SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) — A video showing a San Francisco art gallery owner spraying a water hose at a homeless woman on a chilly January day has gone viral, and sparked a city-wide debate over the incident.
The woman was sitting on a public sidewalk a few yards from Collier Gwin’s art gallery in the Jackson Square neighborhood. A witness began recording with his cellphone when he heard the woman scream Monday morning.
“Move! Move! Move!” Gwin can be heard ordering in the video. He sprayed the hose with one hand and pointed his finger down the street with the other.
Religious leaders say the gallery owner’s actions were inhumane and cruel.
“The video of the Jackson Square art gallery owner wielding a hose against an unhoused person is an immensely disturbing image of violence and inhumanity,” said Rev. Amos C. Brown, a pastor at Third Baptist Church.
The witness, Edson Garcia, said he recorded the video to expose “what’s happening through the city. Sometimes you do that to remind the people who we are.”
Garcia said the woman sat on the same block in upscale Jackson Square for weeks. She refused help and wants to be left alone, he said.
“She’s been here a couple weeks. I never understand a word she says,” another witness said.
Police Chief William Scott said the SFPD Investigations Bureau is investigating the case. Scott has not said whether the gallery owner will face any charges. The police chief called on San Franciscans to behave with “civility” and resist lashing out with anger.
Scott said, “The process from here is to collect evidence, interview witnesses, develop the case, and present it to the District Attorney. I understand that there is frustration out there and there is an impulse to act. Right now, what we need is civility. If you are frustrated with a situation, please do not act on your anger. Take a step back and call the police so we can help. That is why we are here.”
At least one person did not follow the police chief’s message. The art gallery’s front glass door was smashed one day after the video went viral with millions of views.
Barbarossa Lounge suffered misdirected outrage because the lounge can be seen in the background of the video. Gwin is not affiliated with the Barbarossa. “The individual isn’t affiliated in any way with Barbarossa,” the lounge’s owner told KRON4.
In the video, Gwin asks the woman, “Are you gonna move?”
Legally, the woman doesn’t have to move off a public sidewalk.
A tweet by SFPD Mission Station wrote that, because of a recent ruling by a federal judge, officers cannot legally move unsheltered people off public property for sleeping or camping.
The tweet stated, “As of 12/23/22, SFPD & other city depts are now prohibited from enforcing SF ordinances that punish sleeping/camping on public property, and from seizing/destroying homeless property. Coalition on Homelessness v. City/County of SF.”
Judge Donna Ryu’s ruling was made on December 23 in response to a lawsuit, Coalition on Homelessness v. City and County of San Francisco, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
Ryu’s order prohibits San Francisco from enforcing “sitting, lying, and sleeping laws” laws against “involuntarily homeless individuals” as long as the number of people experiencing homelessness exceeds the number of available shelter beds.
An estimated 8,000 people live on the city’s streets, according to the lawsuit.
City Attorney David Chiu took issue with the judge’s ruling even before the hose spraying incident. According to Chiu, the judge still needs to clarify who qualifies as an “involuntarily homeless” person.
“Whether the court meant ‘involuntarily homeless individuals’ to include all people in San Francisco who are experiencing homelessness is in contention, and is what the city is seeking clarification on,” Chiu’s office wrote. “Without clarification, the court’s order puts San Francisco in an impossible situation, practically and legally.”
KRON4 asked the District Attorney’s Office whether spraying an unsheltered person with a water hose on public property is illegal. The DA’s Office did not immediately respond for comment.
Gwin did not respond to KRON4’s request for comment. He told the San Francisco Chronicle that he previously called police and social services to get help for the woman. His frustrations grew over time when she threw garbage cans and acted belligerent. The Chronicle wrote that the woman and gallery owner have become “sudden and central figures in an all-too-familiar San Francisco story.”
In a statement issued Friday, the San Francisco Labor Council denounced Gwin’s actions. “Mr. Gwin has said on record that he has no regret, would do it again, and would find it hard to apologize to the unhoused woman. Hosing people is a form of dehumanization,” the labor council wrote. “Especially during this series of thunderstorms in San Francisco, unhoused people should be granted grace and hospitality as they cope with a deluge of rain.”
Supervisor Aaron Peskin described the hose spraying incident as “outrageous.” Peskin said his office is “well acquainted” with the woman seen in the video.
Peskin wrote on twitter, “My office is well acquainted w/ the victim + have been trying for many months to get her support from (San Francisco Department of Public Health). We need SFDPH to focus on sustainable plan for residents who are struggling w/ mental illness + unable to care for themselves.”
Peskin said “vigilante attacks” against the unhoused population will not be tolerated.
Rev. Brown said the incident should be a wakeup call for city leaders. Current services aimed at helping people living on the streets and struggling with mental health are not working, Brown argues.
“It’s past time for the city to fully enact the Care Not Cash program. Care Not Cash was designed to provide unhoused people in our city what they need to survive: Shelter, clothing, food, medical treatment, mental health care, help overcoming addiction – and, most importantly, the dignity they deserve as fellow human beings, the dignity that so few of us show to our neighbors in the most need,” Brown said.
“The disorganized, disjointed and disingenuous system we have now for dealing with the unhoused is enormously costly, and incredibly ineffective. As I see every day around me in the Fillmore, it has not reduced street encampments and the unsanitary conditions that go with them, or open drug use, or crime and violence,” Brown said.
On Tuesday, an ambulance with the city’s Street Crisis Response Team went to Jackson Square and offered to place the woman in a congregate shelter. “The San Francisco Street Crisis Response Team responded to the scene and provided multiple service options to the female,” an SFPD spokesperson said.
Coalition on Homelessness advocates for unsheltered people’s rights in San Francisco. The nonprofit’s executive director, Jennifer Friedenbach, said the process for helping someone who might be mentally ill or disruptive requires an intensive case manager, treatment, and appropriate stabilized in housing.
Friedenbach said, “Ideally what would happen is … they would be assigned an intensive case manager. Unfortunately there’s thousands of people on the waitlist.”
The San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing says business owners and residents worried about their unhoused neighbors are encouraged to call 311 to make a report or go to hsh.sfgov.org.