American Sociological Review
2019, Vol. 84(5) 769–800
© American Sociological
Association 2019
DOI: 10.1177/0003122419872671
It’s 6am and officers Rodriguez and Sharkey are beginning their morning shift from
San Francisco’s Mission Police Station.
“Alright, let’s see where we’re off to this
morning,” Rodriguez says, switching on the
patrol car’s dashboard. The screen wedged
between the passenger and driver’s seat
lights up a list of 36 calls listing the time, a
numeric code delineating the type of call,
and a street address. “Hey, not so bad! It’s
still early though.” Of the calls on the
screen, twenty-one are coded 915, or what is
officially called “homeless complaints.” If
the 911 dispatcher receiving the call concludes that the reported violation covers one
of the city’s 24 anti-homeless laws and does
not involve a more serious crime, or a nuisance violation involving a housed person,
they dispatch the call as a homeless
Officers Rodriguez and Sharkey respond to
the calls in the order received. Driving to the
first call, a mere five minutes from the station, we pass eleven tents and several more
bodies laid out on cardboard, piles of blankets, and the hard-damp concrete, all violating the exact same ordinance we’re chasing
after, “illegal lodging.” We pull up to a
872671 ASRXXX10.1177/0003122419872671American Sociological ReviewHerring
University of California-Berkeley
Corresponding Author:
Chris Herring, University of California-Berkeley,
410 Barrows Hall, Berkeley, CA 94720
Email: [email protected]
Complaint-Oriented Policing:
Regulating Homelessness in
Public Space
Chris Herringa
Over the past 30 years, cities across the United States have adopted quality-of-life ordinances
aimed at policing social marginality. Scholars have documented zero-tolerance policing and
emerging tactics of therapeutic policing in these efforts, but little attention has been paid to
911 calls and forms of third-party policing in governing public space and the poor. Drawing
on an analysis of 3.9 million 911 and 311 call records and participant observation alongside
police officers, social workers, and homeless men and women residing on the streets of
San Francisco, this article elaborates a model of “complaint-oriented policing” to explain
additional causes and consequences of policing visible poverty. Situating the police within a
broader bureaucratic field of poverty governance, I demonstrate how policing aimed at the poor
can be initiated by callers, organizations, and government agencies, and how police officers
manage these complaints in collaboration and conflict with health, welfare, and sanitation
agencies. Expanding the conception of the criminalization of poverty, which is often centered
on incarceration or arrest, the study reveals previously unforeseen consequences of movealong orders, citations, and threats that dispossess the poor of property, create barriers to
services and jobs, and increase vulnerability to violence and crime.
policing, homelessness, poverty governance, urban sociology, social control
770 American Sociological Review 84(5)
single tent, tied between two large pillars of
the 101 highway overpass across from a
24-hour Fitness club. “They always call”
referring to the club, “And of course he’s
back!” Rodriguez explains, “There was a
big sweep last week on the other side of the
thoroughfare by Southern,” referring to the
eviction of an encampment carried out by
the adjacent police precinct from where this
person had migrated.
Rodriguez parks the car, both get out, and
Sharkey takes out his baton to tap on the
tent pole as if knocking on a door. TAP TAP
TAP TAP TAP, “Good Morning. SFPD. Can
you pop your head out for a minute?” The
fly unzips and a tired face emerges, unfazed.
“Hi good morning sir, how are you doing?”
Sharkey asks. “Good, thanks,” the man
calmly replies. Sharkey continues, “So I
guess someone called this morning and
complained about lodging here. So, I guess
you set up here last night?” The man nods.
“You know business is getting started and
would be great if you could just you know
move-along, otherwise they’re going to just
call again, and we’re gonna have to
respond.” Without resistance or attitude the
man replies, “Yeah ok, I’ll get moving.”
Rodriguez and Sharkey return to the car,
clear the run, and drive on to their next call.
Already two more homeless complaints
have hit the dashboard since arriving at this
one. Over the next three hours, the two officers clear ten homeless complaint calls,
three of which they simply drove by as the
person had moved on by the time we
responded. Except for one, a man who
refused to move-on and took a citation for
blocking a sidewalk, the others followed the
same course as the first; the officers
explained someone had called to complain
and the person residing on the sidewalk,
vacant lot, or park agreed to move-along.
As we pulled back into the station for lunch,
I ask the officers how they thought the
morning went. Sharkey admitted, “Look
we’re not really solving anybody’s problem.
This is a big game of whack-a-mole. I’ll
clear one run, get a person to move, but by
doing that I’m just creating another call,
right? If we arrested a guy, we’d never clear
these calls, and when we cite them, they
won’t be able to pay and they’ll just be out
here longer and less willing to cooperate.”
Rodriguez, grasping for some sense of
redemption. “Look, I get it if you’re paying
two million dollars for a house and how
much are you paying for property taxes, and
then you have to walk past this guy that’s
taking a crap right in front of your house, or
you’re walking with your kid and you see
someone shooting up in the middle of the
street or peeing or knocked out, like you
don’t want your kid seeing that. So we get
why people call, because it’s a quality-oflife issue for them. . . . But then our end, it’s
like where are they supposed to go? The
shelters are full. What are we supposed to
do with them?” (fieldnote, May 2016)
Over the past 30 years, police forces across
the United States have adopted forms of qualityof-life policing as a renewed commitment to
addressing order maintenance as a policing
priority and an instrumental crime-control
strategy (Harcourt 2009; Kelling and Coles
1997; Kohler-Hausmann 2018). Central to
these efforts have been the passage of local
ordinances aimed at curbing visible poverty,
“anti-social behavior,” and homelessness
(Beckett and Herbert 2009; Vitale 2008).
These laws are currently spreading at an
unprecedented rate in the United States
(NLCHP 2017) and increasingly across the
globe (Fernandez Evangelista 2013). The
National Law Center on Homelessness and
Poverty (NLCHP 2017) found that over half
of the 187 U.S. cities in its study banned
camping, sitting, and lying in public, and over
two-thirds had bans on loitering and begging
in particular places. Between 2006 and 2016,
bans on sitting and lying increased by 52 percent, citywide camping bans by 69 percent,
prohibitions on loitering and loafing citywide
by 88 percent, and bans on living in vehicles
rose 143 percent, the fastest increases of such
ordinances in U.S. history. Recent statewide
studies by legal scholars show that most cities
have multiple ordinances on the books
(Adcock et al. 2016; Frankel, Katovich, and
Vedvig 2016; Marek and Sawicki 2017; Olson,
MacDonald, and Rankin 2015). For instance,
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California cities have an average of nine antihomeless laws—Los Angeles and San Francisco have 21 and 24, respectively (Fisher
et al. 2015). Each law taken on its own may
seem limited in its strictures on targeted
behaviors, but collectively, they effectively
criminalize homelessness and in doing so create an impossible situation for policing.
Legal scholars have tracked the spread of
these laws, but we know little about their onthe-ground implementation and effects. The
existing scholarship presents two general
characterizations of policing marginality
(Herbert, Beckett, and Stuart 2017): “aggressive patrol,” which leverages citations and
arrests to curb low-level criminality and is
guided by quotas or directives from police
command (Beckett and Herbert 2009; Mitchell
1997; Moskos 2008), and “therapeutic policing” (Stuart 2016), which combines the stick
of legal punishment with the carrot of rehabilitative services. In therapeutic policing,
officers utilize discretionary enforcement to
compel wayward citizens toward self-reform
(see also Johnsen and Fitzpatrick 2010). Missing from these accounts, however, is an assessment of the role of complaints through 911,
the primary trigger for police response in U.S.
cities, and other means of third-party policing
(Desmond and Valdez 2012; Garland 2001).
As illustrated in the opening vignette, complaints that result in dispatches create a unique
set of dilemmas, dynamics, and outcomes
between the police and the policed, as well as
between residents and business owners calling
for policing. Third-party policing is of growing importance; in San Francisco, for example, the unsheltered homeless population grew
less than 1 percent between 2013 and 2017
(Applied Survey Research 2017), yet 911
police dispatches for “homeless concerns”
increased by 72 percent over the same period.
Although police command and officer discretion remain key aspects of policing marginality, this article addresses the empirical gaps by
elaborating an additional approach I call
complaint-oriented policing.
I evaluate the sources, enforcement, and
effects of complaint-oriented policing in three
steps. Through an analysis of nearly four million 911 and 311 records and a variety of ethnographic observations, I first argue that “homeless
crises” are produced not only by increased
homelessness but also by a crisis of complaints.
Rather than finding a command-control system
of orders and quotas or an enforcement primarily driven by officer discretion, I identify various ways the policing of poverty is a product of
third-party complaints. Next, I explain how
police officers resolve these complaints in conflict and collaboration with a host of other
street-level bureaucrats through a process of
burden shuffling (Seim 2017). Rather than locking up petty criminals (aggressive patrol) or
pushing people into services (therapeutic policing), officers resolve complaints by displacing
them spatially, temporally, or bureaucratically—
forcing homeless people into new spaces or
reclassifying the “homeless problem” as an
issue for another agency or institution. Finally, I
consider the impact of these policing practices
on the survival and subjectivities of homeless
individuals. I illustrate how frequent and continual policing through move-along orders and
citations amounts to a pervasive penality that
deepens poverty and suffering, as well as how
homeless campers resist and adapt to this form
of policing to secure their survival. Building on
work that reveals how the ubiquitous policing of
marginal groups has detrimental effects beyond
incarceration (Desmond and Valdez 2012; Goffman 2014; Rios 2011), I uncover novel mechanisms through which the marginalized are
further criminalized on account of their housing
and shelter status. Through police interactions
that fall short of arrest, move-along orders and
citations collectively work to dispossess the
poor of their property; create barriers to accessing services, housing, and jobs; and increase
vulnerability to violence and crime by stressing
the already tenuous social ties between individuals residing in public space.
Policing Extreme
Poverty In The City
Two general accounts currently exist in the
scholarship on policing social marginality
772 American Sociological Review 84(5)
(see Herbert et al. 2017).1
A number of scholars have characterized quality-of-life ordinances and their associated policing as
cornerstones of the carceral city (Davis 2006)
and urban revanchism (Smith 1996), which
aims to purify the streets and sidewalks of
visible poverty for businesses, tourists, and
wealthier residents under the banner of
reclaiming public space for bourgeois consumption (Mitchell 1997). Absent a welfare
response, cities have adopted a policing
approach of “aggressive patrol” to hide the
social problem of homelessness through banishment (Beckett and Herbert 2009). Underlying this policing philosophy are variants of
broken windows policing (Kelling and Wilson
1982), packaged as “order maintenance,”
“quality-of-life policing,” “zero tolerance,” or
“stop and frisk.” These methods are grounded
in a faith in deterrence to curb low-level criminality or as aesthetic interventions designed to
signal order and police presence to criminals.
