Occupy diversifies; takes a building

Occupy San Francisco has seized a building on 888 Turk Street.  Located in the Tenderloin District, the building, owned by the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

The takeover followed an April Fool’s Day march, and police apparently stood by as the demonstrators took over.   Occupy promises to turn the site into a community service center.  Here’s what Occupy SF posted yesterday:

Tonight Occupy SF, through the OccupySF Commune, has inhabited a vacant building onTurk St. for the purpose of creating a community center in the spirit of this building’s original intention–to create a center for health and healing.

In a city with ten thousand homeless people and thirty-two thousand vacant but habitable units, it is a crime against humanity that people are prevented from sleeping through the night as part of a political protest or as a basic human right. The city wants OccupySF and the homeless off the street–harassing, intimidating, and arresting us every night–so now we are inside creating a vibrant space for health, humanity, and free expression.

This building has been empty for five years and was previously a mental health clinic providing a valuable service to the community. Five years ago the Board of Supervisors cut the funding to this vital community center causing many people with mental illness to be put out on the street and become subject to arrest and harassment simply for now existing in these very same streets they were forced into. This funding cut was brought on by the international financial crisis caused by a corrupt banking system which profits off the backs of the 99%.

This Turk St. building is owned by the Church and the owners, therefore, pay no property tax for it.  It has been vacant and unused for over five years and no services have been provided here. Further, the owners have failed to register the building as vacant, avoiding their duty to pay vacancy fees to the public coffers. The building is now occupied by a group of people willing to offer services such as food, housing, education, and community-building skills for free.

We assert our human rights to free expression, dissent, and 24-hour protest without undue harassment.

The charge, that there’s something wrong about leaving a building vacant when homelessness is such a salient problem in the city, is a powerful one, and the new Occupation is a powerful way to lodge that charge.  Absent provocation, the police are unlikely to evict the Occupiers unless the Archdiocese asks them to do so–and then the Church will have to explain why it prefers to hold an empty building and watch it deteriorate.

At the same time, making the charge is a lot easier than actually providing the range of services San Franciscans need and want–and Occupiers want to deliver.  Effective action will take money, expertise, organization, and the capacity to make tough decisions about priorities and access.  If, as in the outdoor Occupations, the site becomes a magnet for all sorts of people with all sorts of commitments and issues, the old problems of democracy and of safety are likely to reemerge.

Holding the Turk Street building could easily end up being more of a burden than blessing, another Occupation trap for the movement.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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2 Responses to Occupy diversifies; takes a building

  1. A.C. says:

    1) According to the diocese, the building belongs to the Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory High School, and hasn’t been used for about 18 months, which is a different number than the five years that the occupiers claim.
    2) The Archdiocese of San Francisco is one of the largest providers of charitable and social services in the Bay Area. Their charities operate dozens of programs, including programs for AIDS patients, community centers for senior citizens, counseling for pregnant women and treatment for alcoholics and drug abusers. Almost a third of its budget comes from public donations. Why anyone would side with these inept occupiers over the diocese is beyond me. It takes more than squatting in a building to provide social services.
    3) Speaking of, who will be paying the insurance, utilities, maintenance, staffing, and rent that goes along with running a shelter?
    4) The reason why the building is vacant matters to no one but the property owner. Whoever owns the building has the lawful right to evict squatters who are occupying, vandalizing and destroying their property. The fact that anyone believes public opinion will be with the occupiers in this case is deluded. Ignoring property rights is not something most hard-working Americans sympathize with.
    5) Who will be paying the insurance, utilities, maintenance, staffing, and rent that goes along with running a shelter?
    6) In a worst case scenario, if the Diocese of SF consents to the squatters staying, and say a month later a fire breaks out, killing people inside, the diocese could potentially be held liable, and have a legal nightmare on their hands.

  2. I agree completely on points 3 & 5 (the same point). Actually delivering social services is complicated, requiring expertise, sustained commitment, and resources.

    I think, however, that the City and people of San Francisco–like all other cities–have an interest in how property is used within their borders. Every city has zoning laws, and zoning boards make decisions based on their vision of the community AND the resources a property can generate. (Witness all the strip malls in California!)

    A vacant building, particularly one that isn’t generating tax revenues, is a problem, potentially attracting crime, degrading the life of the community–and the property values of its neighbors. Squatters could move in and do damage.

    SF police say they will evict if the Archdiocese asks them to do so. That’s the Church’s decision.

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