Boudin.

Ms. Jenkins promised to restore law and order while still honoring many of the criminal justice reforms of her predecessor. Those who oppose Mr. Gwin’s arrest say Ms. Jenkins’s office should be focused on prosecuting more pressing crimes.

Neighbors of the gallery say that the homeless woman in the video could often be heard screaming at night, or seen running around naked, and spreading food and trash on the sidewalk. Mr. Gwin says he tried to help the woman several times.

He did so, he says, by calling social services, but nothing came of it. Just before the video clip starts, Mr. Gwin says the woman was acting belligerently, overturning his trash cans and spitting at him. “I find it hard to apologize when we have had no help with this situation,” Mr. Gwin told ABC7 shortly after the incident.

In a later interview, Mr. Gwin took a more conciliatory tone. “I am deeply apologetic,” he said. “I completely broke. I’m not equipped or trained to deal with a long-term citywide problem like this.”

A deli owner on Haight Street, Amal Kazzouh, whose family immigrated from Lebanon and has operated the business since 1994, says she understands hitting a breaking point. “It’s more than enough,” she tells the Sun of the constant issues regarding the homeless.

Ms. Kazzouh says she has compassion for the homeless and addicted “kids” who hang around her business. She tells the Sun that some of them call her “mom,” because she feeds them and listens to their stories. Her deli is one of the last businesses to close on the street each night.

Yet she says in recent years, the break-ins and violence have escalated. She thinks the drugs are compounding issues of mental illness, and says she’s watched several homeless people who hang around her store decline rapidly.

The day before the Sun interviewed her, Ms. Kazzouh says her store was broken into. The break-in, she says, resulted in $30,000 in damage and lost merchandise, including cartons of cigarettes and cash from an ATM. This was the second break-in in five months.

Ms. Kazzouh has also had her windows smashed several times. She says the last time she called the police and a suspect was arrested. “Then they release him, case dismissed because he’s mentally ill. So I don’t see any justice,” she says.

The shoplifting laws, she adds, are also hurting her business. “You can’t stop a shoplifter from stealing if they are walking out of your place — they could sue you even,” Ms. Kazzouh says. “I don’t know how you can solve these problems if there is no punishment.”

With regard to Mr. Gwin, Ms. Kazzouh suspects there is more to the story than the viral 14-second video shows. The tech entrepreneur, Ms. Tandler, says the context is not the point. “He doesn’t look compassionate. He doesn’t look like he’s defending himself,” Ms. Tandler says of Mr. Gwin’s relaxed stance as he hoses down the woman. She thinks taking this case through the legal system is “the right thing to do” — otherwise it could encourage vigilante actions.

Adam Mesnick, a deli owner whose Twitter account, bettersoma, documents the fentanyl crisis in San Francisco and has more than 15,000 followers, tweeted Friday that he wants to sue the city. “My home and business literally surrounded by fetty encampments. I’m done here,” he writes, tagging political leaders, including Governor Newsom.

The racial politics around Mr. Gwin’s actions are also likely fueling the outrage. Mr. Gwin is white and the homeless woman is Black. In a town hall forum Sunday at Third Baptist Church, where Ms. Jenkins also spoke, the Reverend Amos C. Brown, the president of the NAACP’s San Francisco branch, compared Mr. Gwin’s hosing of the homeless woman to the Birmingham, Alabama, public safety commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor, hosing civil rights protesters in the 1960s.

“I find that ridiculous,” a San Francisco landscaper, Dave Conroy, tells the Sun. “What was this woman’s cause, other than trying to sleep at his place of business? Was she standing up for her right to do whatever she wanted whenever she wanted?” He called the charges against Mr. Gwin “completely disproportionate.”

The Sun spoke with several San Francisco residents who did not want to go on record with their names. All of them expressed this mixture of compassion and confusion about what to do with the seemingly intractable problems of homelessness and addiction. They say there has always been a visible homeless population in the city — mainly a mixture of drug users and the mentally ill — but the fentanyl crisis has taken this to a whole new level. 

No one condoned Mr. Gwin’s actions, but many said they wished the police would respond as quickly to other complaints as they did to the viral video. Retail businesses are on what Ms. Tandler calls “the front lines” of these crises.

Mr. Gwin stepped over the line and is facing the consequences, but many wonder why dealing drugs, shooting up on the street, and breaking into cars — among many other crimes and public nuisances — aren’t considered over the line, too.

The New York Sun

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