Most often, these initiatives are depicted as
top-down, command-and-control policing
“campaigns,” engineered and directed by
police chiefs seeking arrest and citation quotas, most famously by Police Chief William
Bratton under the command of then-Mayor
Rudolph Giuliani in New York City during the
early 1990s (see Harcourt 2009; Vitale 2008;
Wacquant 1999). For a range of scholars, the
recent intensification of anti-homeless laws
reflects a “punitive turn” (Garland 2001; Wacquant 2009) in the criminal justice system,
under which any previously-existing impulses
to rehabilitate and reintegrate criminals has
been supplanted by more aggressive and intolerant aims of exclusion.
More recently, a critique of the assumption
that policing poverty is uniformly hostile, punitive, and exclusionary has emerged (see DeVerteuil, May, and von Mahs 2009). In his
ethnography of policing LA’s Skid Row, Stuart
(2016) presents an alternative policing approach
toward these ordinances, which he terms “therapeutic policing.” Rather than rote retribution,
strong-armed rehabilitation through coercive
benevolence was the underlying philosophy of
policing in Skid Row. In contrast to commandcontrol directives, officers use discretionary
enforcement through the threat of arrest and
citation to try to compel individuals to avail
themselves of various social services that might
alleviate their poverty or reduce their dependence on controlled substances (see also Johnsen
and Fitzpatrick 2010). According to this set of
scholars, policing is not solely in service of
business elites, tourists, and residents, but
rather aims at “fixing” the down and out themselves. This model of therapeutic policing fits
into a broader set of studies within the poverty
governance literature that challenges, or at least
complicates, the one-sided rise of a new punitiveness. This includes studies that have drawn
attention to the growth of shelters, targeted
social services, and housing for the homeless
over this same period of increased policing
(Cloke, May, and Johnsen 2010; DeVerteuil
2006; von Mahs 2013), as well as research that
analyzes how welfare institutions are becoming
increasingly punitive and punitive institutions
are increasingly filtering welfare services (e.g.,
Comfort 2007; Garland 2001; Soss, Fording,
and Schram 2011).
However, the police interaction described
in the opening vignette problematizes descriptions of both aggressive and therapeutic policing, the key elements of which I outline in
Figure 1. For one, the immediate source of
the interaction was not an order from SFPD
commanders, as often depicted in accounts of
aggressive patrol, nor did it hinge on officers’
discretion, as would be the case in therapeutic
policing. Second, the sanction of a movealong order did not result in a formal citation
or repeated arrests, which one might expect
under aggressive patrol, nor was there even
the slightest pretense of an outcome that
would lead to services or some protection for
the homeless camper, as in therapeutic policing. Finally, the role of the officer deviated
widely from that of “rabble managers” containing the riff-raff, pushing people into and
out of jail, and mitigating violence between
homeless people (Bittner 1967; Irwin 1985),
or that of “recovery managers” (Stuart 2016),
shepherding homeless people into rehabilitative programs to ameliorate individual pathologies. Instead, the modal policing process in
my observations of hundreds of interactions
Herring 773
between officers and homeless individuals (1)
was initiated by complaints outside the police
force, (2) relied on punitive interactions that
most often fell short of arrest and did not
involve services, and (3) was aimed at neutralizing the complaint through incapacitation
and invisibilization.
During my fieldwork, I certainly witnessed
brutal instances of assertive punishment, as
well as acts of coercive benevolence by officers toward the unhoused, that reflected
approaches of aggressive patrol and therapeutic policing. However, neither paradigm captures the far more common logics and
practices of policing homelessness that I call
complaint-oriented policing. Call-driven
reactive policing has been discussed in the
policing literature since the 1970s, but little
sociological research exists on its role in
quality-of-life policing, which is typically
portrayed as a proactive method concerning
how officers manage the everyday onslaught
of calls, and the effect of this policing on the
most marginalized.
This article traces the sources, enforcement, and impact of complaint-oriented policing, and in the process draws on and
contributes to three broader sets of literatures
on urbanization, poverty governance, and
criminalization. First, my analysis of the drivers of complaint-oriented policing builds on
debates of urban change and urban government as it relates to policing. Emerging from
a series of case studies of New York City
(Laniyonu 2018; Vitale 2008), Seattle (Gibson
2004), and Los Angeles (Davis 2006), and
explicitly articulated as a hypothesis by Sharp
(2014), the postindustrial policing hypothesis
argues that intensified policing stems from
processes of gentrification. Understudied and
undertheorized in this literature is the role of
911 and 311 calls, as well as organizations
such as resident associations and Business
Improvement Districts that engage in thirdparty policing. According to Garland
(2001:170), third-party policing, composed of
“a third governmental sector . . . positioned
between the state and civil society, connecting
the criminal justice agencies with activities of
citizens, communities and corporations,” represents “the most significant development of
the crime control field” and yet has been
largely unstudied by sociologists (see Desmond and Valdez 2012). I present one of the
first empirical analyses of large-scale 311 and
911 administrative records, as recently called
Figure 1. Policing Social Marginality: Contrasting Approaches
Note: Adapted from Herbert, Beckett, and Stuart 2017.
774 American Sociological Review 84(5)
for by O’Brien, Sampson, and Winship
I do not analyze the direct role of gentrification or attempt to adjudicate between the
underlying causes of complaint-oriented
policing; rather, I identify the structural and
organizational pressures placed on the police
to manage marginality that extend beyond the
field of criminal justice and how they manifest in police interactions. Following others
who analyze policing as a public institution
responding to community-based actors (Huey
2007; Vitale 2008), I place police within the
dynamics of urban change and the broader
field of urban governance to demonstrate how
changes in business and resident organizations, other city agencies, new technologies
such as 311, and political struggles all ratchet
up the policing of social marginality, while
homelessness and policing protocols remain
relatively constant.
Second, my analysis of the enforcement of
complaint-oriented policing builds on the
scholarship of street-level bureaucracy in
poverty governance. Drawing from observations and interviews with a wide-range of
front-line public workers, including school
teachers, social workers, and police officers,
Lipsky (1980) found that the ultimate
dilemma shared by all was an inability to
perform their jobs to the highest standard due
to chronic scarcities of time, information, and
other resources. Lipsky and other street-level
bureaucracy scholars (Brodkin 2012; Dubois
2016; Prottas 1979; Watkins-Hayes 2009)
reveal how front-line workers not only experience frustration when faced with this scarcity, but they “make policy” in trying to make
do. Although most of this literature focuses
on how street-level bureaucrats “make policy” in vertical relations with authority from
above and a mostly indigent clientele from
below, more recent scholarship points to how
bureaucrats also relate laterally and are both
strained and relieved by the actions and assets
of other city agencies (Comfort et al. 2015;
Hupe and Hill 2007; Lara-Millán 2014; Seim
2017). In his study of labor relations in the
ambulance, Seim (2017:452) sketches a
process of “burden shuffling” to describe how
ambulance medics and police officers “unload
undesirable work” (very often homeless clients) onto each other. Expanding the analytic
lens beyond the question of labor and work
avoidance, I identify additional mechanisms
of spatial, temporal, and bureaucratic burden
shuffling utilized by officers and other frontline workers to reclassify and redistribute
poverty in the face of complaints. I also identify additional motives of burden shuffling
beyond reducing a worker’s caseload, including managerialist goals of improving agency
performance metrics and political goals in
shaping public perceptions of the state’s treatment of homelessness.
Finally, I consider the impact of complaintoriented policing on the survival and subjectivities of homeless individuals. Since the explosion
of mass incarceration at the century’s turn,
scholars have increasingly traced the penal
state’s tentacles, which grip the poor beyond
the prison walls to the sub-felony floors of the
courts (Kohler-Hausmann 2018), debilitating
monetary sanctions (Harris 2016; O’Malley
2009), and the ubiquitous policing of poor
neighborhoods (Goffman 2014; Rios 2011;
Stuart 2016). This article adds yet another set of
mechanisms of criminalization to those found
in previous studies that particularly affect the
unhoused, namely move-along orders and
destruction of personal property. These mechanisms comprise a pervasive penality (Herring,
Yarbrough, and Alatorre 2019), that is, a punitive process of police interactions that fall short
of arrest and are pervasive in both their frequency and lingering impact.
Although the outcome depicted in the
opening vignette of a homeless man amiably
agreeing to move-along without ticket or
arrest may seem banal or even non-punitive, I
will show that such moments are part of a
much crueler punitive process. Citations seen
as nominal to most are nearly impossible for
the unhoused to pay, resulting in debt and
bench warrants that create significant barriers
to exiting homelessness. Property confiscation by sanitation crews deprives people of
medical and economic means of survival, and
Herring 775
the mere fear of having one’s property confiscated prevents people from receiving medical
services or holding a job. The constant churning of move-along orders provoke conflict
among individuals trying to survive in limited
public spaces. Even though each quality-oflife ordinance, move-along order, and citation
alone may seem inconsequential, collectively,
the process of pervasive penality produces a
sequence of criminal justice contact that is
more powerful than the sum of its parts. This
process also diminishes citizenship by cultivating a distrust not only of the police, but of
various state institutions of poverty management and the public at large. Even without
overtly taking the punitive actions of arrest
and incarceration, in what may appear a more
compassionate approach to the problem, the
failure to deal with root causes of homelessness leads city officials to develop short-term
solutions that exacerbate the problems faced
by the unhoused and fail to stop the seemingly endless flow of complaints.
Case and Setting
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, an uneven
recovery from a deep recession marked by
massive deindustrialization, the steady erosion of union rights and benefits, catastrophic
decreases in affordable housing, the defunding of public housing, and the deinstitutionalization of mental institutions all combined to
produce a wave of new homelessness (Wolch
and Dear 1993). In contrast to earlier forms of
homelessness, “advanced homelessness”
(Marcuse 1988) was no longer a temporary or
transitional phenomenon, but a robust feature
of the metropolis that spanned booms and
busts. The racial composition of the homeless
also changed drastically: minority group
members were a minority of the homeless in
the early 1970s, but today they are overrepresented in homeless populations in U.S. cities. Mass incarceration, increasing consumer
and homeowner debt, rising housing costs in
major cities, welfare reform, and the continual defunding of public housing and mental
health services have increased the housing
insecurity of America’s poor, furthered racial
disparities, and increasingly affected families
and those with jobs (HUD 2017).
