[Hpn] Underground artists fight gentrification

chance martin streetsheet@sf-homeless-coalition.org
Tue, 04 Sep 2001 11:30:12 -0700

Posters show homeless in new light

Posters give new view of homeless
Underground artists fight gentrification

Ilene Lelchuk, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 4, 2001
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle


San Francisco -- As public debate escalates about whether San Francisco is
an unsightly mess and haven for the homeless, silk-screen artists have been
sneaking through the city with sticky paste and rolling out disturbing
posters meant to make you think more deeply about the poor people living on
the streets. 

The Coalition on Homelessness, a civil rights group, also has created its
own public education campaign, legally posting ads on bus shelters in an
effort to shatter stereotypes.

"We really want to use our work as a voice for the underrepresented people,
" said one of the poster artists, who asked to remain anonymous because of
his underground work.

Most of the posters stuck to trash cans, bus shelters, newspaper racks and
light poles are signed by the San Francisco Print Collective, a loose group
of anonymous artists who came together a few years ago to fight
gentrification in the working-class Mission District.

The latest campaign on homelessness includes a dozen different posters. One
features the face of a homeless man and asks: "Why do we hide our smiles
from the ones who need them the most?" Another poster shows a shopping cart
and a gun with the message: "How many people do you need to start a
revolution? There are 15,000 homeless people in San Francisco. Is that

The messages criticize Mayor Willie Brown's administration for providing too
few services for the homeless and then criminalizing street people by
rousting them and issuing tickets for illegal activities such as camping in

The artists also target the local media's recent reporting and editorials
about dirty streets and homelessness.

"We feel (the city's and media's response to homelessness) is cosmetic,"
said the artist, who agreed to speak to The Chronicle. "And we believe the
root causes of homelessness are systemic."

One poster features a fake Chronicle front page with the story and headline
about Brown attacking the homeless. Another poster featured the newspaper's
"Little Man" symbol, used for rating movies and other events, sleeping
alongside a homeless man and his shopping cart.

Many of the 1,000 or so posters, slapped up a few weeks ago to correspond
with the National Association of Street Newspapers conference in town, have
been torn down. 

But that makes the artists more confident that their message got through.

"Clearly, it was effective because it upset people," the group's
representative said.

San Francisco's mayor, however, sees the posters only as vandalism rather
than art or a legitimate political protest.

"When you are the mayor of a major American city, you face criticism on all
sides," said Brown's press secretary, P.J. Johnston. "The homeless advocates
don't feel we do enough or spend enough and think we are much too tough on
the homeless. Then on the other side, we have business owners, the visitors
industry and ordinary citizens who feel that (spending) $175 million
annually (on services for the homeless and indigent patient care at San
Francisco General Hospital) is far too much, that we are too lenient,and the
administration simply should not tolerate the presence of poor people on the

Brown's most vocal critic is the Coalition on Homelessness, which recently
legally installed about 10 posters in bus shelters as part of the group's
sixth public awareness campaign, said coalition head Paul Boden. Viacom
Outdoor, which owns the space, donated it to the nonprofit.

"Nowadays . . . we are eliminating jobs and wondering why so many people are
sleeping in our streets," said Boden, who hopes the ads bring a little
humanity to the political problem.

One poster shows a homeless person behind bars and bears the message: "If
you can't afford the $76 fine for being homeless, the city will give you

Lately, there's been a renewed debate in San Francisco by politicians,
members of the tourist industry and residents about whether San Francisco is
becoming an increasingly dirty city. They talk about public urination, human
waste on the streets and litter.

But Boden has said that he's disturbed by these conversations that often
sidestep the real issues: the needy people who lack shelter, drug treatment
centers and mental health services.

Laurel Weir, deputy director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and
Poverty, based in Washington, D.C., says cities commonly talk about
"cleaning up" their downtowns.

"And that usually involves sweeping homeless into a different part of the
city," Weir said. 

The law center also has begun its own poster campaign, buying ad space in D.
C.'s Metro stations to spread the message that the district has too few
shelter beds for its 10,000 to 15,000 homeless people.

As in D.C., San Francisco activists want to shake up public policy.

"I think that information needs to be used now in a meaningful way," the
representative of underground artists said.

E-mail Ilene Lelchuk at ilelchuk@sfchronicle.com.

©2001 San Francisco Chronicle   Page A - 11

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