Opinion | Spraying of Homeless Woman Reflects Larger Violence Against Unhoused People

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In the 14-second video now seen by millions, San Francisco gallery owner Collier Gwin stands nonchalant yet intent, his legs crossed casually, his age-folded face glaring as he
pummels a Black homeless woman on the sidewalk with cold water spray.

Yes, it’s 2023, and a wealthy White man is
blasting a hose on a homeless Black woman for sitting on the sidewalk, literally as if she were trash. Power dynamics don’t get much starker than that.

We hear of vile, violent abuses against homeless people often, but it’s rarely caught on video. Here, thanks to a concerned passerby, Gwin’s soulless, sickening assault became documented, indisputable evidence of a violent crime. He’s right there in the video, glaring at the woman, blasting cold water on her, shouting “Move! Move!”

Unhoused people are told to “move” constantly, by vigilantes like Gwin and by city police, public works teams, and by society writ large. Just “move” away from this spot right here, where we can see you, to some other spot; out of sight, out of mind.

In a moment, Collier Gwin became a hashtag of horrors, his gallery a window-shattered memory, a one-starred on Yelp. With rising anger came alleged death threats, and soon local television predictably changed the narrative: suddenly, the story was about Gwin’s grievances, his lost patience after supposedly trying to help the woman, and about the cascading threats. There was no talk about the homeless woman, her loss and pain, her experience surviving on these cold mean streets.

The woman, the crime victim, was disappeared—nameless, faceless, lost entirely from view. She was described only in Gwin’s terms, as a nuisance. We can’t even “say her name,” because we don’t know it.

The woman, the crime victim, was disappeared—nameless, faceless, lost entirely from view.

Meanwhile Gwin, who was at first stunningly unapologetic, embarked on an apology tour of sorts, with a maddeningly compliant media aiding and abetting. He
griped to local media, “Nobody can get into their stores or into their offices. And so consequently, you know, if she got wet when that was happening, it was because she was there getting wet.”

Instead of a story of violence against a homeless woman, the narrative became about Gwin “snapping,” about ”
patience wearing thin” with homelessness—and even with the term “the homeless,” as media still call “them.” Instead of a story about the larger violence and criminality of homelessness amid this city and region’s epic wealth, Gwin’s assault became contorted into a “yeah, but” tale of ultra-privileged exasperation at the unsightly, unprofitable plight in the streets.

Lost in the hubbub about Gwin’s attack is the larger constant violence that San Francisco and other big cities wage on unhoused human beings every day. Here in this supposedly “liberal,” allegedly “tolerant” city of Saint Francis, homeless people are policed relentlessly, pushed from block to block, and “swept” from view by the city’s Department of Public Works, their tents and belongings (clothing, medication, other personal valuables) destroyed.

Even in this cold rainy “Bomb cyclone” winter that’s been nasty enough for President Biden to declare a state of emergency, the city continues to “sweep” away homeless people and trash their belongings—in violation of both basic humanity and a
court ruling ordering the city to stop its “sweeps” when it has a chronic shortage of shelter space.

This and other daily violence against unhoused human beings is enabled and empowered by an increasingly virulent, reactionary narrative that the poorest of the poor in our society are somehow the problem, that “they” are a nuisance, that “they” are the ones to blame. This is not just a rightwing Republican talking point—it is increasingly adopted by neoliberal Democrats and so-called “moderates” and centrists who insist they are “fed up” with the crises in the streets.

Just a day before Gwin’s hose spraying attack, one Tweeter I regrettably engaged with bellowed, “Good, sweep them all away!” Three others “liked” the comment. Another said of homeless people, “Comfortable is a state of being for them. They prefer to not work. No responsibility. No bills. Do drugs. Get free stuff/food.” Many peddle the bizarre false notion that the city “pays” homeless people hundreds of dollars a month to live on the streets. Even if someone filled out endless forms, stood on endless lines, and managed to get a host of city, county, state, and federal aid that somehow amounted to “hundreds” of dollars, it would be at best barely enough to stay alive, and nothing more.

This increasingly predominant and insidious neoliberal view falsely (and counter-productively) blames the individual rather than the system (yes, our structural system) of extreme private wealth accumulation and a 40-year demolition of public-sector solutions that are the real root causes of this impoverishment and suffering. We can chart this back to President Reagan’s
decimation of aid to poor people, and mental health and public housing supports.

We should all be fed up with acts like Gwin’s inhumane assault and by the city’s daily violence and harassment of homeless people. We should all be fed up with the completely preventable epidemic of homelessness amid epic, obscene wealth and inequality. We should all be fed up knowing that, for all its complexities and varied contexts, homelessness can be prevented by mustering our vast financial resources (city, regional, and national) and some political humanity and courage to invest in meeting people’s basic needs.

Gwin’s violence against this homeless woman was despicable, and he should be held accountable for his crime. It took more than a week for district attorney Brooke Jenkins to issue an arrest warrant,
charging Gwin with misdemeanor battery “for the alleged intentional and unlawful spraying of water on and around a woman experiencing homelessness.” With TV crews conveniently on hand, city police picked up Gwin at his gallery.

Meanwhile, the larger crime of homelessness amid extreme wealth goes unchecked; as does the city’s ongoing “sweeps” of unhoused people and illegal destruction of their belongings, in violation of court orders. While Gwin’s violence against a homeless woman may seem an egregious outlier, it’s indicative of a broader violence, hatred, and dehumanizing of homeless human beings. For homelessness to end, this larger violence and crime—the false, stale, and harmful blaming and scapegoating of homeless people, the perception that “they” are the problem—must end.

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