In response to the growth and persistence
of homelessness, federal and county governments responded in two ways. Homeless services have grown nearly constantly over the
past 30 years, despite the receding welfare
state that feeds the homeless condition itself.
Between 1984 and 1988, more than 3,500
new homeless shelters opened throughout the
nation (Jencks 1995:15). Since then, the number of shelter beds in the United States
increased to more than 198,000, approximately 320,000 supportive housing units specifically for the homeless have been built, and
the HUD budget dedicated to homelessness
has grown from $173 million in 1987 to over
$2 billion today (HUD 2017). At the same
time, the criminalization of homelessness
intensified in nearly every city and county
across the country (NLCHP 2017).
San Francisco is a strategic research site
(Merton 1987) to study the regulation of
homelessness, as it has long been a leader in
both the provision of care and punishment
toward the unhoused. San Francisco pioneered the “housing first” approach to homelessness in the early 1990s, and today it has
more supportive housing units for formerly
homeless individuals and has invested more
money into homeless services per capita than
any other major U.S. city. In the past decade
alone, the city has invested over $1.5 billion,
built or leased 2,700 units of long-term supportive housing, and created more than 500
new shelter beds (BACEI 2019). Yet at the
same time, in the early 1990s, San Francisco’s “Matrix” program was one of the first
zero-tolerance policing campaigns aimed at
homelessness (Gowan 2010). Today, the city
has more anti-homeless ordinances on its
book than any other California and possibly
U.S. city (Fisher et al. 2015). As I will discuss, I found evidence of both how the expansion of welfare institutions increased the
policing of homelessness and the various
ways this policing undermined the access and
efficacy of welfare provisions to the unhoused.
776 American Sociological Review 84(5)
San Francisco provides a case study of how
progressive cities that have pioneered both
bold investments in homeless services and
criminal justice reform policies—including
the elimination of cash bail, financial justice
reform of court fees and drivers licenses, closure of juvenile detention facilities, and other
innovations—continue to regulate social marginality through policing and criminal justice,
albeit through the supposedly less punitive
tools of incarceration and arrest.
This article draws from a larger ethnographic
project that investigated the field of homeless
management in San Francisco between 2014
and 2017. This project included a year of
observations on ride-alongs with police officers, public health workers on street outreach,
and sanitation workers on encampment cleanings; sitting in office hours with shelter social
workers; and working in city hall as the
research assistant to the director of the Mayor’s
Office of Homelessness. I also draw on observations of community associations, including
three years working as a key organizer in the
city’s homeless advocacy group, the Coalition on Homelessness, and participating in
more than 100 public forums, such as community police meetings, homeowner and
merchant association meetings, and hearings
at city hall. I draw especially from my observations of hundreds of interactions between
police officers and homeless individuals in
public spaces, my 23 ride-alongs with officers
from the San Francisco Police Department’s
Homeless Outreach Unit, 11 public community police meetings, eight city hearings
focused on policing homelessness, and private meetings between activists, police commanders, and policy officials.
I pair these observations from above with
an enactive ethnography from below (Wacquant 2015). Over the course of another year,
I spent nine full months immersed living on
the streets, in the shelters, and daily/weekly
“welfare hotels” alongside individuals experiencing homelessness.2
This entailed spending
57 nights sleeping out on sidewalks, in parks,
and beneath underpasses; 96 nights among
hundreds of other men in shelters; and 76
nights in daily or weekly hotels with the marginally housed or more often people just taking a break from the street. I spent most days
that year alongside a variety of homeless men
and women, acquiring the means of survival
through charity, informal work, begging, and
the illicit economy, and interacting with the
local welfare and justice systems that accompany access to shelter, meals, benefits, jails,
and courts. On a weekly basis, and often
daily, I would witness interactions between
police and unhoused people, primarily on the
streets, but also in the shelters and housing
programs. I witnessed arrests, citations, and
move-along orders. While residing on the
streets, I was personally given move-along
orders dozens of time and threatened with
citation and arrest.
During observations I took notes on a
smart phone. When passively observing, as
was often the case on my outings with streetlevel bureaucrats, I could sometimes transcribe in real-time entire conversations and
actions. When enactively observing with
homeless participants, I would take short
notes on breaks, record voice memos every
few hours, and when possible and given consent, audio record conversation and action to
avoid disrupting the flow of activity and conversation. At the end of each day or week, I
would elaborate these into narrative notes.
The multi-sided ethnography created a
series of tensions across these positions, particularly between the police and the policed. I
had not counted on or even sought permission
to ride-along with officers. However, after
presenting findings of a report documenting
the effects of criminalization on San Francisco’s homeless to the city’s Local Homeless
Coordinating Board, the lieutenant of SFPD’s
homeless outreach unit approached me and
said: “I really wish you’d come out and see the
problem from our perspective. I agree, we
can’t arrest our way out of this issue. This
should not be a policing issue. This is a social
services issue.” I discussed the proposal with
Herring 777
members of the Coalition on Homelessness
and with people I had spent time with on the
street. Most thought I should see the SFPD at
work from “the inside,” although many predicted I would just be given a tempered view
of police on their best behavior biased “to
please the ethnographer” (Rios 2011:7). To an
extent this was certainly true. Although I witnessed citations and destruction of people’s
property during my ride-alongs, I never once
witnessed an arrest nor any physically aggressive behavior by police. However, because I
had already completed the enactive ethnography living alongside individuals on the streets,
where I witnessed constant policing firsthand
when officers were unaware of my role as a
researcher, they all knew I had already seen
the reality of policing homelessness.3
What I mainly gained from these ridealongs was a clearer understanding of the
sources of enforcement related to homelessness and how officers understood their work.
It also allowed me to discuss with officers
critiques I had heard for years from the
unhoused and advocates about the policing of
homelessness. This follows Duneier’s (2011)
call for “ethnographic trials” through “inconvenient sampling,” where ethnographers
broaden their observations by including the
people and perspectives that are least convenient for the impressions developed in the
initial phases of fieldwork, in the same way a
prosecutor might call potentially hostile witnesses to the stand.
As I began to see how complaints were
driving the policing in my qualitative fieldwork, I realized many questions that surfaced—How frequently are calls dispatched
for homeless complaints? Are these calls
increasing or decreasing? Where are they
occurring?—could only be addressed by analyzing quantitative data. After finding no readily available data, I filed a public records act
request with the San Francisco Department of
Emergency Management (DEM 2018), which
provided the date, address, and disposition of
homeless-related dispatches. This article
draws on analysis of 605,481 911 call records
and 3.3 million 311 records regarding “homeless concerns.”4
The 911 data include all calls
made between 2011 and 2018 that were dispatched to officers as a “homeless concern,”
an official SFPD radio code that “is basically
for when anyone reports a homeless person
and there’s no other real crime a dispatcher
can select” as one officer described it to me.5
The data also include calls for aggressive panhandling, sit-lie, and trespassing violations,
which are also classified by officials as “homeless related” but have distinct radio codes
from the more general “homeless concern”
code that includes violations such as camping,
obstructing a sidewalk, or loitering. A minority of individuals experiencing homelessness
do commit a range of crimes, demonstrate
psychosis, and create more serious problems
for the city, but I exclude these instances from
my quantitative analysis and ethnographic
observations, which are exclusively concerned
with the quality-of-life nuisance violations
listed above.
I also analyzed data from the city’s 311
system, the city’s primary customer service
center, where people report anything from
curbside cleanup, potholes, or graffiti removal
to a host of “homeless concerns.” I accessed
the 311 data through the city’s public data
portal and included all calls of “homeless
concerns” and “homeless encampments”
from 2011 to 2018. The final section of the
article integrates findings from a communitybased study I co-directed with Dilara Yarbrough and Lisa Marie Alatorre (2015) that
surveyed 351 unhoused San Franciscans,
including 43 in-depth interviews about their
experiences of criminalization.6
these methods provide a relational ethnography (Desmond 2014) by analyzing the process of criminalizing homelessness through
the double-edged perspective of both the
police and the policed, and a structural ethnography (Burawoy 2017) by analyzing how,
when, and why these interactions occur under
the broad structures of state, market, and
community institutions that constrain and
shape these interactions.
778 American Sociological Review 84(5)
A Crisis of Complaints:
The Triggers of Policing
Outrage over homelessness has been evergreen in San Francisco since the early 1980s
(see Bourgois and Schonberg 2009; Gowan
2010), but the situation has taken on a new
urgency of social crisis. In 2015, the city’s
Board of Supervisors declared an official
“shelter crisis,” following nearly a dozen
other west coast municipalities, including its
Bay Area neighbors Berkeley, Oakland, and
San Jose, as well as Los Angeles, Portland,
Seattle, Eugene, and others (NAEH 2016).
Even in “left coast” San Francisco, there have
been increased calls for the criminalization of
homelessness, quite literally. In 2012, 57,374
911 calls for quality-of-life violations
involved the unhoused. By 2017, the last full
year of data collection, there were 98,793
police dispatches for homeless complaints
(see Figure 2). This same period saw even
greater increases in complaints to the city’s
311 service request line. Reports categorized
as “homeless concerns” grew from 9,590 in
2012 to 84,486 in 2017. A portion of these
calls, between 4 and 9 percent in any given
week, are dispatched to police. Most are dispatched to street cleaning crews, which
should also be considered a form of criminalization, as their operations are backed by
threat of a police response and, as I will
elaborate, result in punitive outcomes that
undermine the health and stability of individuals on the streets.
Yet despite this surge in complaints, and
news stories that portray San Francisco as in
the throes of an unparalleled “homeless crisis,” the city’s homeless population has
remained relatively stable. According to the
city’s point-in-time count, the overall homeless population grew only 8 percent between
2011 and 2017, from 6,455 to 6,986 (Applied
Survey Research 2011, 2017).7
Even more
significant is the fact that between 2013 and
2017, when 911 dispatches increased at their
fastest rate, the unsheltered homeless population increased by only 1 percent. In other
words, unsheltered homelessness increased by
less than 1 percent between 2013 and 2017,
yet 911 dispatches for homeless complaints
increased 72 percent and 311 complaints
increased 781 percent. As depicted in Figure
3, which shows two typical weeks in 2013 and
2018, police responded to 1,289 911 calls the
first week of March in 2013 and just over
2,000 calls that same week in 2018, and 311
requests surged from 201 to 1,514 per week.
In San Francisco, the “homeless crisis” as
Figure 2. SFPD Dispatches for Homeless Complaints 2011 to 2018
Source: DEM 2018.
Herring 779
rendered by the media and state is not so much
a product of growing homelessness but growing complaints in a rapidly changing city.
What are behind these complaints and how
do they result in the criminalization of homelessness? According to the SFPD lieutenant
commanding the homeless outreach unit, over
90 percent of police and homeless interactions
across the city are initiated through complaints,
with the remainder occurring through officers’
discretion on their beats, largely concentrated
in the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood, which
hosts the majority of recovery services and
single-room-occupancy units in the city.
Complaint-oriented policing is provoked
externally from three sets of actors: it is initiated from below directly by the citizenry, businesses, or homeowner associations calling 911
or 311; horizontally from city agencies, particularly the departments of public works, public health, and parks; and from above by city
supervisors and the mayor’s office.
The largest volume of complaints in San
Francisco derive from 911 or 311 reports.
Like most U.S. cities, San Francisco has multiple anti-homeless ordinances under its
police code, including bans for sitting and
lying on sidewalks, camping, and panhandling (Fisher et al. 2015). As one police lieutenant explained, “If Mrs. Smith continues to
Figure 3. Spatial Distribution of Homeless Complaint Calls for 911 and 311 in First Weeks
of March 2013 and March 2018
780 American Sociological Review 84(5)
Figure 4. Screenshots of Reports of “Homeless Concerns” on the 311 Mobile App
call 911 because some guy’s sleeping on her
door step, we are duty-bound to respond.” In
2018, an average of 7,623 calls were dispatched to police patrol cars in the city each
month as “homeless concerns” (DEM 2018).
These dispatches derive from 911, police
non-emergency calls, and 311 calls. They are
also dispatched through mobile-app reports
related to homelessness, a technology quickly
spreading in popularity across major U.S. cities. Initially developed to allow residents to
report potholes, graffiti, and vehicles blocking
driveways, in 2015, following New York City,
the app added “homeless concerns” as a category of complaint. The app allows citizens to
take photos of the “concern” and choose from
a host of subcategories, including “well-being
check,” “encampment,” and “clean up.”
Although most reports are dispatched to the
Department of Public Works, between 4 and 9
percent of 311 reports in any given week are
dispatched to the police (DEM 2018). For
instance, each month hundreds of “well-being
checks” reported on 311 are dispatched to
As seen in Figure 4, a caller requested
a “well-being check” for a woman reported as
having “blood on her body” and who “looks
very sick”; the woman was not issued an
ambulance, however, but a citation. For these
reasons, within days of the app’s release, it
was deemed the “snitch app” by those I was
spending time with on the streets.
Anti-homeless laws are mobilized not only
through individual residents and workers, but
also through organizations, including merchant associations, homeowner associations,
and most prominently Business Improvement
Districts (BIDs). BIDs garner an additional
property tax from all businesses in their area,
primarily to fund increased sanitation and
security services. In 2000, San Francisco had
only one BID; in 2015, there were 15. During
my time recycling, panhandling, or simply
hanging out with houseless companions in
these districts, we would be stopped regularly
by BID security and sanitation staff, officially
called “community ambassadors,” and told to
leave the area or else the police would be
called (see also Selbin et al. 2018). In their
monthly operational reports, one BID published data on the number of times private
security guards and community ambassadors
enforced specific homeless-related qualityof-life offenses; these reports show an
increase from 24,101 instances of enforcement in 12 months over 2014 and 2015 to
43,907 in a similar period between 2018 and
2019 (Union Square BID 2015:7, 2019:6).
This amounts to an 82 percent increase of
enforcement interactions between private
Herring 781
third-party security forces and unhoused individuals within this single 25-block commercial district.
BIDs also use the city’s 10B program to
hire sworn off-duty SFPD officers to patrol
their areas. For instance, in 2014, one BID
spent $2 million for an additional 10,000
hours of SFPD coverage (Garnand 2016).
Even with all this additional security, hundreds of calls for service were made each
week for policing and street cleaning within
these districts. Although covering only 5 percent of the city’s land area, 28 to 32 percent
of all 911 dispatches for homelessness
between 2013 and 2018 occurred within BIDs
(Garnand and Herring 2019). During my ridealongs with officers, I observed several community ambassadors and security guards who
were on a first-name basis with officers. On
my first ride-along with officers, we arrived
at the entrance to the Civic Center Auditorium to evict an encampment, and before we
even got out of the vehicle, a community
ambassador walked up to the car window to
tell us, “it’s always the best time of the day
seeing you guys roll up.”
Another collective and privileged mechanism organized groups used to lodge complaints
was the monthly community police meetings
held in each precinct. In the 11 police meetings
I attended across central city police districts,
no issue was more frequent, time-consuming,
and cathartic than homelessness. The complaints spanned a host of concerns, from the
sanitary to public safety, medical, environmental, and economic. Take, for example, residents’ and merchants’ reports from a meeting
in the city’s Castro neighborhood:
I have a business at 2299 Market, so we have
a similar challenge where someone will be
moved from the library and then they end up
in front of our store. . . . I care for all of those
people and I want them to get help, but I
don’t want them in front of my store because
it’s scaring customers away.
. . . a homeless person at 4a.m. rang my
doorbell because they were mad at me
because I asked them to move off the sidewalk earlier. And I realized I had to go
through a fair amount of effort to get their
name. . . . And I don’t know where this goes,
but if cops are going to get people service,
they actually have to know their names and
be able to track and identify people.
So two weeks ago I heard screams, I saw a
women beating her head against the brick
wall of my building, hurting herself. Called
911, the police showed up. The police came
to me and told me she was angry because
she spilled her coffee. I’m like this is nuts,
she was on something. They said “that’s all
we can do” she’d already been in to the
hospital before and turned back out.
These sorts of complaints would be heard
directly by captains who took down specific
addresses. The encampments would be dispersed by either more frequent policing or
harsher ultimatums of citation or arrest. As a
captain in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood
explained to a complaining resident,
Ok. I hear you’ve called 911 over and over
again and this group of homeless folks keeps
coming back, but did you email me personally? No. Did you ever call me? No. So as I
say at each of these meetings, if you just call
911 or 311 all we’re going to do is address
the immediate concern. If we want to get to
the root of these issues, I need all of you to
help us be vigilant. Reach out to me.
Enlisting the public as partners in policing,
the captain made clear the distinction between
typical caller complaints and concerted complaints by organized citizens to “resolve
encampments.” After being dispersed, these
clearances would be highlighted at the following meeting in the captain’s report as a
“resolution,” despite the predictable emergence of a new set of encampments that
would then be brought to the agenda by
nearby merchants and residents (see Photo 1).
Along with citizen complaints, a second
trigger to policing homelessness is demands
782 American Sociological Review 84(5)
Photo 1. Park Police District Community Meeting; Officers Showing Proof of a Camp
Resolution That Was Cause of Complaint at the Previous Meeting (photo by the author)
from other agencies. During my two years of
fieldwork, I observed the departments of public works, public health, fire, parks, and
human services agencies all call on police to
enforce anti-homeless laws to deal with various problems. Far and away the largest draw
on policing resources was the Department of
Public Works (DPW), which is responsible
for cleaning San Francisco’s streets. There
was a tight and oftentimes indistinguishable
connection between the sanitization and the
criminalization of homelessness. Weekday
mornings, three “alley crews,” each composed of 6 to 12 sanitation workers, would be
dispatched to clean areas of homeless encampments; every crew was escorted by a police
patrol car with two officers. In this case, the
sanitation crews guided the policing of homelessness every morning. The public health
outreach workers I observed made it a point
to avoid doing outreach amid police presence,
so as not to be seen as collaborating with
officers, which would stoke suspicion, distrust, and barriers to providing services for
their clients, but several evictions spurred by
“health abatements” issued by their department resulted in a police response to remove
encampments. These are just two examples of
bureaucratic burden shuffling (discussed at
length in the next section), in which city
agencies concerned with homelessness utilized police to accomplish their goals.
The third way the policing of homelessness was initiated through complaints was by
politicians. One day in the patrol car, as the
officer was working down his list of calls on
the dashboard, he received a call from the
lieutenant. After the call the officer told me:
“Well looks like we’ve got to go clear out the
plaza by Scott Weiner’s [a district supervisor]
place. He’s always calling the captain.” District supervisors would often email the mayor’s office or captains about powerful
constituents demanding a camp removal.
During my time as a research assistant in the
mayor’s office, the director’s morning typically began triaging complaints in his email
inbox and voicemail from agency directors,
Herring 783
politicians, business owners, and residents.
Many officers would complain about this
privileging of complaints:
I mean, I’m trying to get through this queue
[of homeless complaints] and it’s like just
because the supervisor’s friend or supporter
has an issue, or some camp near the highway turnoff in his district makes him look
like he’s not dealing with homelessness we
got to deal with it.
In these ways, residents’, businesses’,
agencies’, and politicians’ complaints,
whether individual or organized, triggered the
enforcement of quality-of-life laws against
the unhoused (see Figure 5). Although the
number of individuals experiencing homelessness on any given night remained relatively constant over the past decade, the city
they inhabited rapidly changed. Development
of luxury condos and corporate offices for the
booming tech sector rose on under-developed
land in formerly industrialized areas of the
city where the unhoused had long camped out
of sight and out of mind of public view—as in
the areas featured in Gowan’s (2010) and
Bourgois and Schonberg’s (2009) ethnographies of homeless campers in San Francisco.
The amount of leased commercial space in
the city more than doubled from 5.9 million
square feet in 2009 to 11.9 million square feet
in 2018 (Li 2018). The city’s residential population grew from just over 767,000 in 2008
to nearly 885,000 in 2018, and the number of
jobs in the city grew from 446,447 to 627,915
(U.S. Census Bureau 2018), drawing an
influx of daily commuters. This growth in
development, BIDs, commuters, and residents made homelessness both more visible
and more likely to draw complaints. At the
same time, changes in urban governance (e.g.,
technological innovation with the more convenient 311 phone app), increased staffing of
sanitation teams assigned to homeless camps,
and growing political pressures to address
homelessness all increased demand for policing homelessness, yet the number of police
officers, policy, protocol, and criminal justice
processing of homelessness remained relatively stable.
Burden Shuffling:
Displacing Poverty
Temporally, Spatially,
and Bureaucratically
Once dispatched, how are 911 calls for homeless complaints resolved? And how do police
officers understand the demands of their daily
work? To answer these questions, it is first
Figure 5. Sources of Complaint-Oriented Policing
784 American Sociological Review 84(5)
necessary to elaborate the structural dilemmas of scarcity faced by officers. Calls of
homeless complaints increased rapidly
between 20011 and 2018, but the number of
SFPD officers remained flat until 2017. During this same time, the city experienced a
significant growth of car break-ins and other
property crimes that take priority over homeless complaints. Although technically classified as a level C priority in terms of its risk to
public safety, the outsized call volume and
callers’ outrage at homeless “crimes” functionally upgraded homelessness and led to the
creation of a homeless outreach unit composed of 15 to 32 officers at any given time.
Since 2005, San Francisco, like dozens of
U.S. municipalities, has designated specialized patrol units to exclusively respond to
homeless complaints (Wexler 2018).
Yet even with the specialized police unit,
officers faced impossible dilemmas in working with homeless populations. Not once during my ride-alongs was the queue of homeless
complaints ever cleared. Spending more time
addressing any single call would result in a
growing backlog of new complaints. When
police commanders reacted to the growing
number of calls by dedicating more officers to
the homelessness unit, reducing the response
times to homeless complaints, many officers
believed complaints increased rather than
decreased. As Lipsky (1980:33) observed, “A
distinct characteristic of the work setting of
street-level bureaucrats is that the demand for
services tends to increase to meet the supply.
If additional services are made available,
demand will increase to consume them.” Unable
to resolve the homeless problem, police officers
are only able to manage it through a process of
burden shuffling (Seim 2017). This manifests
in three principal patrol practices: displacing
homelessness temporally, spatially, or bureaucratically to neutralize poverty.
Spatial and Temporal Shuffling
Officers repeatedly told me two mantras
throughout my fieldwork: “we can’t arrest
our way out of this problem” and “this should
be a social worker’s job, not a policing job.”
Booking a person in jail would take officers
off the street, reduce call-response times, and
build a backlog of work. Most individuals
booked would be released back to the streets
in 3 to 8 hours. Shelters were similarly understood as an ineffective means to resolve
complaints. Some officers understood homelessness as pathological, a result of poor
choices, and people on the streets as serviceresistant. Others saw homelessness as a structural social problem and a product of
inadequate shelter, housing, and social safetynets. Most saw it as some combination. Yet,
there was widespread consensus that policing
people into services was impossible or a
waste of time. Expressing a similar sentiment
to the inadequacy of jail, an officer described
the shelter option as equally meaningless:
I can take a guy to shelter, but it’s only going
to be for one night and then they’re going to
be back out on the street. Some of these
people are crazy or addicted, and that’s like
a disease. Who are we kidding in thinking
they’ll do well sleeping bunked with 200
other guys. . . . Policing these folks doesn’t
do anything to get them off the streets. If
anything, it keeps them there longer.
Recognition of the limits of aggressive
patrol and therapeutic policing left officers to
handle most complaints through spatial and
temporal management. According to police
call data, which matched my own observations, 89 percent of dispatches for homeless
complaints resulted in a move-along order,
rather than a citation or arrest (DEM 2018).
As depicted in the opening vignette, in most
cases officers first sought to convince the
target of a homeless complaint to move without citation, arrest, or an offer of services.
One officer explained to me the strategic
importance of a dedicated homeless policing
unit after a full shift without issuing a single
citation or arrest:
The good thing about the homeless unit is
that we get to know the folks on the street
Herring 785
and they get to recognize us. You can usually get someone to cooperate more without
citing. Though sometimes you gotta cite so
they know you’re serious or if the camp is
just being stubborn and not moving to show
the residents calling that we’ve responded to
their call. A lot of unpaid citations turn into
a warrant and that gives you real leverage.
Then they’ll respond because they know we
can always run their name and arrest. But
we’re doing more outreach than anything. I
mean we’re citing, but a lot of times you get
more by doing the outreach part, because
people will work with you a little more.
Officers in the homeless outreach unit did
not have any special training in social service
outreach or crisis intervention.9
The unit was
largely composed of rookies forcibly assigned
to the unit due to their lack of seniority. A common conception of outreach, as expressed
above, was not getting individuals on the streets
into services, but rather getting them to be
“respectful and understanding of their housed
neighbors,” as one officer put it, by keeping
camps clean and most importantly obeying
police orders to move-along. When citations
and arrests were used, they were not issued as
punitive ends to resolve or prevent the offending behavior, or a means to encourage people
into services, but as tools to coerce homeless
people to move. The primary benefit of having
a dedicated patrol assigned to homelessness
was their ability to build a personal rapport to
cultivate cooperation to move-along.
Officers were not permitted to instruct
homeless people on where to relocate, but
they often gave tips on where they might
avoid future complaints. One morning when I
was camping with a small group in the city’s
financial district in front of the construction
site for Salesforce Tower, what would become
the city’s tallest building, an officer explained,
“Look we’re starting to get calls like all the
time from the shop owner across the street,
you got a good spot here, but you’d probably
be better off on the other side, which faces
another construction site” where people
would be less likely to call. When sleeping
out in the city’s rapidly gentrifying Mission
District, officers would suggest heading further toward the more industrial neighborhoods of Dogpatch and the Bayview where it
was easier to stay hidden. As in the statement
above and in the opening vignette, officers
almost always began their request to move by
making clear it was not them personally, or
even the police department, who was initiating the order, but a caller. The homeless and
officers held a thread of solidarity with a
shared frustration of having to respond to
caller complaints and a mutual interest in
diminishing them. At the conclusion of
another move-along order I experienced
while camping with a group in tents outside a
municipal bus yard, the officer apologized: “I
don’t know why they’re calling, I mean this
seems like an ideal spot, out of the way, and
you all are keeping this spot clean. I mean, I
know this is pointless, but you gotta move.”
One of the homeless men replied, “Yeah, it’s
a bummer. It’s all good. I know you’re just
doin’ your job. It’s a shitty job.”
The outcome of these interactions was a
constant churning of homelessness in public
space. In a community-based survey conducted during the research period with 351
homeless individuals across the city, we asked
respondents where they relocated following
their most recent move-along order. Only 9
percent of respondents reported moving
indoors. Of these, some reported moving to
drop-in centers, but the most common
responses were moving to a public library or
taking a ride on the bus—temporary indoor
public spaces with limited nighttime availability. Most respondents, 91 percent, remained
on the streets or in parks. Most moved only
within a few city blocks (64 percent), and
only 21 percent of displaced respondents
moved to a public space in a different neighborhood following their most recent movealong order. With so much spatial churn,
businesses and residents only get a temporary
break from homelessness outside their doors
and so call again. Over eight years of 911 call
data for homeless complaints, 121 single
addresses called an average of once a month,
786 American Sociological Review 84(5)
and 80 addresses called once a week (DEM
One day on a ride-along, an officer pulled
up on his dashboard all the calls at a single
So right here, we’re looking at three months
and at this location we’re looking at over
100 calls. And you know it could be different situations—different people. Like people might be reacting and moving, but then
you get someone new moving in. It’s a shell
One camp of five people I resided with for
three consecutive weeks and followed for
over a year within the city’s Dogpatch neighborhood had a circuit between three spots
they would migrate to when faced with evictions—a piece of sidewalk in front of a
U-Haul parking lot, a grassy area under an
overpass, and a well-guarded spot behind a
stand of trees in a traffic island. In a few
instances during my fieldwork, larger
encampments of 20 to 40 campers would be
tolerated in a single area, and in one circumstance nearly 300. These mass encampments
were often seen as mutually beneficial for
both the homeless, who had more security
and stability, and the police, who saw complaint calls reduced due to greater concentration (see also Herring 2014). However,
eventually some event would trigger an eviction and the dispersal would lead to an
increase of complaints. For instance, after the
mass eviction of the largest tent-city during
my fieldwork, citywide calls of homeless
complaints increased by 30 percent, from just
under 4,000 to over 5,000 in a single month
(DEM 2018). Officers I was going on ridealongs with at the time directly attributed this
increase to the eviction.
Another form of spatial shuffling on a
broader geographic scale was police officers’
use of the Human Services Agency’s Homeward Bound program. I first became aware of
the program on a damp January evening
sleeping out on the city’s Embarcadero waterfront when an officer woke me up to offer a
bus ticket out of town. The officer pitched the
program: “As long as you’ve got someone on
the other end of the line who will take you in,
and haven’t used the program before, we’ll
give you a free bus ticket to anywhere in the
contiguous U.S., some clean clothes, and $10
a day for food.” Such programs are widespread across U.S. cities (see Gee 2017), but
I was surprised to receive the offer from an
officer, rather than a social worker from the
Human Services Department that manages
the program. I turned down the offer and
luckily was not rebuked with a ticket or
arrest, although I was told by social workers
and homeless individuals of such instances.
Later during my fieldwork, I would go on
an evening ride-along officially called “Operation Homeward Bound” with a detail of six
officers offering bus tickets to individuals on
the streets. At the start of the operation, one
officer explained to the team:
The big concern tonight is get easy grabs, if
we can get ’em and get ’em gone it’s a success, because it costs the city dollars, but it’s
services that are eaten in the department
because the people we send out are saving
calls for cops tomorrow on the beat.
By the end of the night the officers had sent
away three people. One had only just arrived
two hours earlier from Seattle where he was
also unhoused, but on his way he decided the
trip to San Francisco was a bad idea. Another
couple, after trying fraudulently to get tickets
to New York City, ended up taking tickets an
hour south to where one of their mothers
lived. Equally telling of the operation’s ineffectiveness was that seven of the 38 people I
observed receive offers that evening said they
had already used the program in the past.
Although city officials count the 10,570 program participants over the past 13 years in
their statistics of people housed by the city of
San Francisco, the program’s effectiveness at
resolving homelessness, even temporarily, is
entirely unproven. During my fieldwork, I met
several people on the streets and in shelters
who had received bus tickets from other cities
to get to San Francisco, and several more who
had used the program only to return.
Herring 787
Bureaucratic Shuffling
Another process of burden shuffling was
bureaucratic: police would reclassify the
homeless problem to another agency. Officers
primarily saw their policing of homelessness
as a misplaced priority that should be handled
through social welfare, medical, or sanitation
agencies and that distracted them from what
they considered “real police work.” Officers
would frequently draw my attention to other
policing tasks they felt were being undertreated due to the department’s legal requirement to address caller complaints of
homelessness. During the Operation Homeward Bound ride-along, an officer pointed to
the dashboard and said, “See that call. That’s
code for domestic abuse and it’s been hanging
there for over an hour. This is what I should be
addressing, but instead I’m on this detail.” On
my ride-alongs, I began to realize that whenever officers spoke about policing homelessness, they almost always referred to it in the
customer service register of responding to
“calls for service.” When they discussed
assignments on thefts or violent offenses, they
would refer to them as “crimes.” Many
described their assignments to homelessness
as a degradation of their vocation, as playing
“mall cops” and “maid service for entitled
homeowners.” Officers would thus attempt to
reclassify homeless calls to other agencies by
sanitizing, medicalizing, and socializing
homelessness. Yet these efforts were limited
and, in most cases, still experienced as criminalization by the unhoused.
In the previous section I discussed how the
city’s sanitation department (DPW) criminalized homelessness by travelling with police
escorts or calling the police to encourage
individuals camping to move from areas they
were cleaning (see Photo 2). However, police
officers would also shift homelessness onto
the DPW by calling for continual cleanings.
Having a cleaning crew power wash the sidewalk a few times a week, or even multiple
times a day, would often convince campers to
find a spot with less frequent disruptions (see
also Hopper 1992:781–2). Most individuals I
spent time with on the streets feared the sanitation teams more than the police, due to the
former’s ability to confiscate and destroy
property, which was viewed as a punishment
worse than arrest.
Photo 2. Typical Tag-Team Effort of Police and Sanitation Teams Addressing Homeless
Encampments (photo by Kelley Cutler)
788 American Sociological Review 84(5)
In fact, the primary way I observed officers
using arrest was to clear property. One day on
outreach as a representative of the Coalition
on Homelessness, I came across a woman
being arrested whom I had known over a number of months. Cindy was in her early 60s, had
serious necrosis in both legs, and was always
much slower to pack up her cart of belongings
than others. As she sat cuffed in the patrol car,
I asked the officers about her arrest, pressing
them as to why she in particular was being
arrested while others had not. One officer
replied, “Look, others are cooperating with us
when we ask them to move. We’ve given her
multiple warnings and she’s accumulating
way too much stuff.” Rather than driving
Cindy directly to jail, the officers waited
nearly 30 minutes until a sanitation truck
arrived to take away all her belongings. When
I tried to save her valuables, the officer ordered
me not to “steal” her property. When I caught
up with Cindy the next afternoon, who was in
the same clothes she had been arrested in after
spending the night sleeping without a tent, she
said, “I was out of jail in three hours and they
didn’t even charge me. When I asked where I
could get my stuff, they told me that’s not their
responsibility.” Complaint-oriented policing
was not void of officer discretion, no policing
could be, it was simply more tightly directed
and aimed at reducing complaints. On my
ride-alongs, outreaches, and time residing on
the streets, I observed police regularly target
individuals like Cindy who had the most property, the dirtiest tent, or tried to delay cleaning
and protect their belongings from being
The powers of the police and sanitation
departments to criminalize homelessness were
intertwined. Cleanings without the threat of
police action were meaningless, and arrests
were much less effective without the threat of
having one’s property destroyed during the
booking process. In this way, the criminalization of homelessness was often masked as
merely sanitizing public space for public
health. However, neither workers on sanitation crews nor police patrols described their
work in these terms. As one street-cleaning
crew supervisor explained, “We just clean, we
don’t make anyone move, that’s the police’s
job.” The officers saw their role differently. As
one officer working alongside this same crew
supervisor told me, “We’re just here to keep
the DPW workers safe. You know they have to
wake people up to clean the streets and sometimes there’s threats or even assaults.”
Another way police would shift the burden
of homelessness to other agencies would be to
medicalize the condition. In particular, officers could call for an ambulance, especially if a
person was unresponsive to a move-along
order and not resistant to a ride to the hospital.
One day on outreach I came across John, a
middle-aged man, nearly passed out at the bottom of a subway staircase, a plastic bottle of
vodka in his hand. A police officer was trying
to get him to move, but to no avail. Perhaps
realizing how difficult it would be to detain
John, who must have weighed over 250
pounds, the much smaller officer said, “You
don’t sound good. Are you having any chest
pains? Do you need me to call an ambulance?” John’s head nodded and he mumbled
something unintelligible. “I’ll take that as a
yes,” the officer said, calling for an ambulance. Although John was clearly unwell, it
was unclear if he had what EMS workers
would consider a “chief complaint” that would
warrant an ambulance transport. Police also
medicalize homelessness by issuing 51-50s,
the California law code for involuntary psychiatric commitment for individuals who present a danger to themselves or others due to
signs of mental illness. This determination
relies on the discretion of the officer. Individuals residing on the streets, as well as medics
and public health outreach workers I observed,
all told me that police would sometimes issue
51-50s to diffuse complaints even when psychotic behavioral symptoms were absent, as a
way to avoid the work required for arrest (see
also Seim 2017:465). However, like arrest or
short-term shelter offers, the vast majority of
holds lasted less than 24 hours.
Finally, police would sometimes try to
socialize homelessness and get individuals
residing on the streets to access social services
such as shelter. This strategy was relatively
rare compared to sanitizing or medicalizing
Herring 789
homelessness, due to the fact that resources
for homeless services in San Francisco, as in
most U.S. cities, are quantitatively scarce and
qualitatively inadequate. During the time of
my research, there was a continuous waitlist
of between 500 and 1,200 people for a 90-day
shelter bed that would take anywhere from
three weeks to two months to access. A single-night bed typically required a 4- to
10-hour wait in line, and some found shelters
entirely inaccessible due to their disability, or
pets, partners, or property that were all
restricted. With nearly 7,000 single homeless
adults on any given night, the city had just
over 2,000 available spaces in temporary
shelters—a ratio of sheltered versus unsheltered homeless populations that falls in the
mid-range of western U.S. cities (HUD
Regardless of an officer’s awareness of the
scarcity and squalor of shelter, or their diagnosis of homelessness as being rooted in individual pathologies or structural poverty, their
prescriptive perspectives were largely the
same. Rather than believing it was their
responsibility to “cure” homelessness through
a paternalistic brand of moral discipline, using
punitive ultimatums to pressure the unhoused
into shelter, most felt this was ineffective and
simply not their job. The few instances when I
did observe officers connect individuals on
the streets with shelter, the officers were not in
the role of enforcer but advocate, using personal relationships with public health workers
who could fast-track them inside. However,
the scarcity of these outreach workers led
officers to avoid even trying in most cases.
When officers did advocate for a particular
person, this would often frustrate social workers who felt those receiving services should
get assistance based on their medical or
psycho-social needs as determined by social
work or medical professionals, not police
officers. As one public health worker expressed
to another on an outreach when scarce shelter
beds were being offered exclusively for a
group of campers targeted for eviction thanks
to a rash of complaints, “This isn’t how we
should be distributing shelter. We should be
prioritizing based on needs and vulnerabilities, not police complaints.”
Even when shelter was expanded, which
one might expect to shift the burden of homelessness from agencies of criminal justice to
social welfare, complaints continued to rise,
and I observed a number of mechanisms
through which increased welfare provisions
instigated increased policing. From 2014 to
2017, when homeless complaints rapidly
increased, San Francisco opened five new
shelters after a decade of building only one.
Although the rhetoric of therapeutic policing
rarely circulated among police, it was a dominant discourse in the political and policy
fields. Politicians used the new shelters to
legitimate increased criminalization. For
instance, a city supervisor told the audience at
a community forum, “I strongly believe that it
is not compassionate to allow human beings
to live on our city streets. We’re investing a
lot more money in services and we need to
encourage people to utilize them and be clear
that camping is unacceptable.” The opening
of new shelters resulted in coordinated police
crackdowns directly surrounding the facilities, and city supervisors and police officials
encouraged residents to call 311. After the
opening of a new shelter in the Mission
neighborhood, the district captain told a community meeting, “We are opening up 100 new
beds . . . so if you see someone on the streets
who could use assistance call 311 and we will
try to get them inside.” Despite the continual
inaccessibility of shelter for the vast majority
of people on the streets, the new shelters
encouraged complaints and penal repression.
The Effects of ComplaintOriented Policing
Most of the officers I got to know did not feel
their policing of homelessness was particularly punitive or harsh. As one officer told me
after a five-hour shift chasing homeless complaints without a single citation or arrest:
We’re just moving people around, we aren’t
“criminalizing homelessness” [flashing air
790 American Sociological Review 84(5)
quotes]. Look, you’ve researched other cities. You gotta admit, what we’re doing is
really soft-glove compared to other places.
Although it did seem San Francisco had
fewer arrests for anti-homeless laws than
other west coast cities, officers’ efforts to
move, sanitize, medicalize, and even socialize homelessness was nonetheless experienced as criminalization by the unhoused.
These efforts coalesced into a process of
pervasive penality (Herring et al. 2019), a
punitive process of policing through movealong orders, citations, and threats of arrest
that falls short of booking but is pervasive in
its reach across a targeted population and in
its depth of lingering impact. This section
elaborates how complaint-oriented policing
fuels this pervasive penality and perpetuates
the urban disorder that it claims to reduce by
prolonging homelessness, increasing conflict
among vulnerable people, and further disorganizing already chaotic lives.
In a community-based study surveying a
representative sample of 351 homeless individuals across San Francisco, we found criminalization to be widespread, frequent, and with
lingering effects (Herring and Yarbrough 2015).
In contrast to frequent statements by proponents of quality-of-life ordinances who claim
that such laws are targeted at specific behaviors
and problem individuals rather than criminalizing homeless status, the study found that fully
70 percent of respondents had been forced to
move in the past year by a police officer, over a
third had this happen at least once a month, and
20 percent on a weekly basis.10 According to
police data, only 11 percent of homeless complaints are resolved through citations, but our
survey found that 69 percent of all respondents
had been cited in the past year, with 22 percent
receiving more than five citations. In 2014,
14,881 citations were issued for homelessspecific quality-of-life offenses.
The lingering effect of enforcement of antihomeless laws is also pervasive. Over 60 percent of survey respondents could not pay their
most recent citation, which resulted in a further
$300 assessment, revocation of their driver’s
license, a bench warrant issued for their arrest,
and the fine being sent to collections. This
negatively affected people’s credit and created
barriers in accessing services, housing, and
work. For instance, having a warrant disqualifies you from section-8 housing and from voluntary drug or mental health treatment through
the city’s behavioral health services. Movealong orders also frequently resulted in the loss
of personal property. Among survey respondents, 46 percent reported having their belongings taken or destroyed by city employees.
During my fieldwork embedded within
encampments, individuals I resided with had
had lost tools, bikes, and computers used for
work; expensive medicines for HIV and Hepatitis C; ID and benefit cards that were key to
their survival; and their last remaining treasured possessions, such as family photos, letters, and priceless mementos.
Most individuals residing on the streets
considered property destruction the greatest
threat to their survival; this always involved
either a police presence, the threat of police
being called, or leveraging anti-homeless ordinances to provide legal cover for property
confiscation. This fear pervaded daily routines. In the camps I resided in, people would
rotate leaving the camp to work, attend
appointments, gather food or supplies, or go to
the toilet, leaving their belongings under the
watch of fellow campers. However, when a
camp clearance occurred, we were limited in
the amount of property we could salvage, as
sanitation workers and police would prevent
us from packing more than we could carry in
a single trip, and they sometimes barred us
from taking items that were not our own.
Photo 3 depicts one such instance: the owner
of the tent being disposed was not present
when the street cleaners arrived, and we were
unable to convince the sanitation workers or
officers present to let us take their belongings.
In another instance, an elderly man in his 70s
had his walker crushed in a dump truck,
despite the fact that those present told sanitation workers and officers that he was hospitalized. Another elderly man I resided with for
weeks in a camp had all his belongings
Herring 791
destroyed by sanitation workers while he was
hospitalized for a stroke. Although we
demanded the workers follow the department’s “bag and tag” policy, storing a person’s
belongings for 30 days so he might reclaim
them, the workers claimed, as they often did,
that the tent contained perishable items so the
whole tent with all its belongings had to go.
The threat of property destruction resulted
in homeless people avoiding the hospital,
missing social service appointments, and
being unable to hold a job. During my observations with public health workers on outreach and while residing in camps, I witnessed
people refuse hospitalization in the face of
gruesome infections, debilitating pain, and
churning stomach sicknesses, primarily out of
fear of losing their belongings at the hands of
city workers. One of the elderly men who lost
his property while hospitalized had called my
cell phone before calling 911, as he lay paralyzed on a city sidewalk during a stroke, in
hopes I could get to camp to watch his property before he was taken to the ER. It was
common for people to miss appointments
with social workers to protect their property,
which would result in their benefits lapsing.
Public health outreach workers were often
frustrated when clients lost access to medicine or services due to a brief incarceration.
Other times, outreach workers could not
locate their clients on the streets to distribute
medicine or notify them they had been granted
access to shelter, rehab, or even housing
because they had been relocated during a
sweep. The few people I came to know who
resided on the streets and managed to get
work were all either fired or came repeatedly
close to losing their job due to missing or
leaving a shift to salvage property from
sweeps. In these ways, the criminalization of
homelessness undermined other state efforts
of socialization and medicalization, as well as
individuals’ personal efforts to pull themselves out of homelessness.
The constant move-along orders provoked
by complaint-oriented policing also resulted
in conflict between the unhoused and the
housed. The state’s theft of homeless people’s
property sometimes provoked unhoused people to steal in response. In one of the camps I
spent months following, the group drew on
their work as informal recyclers as a moral
boundary of dignity between themselves and
Photo 3. A DPW Team Disposes a Tent and Its Belongings Deemed Contaminated (photo by
the author)
792 American Sociological Review 84(5)
“criminals” on the street who stole and the
“service dependent” who relied on charity
(see also Gowan 2010). However, after an
eviction in which they lost everything, each
turned to theft—from people’s vehicles, REI
(an outdoor goods store), and the drugstore
CVS. When it was clear which business or
house had made the complaint that triggered
the eviction, campers would sometimes take
retribution by leaving trash or feces on their
doorstep. What often appeared to officials
and the public as street violence emerging
from the internal chaos and pathologies of
camp life was all too often primed and provoked by the subtle state violence enacted
through enforcement.
The policing of homelessness continually
sparked interpersonal conflict between individuals on the streets: first, by disrupting the
security and trust established within existing
encampments through eviction, and second
by forcing people into territories of other
unhoused people. Camping in small groups
served as a shield, providing protection
against property theft and harassment, and
created a pool of shared material and moral
resources (see also Bourgois and Schonberg
2009). However, it was also a liability,
increasing visibility and the likelihood of
complaints. Following evictions in camps I
was embedded with, we would often break up
into smaller factions to reduce our visibility.
However, evicted campers usually then ended
up near other tents, which indicated a preexisting tolerance by local residents and businesses. Sometimes these campers worried our
presence would “increase the heat” on police
complaints, and they would ask, or demand
with threats, that we move elsewhere. As
depicted in Photo 4, some people would post
signs to deter newcomers and avoid the awkward to contentious interactions these requests
could provoke. Typically, we were begrudgingly accepted. After all, telling someone they
were not welcome on a particular block could
result in having your belongings stolen or, as
occurred a few times during my fieldwork,
burnt to the ground.
Photo 4. A Sign Posted at the Base of an Encampment That Expresses the Tensions Created
between Those Trying to Find a Safe Place to Camp: “According to San Francisco Police
Dept. we have surpassed the allowed capacity of tents and guests that’s tolerable. We at this
time are not accepting new arrivals. We ask you to try finding another place nearby and to
not make this an uncomfortable issue. Thank you.” (photo by the author)
Herring 793
Homeless individuals rarely had feasible
legal recourse in the face of conflict. One
woman who was raped almost immediately
following a police move-along order that
pushed her into an unfamiliar area in the dead
of night explained:
What’s the point? If I called them, they
would have made all of us move. Would he
[the officer] even believe me? The whole
camp of new people would hate me, and
what would stop him [the offender] from
getting revenge? It’s not like I’ve got a
locked door to hide behind.
Similar to how Desmond and Valdez (2012:
137) found among the housed that “the nuisance property ordinance has the effect of
forcing abused women to choose between
calling the police on their abusers (only to
risk eviction) or staying in their apartments
(only to risk more abuse),” the unhoused
avoided calling the police in the face of abuse
or theft for fear of eviction from public space.
In response to complaint-oriented policing,
individuals on the streets developed a particular “cop-wisdom.” Building on Foucault’s
(1977:24) precept that punitive measures not
only repress but are productive in shaping
their targets’ subjectivities, Stuart (2016:135)
describes cop-wisdom as a “cognitive framework designed to reduce unwanted police
interactions.” Whereas Stuart found the copwisdom on LA’s Skid Row centered around
signaling sobriety or working a program to
convince police one was not in need of therapeutic policing, in San Francisco I found a
cop-wisdom developed around avoiding complaints. This not only involved seeking marginal spaces out of sight to post-up camp, but
an awareness of jurisdictional boundaries
between the loosely enforced state property of
the California Highway Patrol or county Port
Authority versus the highly surveilled city
land and private property, an astute sensitivity
to one’s neighbors, and for most a constant
effort at curbing crime and keeping sidewalks
clean and clear around campsites. Some of the
houseless built relationships with merchants
and residents who promised not to call the
police in exchange for keeping the block
secure and clean, which often involved shooing away other homeless campers. As previously discussed, campers would dissolve
larger settlements to avoid visibility, do their
best to stave off new neighbors, and pilfer
from the housed and unhoused to protect their
territory or simply stay afloat. In summary, the
combined effects of complaint-oriented policing and the individualized everyday acts of
resistance against them encouraged atomizing
practices of material and symbolic distancing
through mutual avoidance and lateral denigration. Pitting individuals on the street against
each other rather than the police, policies, or
publics that oppress them, complaint-oriented
policing creates the conditions of an “impossible community,” perpetually divided against
themselves (Wacquant 2008:184). In these
ways, complaint-oriented policing sets off a
dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy producing
that which city officials claim merely to
address: crime, violence, community “disorganization,” and a “service-resistant” homeless population.
Discussion and
This article sketched a policing approach to
social marginality I call complaint-oriented
policing, which contrasts with existing scholarship in terms of its sources, enforcement,
and impact (see Figure 6). First, the trigger of
complaint-oriented policing is not rooted
primarily under police command, nor does it
hinge significantly on officer discretion. By
expanding the lens of analysis beyond the
traditional field of crime control and situating the police within a broader bureaucratic
field of poverty governance, we see how
police interactions are initiated by callers,
organizations, and a host of government
agencies through third-party policing. Second, use of arrest, which one might expect
under aggressive patrol, is rare, and punitive
sanctions are not used to push the poor into
services, as with therapeutic policing.
794 American Sociological Review 84(5)
Instead, enforcement practices of spatial,
temporal, and bureaucratic burden shuffling
are used to manage homelessness within
public space. Third, this policing results in
consistent punitive interactions with state
officials that typically do not result in incarceration but nonetheless exact material, psychological, and social suffering. These
findings complicate existing frameworks for
understanding the policing of social marginality, and they make broader contributions to
theories of poverty governance, urban sociology, and citizenship.
First, complaint-oriented policing complicates the Foucauldian renderings of disciplinary power undergirding the frameworks of
aggressive patrol and therapeutic policing
that permeate the scholarship on poverty governance. Complaint-oriented policing does
not primarily entail “taming” and “training”
the homeless into “docile and productive subjects” (Foucault 1977) by using penal repression to push people into jail, as under “rabble
management” (Bittner 1967; Irwin 1985), or
using penal means toward welfare ends to
shepherd homeless people into rehabilitative
programs, as under “recovery management”
(Stuart 2016). Instead, under complaintoriented policing, we observe how a range of
street-level bureaucrats engage in burden
shuffling, aimed at neutralizing poverty
through incapacitation and invisibilization
(see Marcuse 1988; Wacquant 2009).
I have shown how this post-disciplinary
and seemingly ambivalent form of poverty
governance results in the reproduction of
homelessness, a deepening of poverty, and
ultimately suffering. Expanding the conception of the criminalization of poverty, which
is most often defined in terms of the disproportional impact of mass incarceration or
traditional policing aimed at arresting the
poor (Western 2006), I identified a series of
mechanisms by which move-along orders and
citations collectively work to dispossess the
poor of their property; create barriers to
accessing services, housing, and jobs; and
increase individuals’ vulnerability to violence
and crime. I observed variations in this
enforcement by officers, and variation in
methods of resistance or compliance by the
unhoused, on a host of individual and social
Figure 6. Policing Social Marginality: Contrasting Approaches
Note: Based on Herbert, Beckett, and Stuart (2017) with the addition of complaint-oriented policing.
Herring 795
differences, including race, age, gender, and
disability, which I examine at length elsewhere (see Herring forthcoming; Herring et
al. 2019), but this article aimed to connect the
most systemic mechanisms of complaintoriented policing with its most widespread
effects on homelessness that I observed during my fieldwork. Many of the mechanisms
and outcomes of criminalization identified
here are applicable not only to complaintoriented policing but to the policing of social
marginality more broadly, and these findings
contribute to our understanding of how governing the poor through the penal state intersects and often undermines efforts of the
welfare state.
Second, this article looks beyond changes
within policing and criminal justice policy
toward its intersection with urban change and
governance to explain increased policing by
citizen demand through 911 and 311, as well
as collective forms of third-party policing that
have been largely overlooked in the scholarship. Although the technological implementation of homeless complaints in the 311 app
was largely behind the massive increase in
311 calls for sanitation responses that led to
widespread property destruction and movealong orders, it only explains a small portion,
roughly 6 percent, of the increased police
dispatches. To what degree the increase of
police dispatches for homeless concerns is
due to more people in the city, changing
demographics of incoming wealthier and
whiter populations who may have a higher
propensity to perceive disorder and call the
police (see Martin 2008; Sullivan and Bachmeier 2012), San Francisco’s new urban
development that has significantly reduced
the physical space where people can camp out
of sight and out of mind (Gowan 2010), or
other factors requires further analysis. Furthermore, when considering that San Francisco’s African American population
plummeted from 11 percent in 1990 to less
than 5 percent today (Walker 2018), and that
nearly 40 percent of its homeless population
is black (Applied Survey Research 2017),
complaint-oriented policing provides another
link between urban change, housing insecurity, and racialized criminalization that has
been undertheorized by scholars documenting
the hyper-policing of people of color on the
one hand and those studying the criminalization of homelessness on the other.11
As a final note, complaint-oriented policing
exposes new means of exclusion and fractures
of citizenship. Widening the analysis of the
policing of marginality beyond the police and
politicians to encompass the residents and
businesses who directly instigate the policing
of the poor exposes the inherent yet underappreciated tension between the insecurity of the
housed and insecurity of the unhoused. This
study illustrates how those with access to private property who feel threatened by those
without it are able to call on the police to
remove them, which in turn directly increases
the insecurity of the unhoused, whose survival
is disrupted by criminalization. This relationship reveals the ways “propertied citizenship”
(Roy 2003), a rights-based relationship
between individual and state premised on one’s
access to property, is intimately tied to the
increasingly popular brand of urban consumer
citizenship that envisions the government as
corporation, businesses as clients, desirable
residents as customers and clients, and the city
itself as a product (Brash 2011). The tenets of
propertied and consumer citizenship work
together to permit and normalize city residents’
and businesses’ calls on police and sanitation
“services” to sweep the poor from city sidewalks, parks, and benches. However, unlike
their housed neighbors, when individuals without shelter are faced with far more dire insecurities of theft, violence, and abuse, which are
exacerbated by complaint-oriented policing,
they have nowhere to turn. San Francisco is a
sanctuary city, in part so undocumented immigrants, who may be housed but lack citizenship, may call on and receive protection from
the city’s police without fear of punishment,
but the city’s unhoused, regardless of their citizenship status, have no such protections.
In my observations of hundreds of police
interactions in San Francisco, complaintoriented policing was the dominant process of
796 American Sociological Review 84(5)
policing homelessness. This is not to say
aggressive patrol and therapeutic policing
were not also used, but rather complaintoriented policing existed alongside these previously well-studied forms of social control.
San Francisco has dozens of officers walking
the beat daily who exercise broad discretion
over when to enforce quality-of-life laws, and
every few months during my fieldwork a captain initiated a zero-tolerance campaign in
their district. I witnessed officers justify their
actions as pushing the “service resistant” into
rehab as well as clearing out encampments to
deter more serious crime. However, many
interactions I witnessed could not be explained
by theories of policing in the existing scholarship. Differences in urban conditions and poverty governance will likely determine the
degree to which complaint-oriented policing
is dominant, secondary, or tertiary to other
approaches, and this requires further research.
From my own previous comparative research
on homeless regulation across eight west coast
cities (Herring 2014) and regular correspondence with policymakers and organizers across
the country, I have found complaint-oriented
policing is ubiquitous in medium and large
cities, albeit to greater and lesser degrees.
Expanding the analysis of 911 and 311 data, as
well as studying complaint-oriented policing
beyond the case of homelessness (e.g., drug
use and dealing, noise violations, illegal vending, and other offenses that disproportionately
affect the poor), would all be fruitful lines of
research to better understand the relationship
between urban change, poverty governance,
and policing.
The recognition of complaint-oriented
policing as a mode of governing the poor also
requires us to rethink policy approaches to
reducing the criminalization of social marginality.12 Were the locus of policing power
concentrated more firmly in the hands of
police command, powerful mayors, or the
discretion of officers, one might simply aim
reforms at these targets. The fact that the
power to mobilize policing is much more
widely distributed through caller complaints
and third-party organizations suggests deeper
structural changes will be necessary. Furthermore, the court reforms emerging around
bail, fines, and fees, although mitigating the
problems caused by incarceration and citation, will not blunt the punishments of property destruction and move-along orders
revealed in this article. In light of the study’s
findings, nullifying anti-homeless laws either
through constitutional challenges (Foscarinis
1996; Martin vs. City of Boise 2018) or legislation would seem more effective. Beyond
these defensive maneuvers to decriminalize
poverty, the recognition of complaint-oriented
policing highlights the need for proactive
measures that treat homelessness through
increased public health services, social services, and ultimately housing. Otherwise,
homelessness and poverty more generally
will continue to be displaced into the hands of
the police and the criminal justice system,
which, through legal mandate or relative
resource investment, inevitably become the
“service providers” of last resort.
I thank the homeless individuals, police officers, sanitation workers, social workers, members of the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness, and city officials who
allowed me to spend time with them. I would like to
thank Loïc Wacquant, Teresa Gowan, Armando LaraMilan, Neil Gong, Alex Barnard, Dilara Yarbrough,
Andrew Jaeger, and Fatinha Santos who all provided
helpful comments on earlier drafts. A special thanks to
Jeff Garnand who co-produced the maps included in this
article. The comments of reviewers and editors of the
American Sociological Review sharpened this article’s
Funding for this research included grants from the
National Science Foundation, UC-Berkeley’s Human
Rights Center, the Center for Engaged Scholarship, and
the Horowitz Foundation for Social Policy.
Chris Herring
1. Herbert and colleagues (2017) present three
approaches to policing marginality: aggressive
Herring 797
patrol, therapeutic policing, and officer-assisted
harm reduction. The harm reduction approach is
a nascent model that comprises extremely small
teams of officers in early adopting cities, and thus I
do not consider it in this study.
2. I took various steps to ensure to the best of my
ability that I did not take a shelter bed from someone who needed one. Shelters were at full capacity nearly all the time, but during the first week of
each month there were often free beds due to welfare payouts; during the winter months, with shelter
expansion, one-night beds also became regularly
available. Many nights I would wait for hours
and walk out if it was apparent someone may not
receive a bed.
3. My main ethical concerns of observations on official ride-alongs were gaining authentic consent and
avoiding traumatizing or losing trust among individuals I had spent time with on the streets, whether
as a researcher or an advocate. I worried about the
coercive incentive of gaining permission in the
presence of law enforcement, but many people later
told me that they were grateful I was present and
felt I provided a shield from harsher or improper
4. The 911 data used in this analysis can be found on
my website ( under “Data
Sets.” Addresses are removed due to privacy restrictions of a data-use agreement I signed with the San
Francisco Department of Emergency Management.
5. I later confirmed the accuracy of the officer’s
understanding of the radio code with Department
of Emergency Management officials. Another
benefit of multi-sided ethnography is the ability to
fact-check “hearsay” of bureaucrats implementing
policies with those supervising and vice versa (see
Lubet 2018).
6. Because of the inherent methodological shortcomings in surveying a hidden population (Dennis
1991; Marpsat and Razafindratsima 2010), the survey used a nonrandom purposive sampling method
with the aim of including homeless people from
each neighborhood in San Francisco’s central city.
Survey proctors focused on public spaces where
homeless people spend time, such as encampments
and parks, as well as social service centers including shelters, drop-in centers, and soup kitchens.
This locational assignment ensured a sample that
was not biased toward frequent users of homeless
services or those disconnected from these institutions, a common problem with surveys that rely on
shelter users or soup kitchen patrons (see Dennis
1991). The surveys were completed over two weeks
to reduce chances of duplication. The relative frequencies of homeless people by race, disability,
sexual orientation, and shelter status in our sample
were within the range of the frequencies reported in
the two most recent survey samples of 1,200 homeless people conducted by the city.
7. Although the bi-annual homeless count remained
relatively constant during the research period,
the recently released 2019 count found an overall
increase of 30 percent and a 19 percent increase
in the unsheltered population (Applied Survey
Research 2019).
8. This dispatch protocol ended in 2018 after preliminary
findings of this research were presented to the San
Francisco police commission and recommendations
were made to reform call triage. “Well-being check”
was removed from the 311 app as an option for users.
Subsequently, 311 homeless complaints decreased,
as did the portion of police dispatches, which a DPW
administrator attributed primarily to this option’s
removal. This points to the power of technological and
bureaucratic classification in the policing of poverty,
as well as the role of research and community organizing in targeting these levers of power.
9. Although homelessness ranks as a top 911 call for
service, the only training officers received on the
issue was a 30-minute overview of homelessness in
the city during their Academy training. By the end
of my fieldwork, I had become an instructor for this
10. Our citywide survey comprised a representative
sample of individuals experiencing homelessness
across shelter/street status to match the city’s official point-in-time count. Only 50 percent of those
surveyed resided primarily on the streets; others
resided in shelters, vehicles, or hotels. For the subpopulation residing in public space, police interactions were much more frequent: over 90 percent had
been forced to move from public spaces and 85 percent had received citations, with nearly 40 percent
receiving five or more citations in the past year.
11. In similar disproportions to San Francisco, 12 percent of the U.S. population is African American, 23
percent of those in poverty are African American,
and 41 percent of those counted as homeless are
African American (HUD 2017).
12. For a case study of how parts of this research in
collaboration with the San Francisco Coalition on
Homelessness has worked to de-criminalize homelessness in San Francisco, see Alatorre and colleagues (forthcoming).
Adcock, Rachel A., et al. 2016. “Too High a Price: What
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“Fighting Anti-homeless Laws through Participatory
Action Research: Reflections from the San Francisco
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In Collaborating for Change: A Participatory Action
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Zinn. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
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Herring 799
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Chris Herring is a PhD Candidate of Sociology at the
University of California-Berkeley. His research examines
housing insecurity, poverty, criminal justice, and urban
government. His dissertation examines the causes, practices, and consequences of criminalizing homelessness in
the contemporary metropolis. He has also published
comparative research on mass homeless encampments
across the western United States, housing policy struggles in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, and teaching
social theory. Chris’s writings, interviews, and links to
related research can be found at
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