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How fighting for our survival prepared me for today

By Chris Block, CHI Director

In this month of Pride, fifty-one years after Stonewall patrons rioted against police harassment and brutality, the gay community has come out for good. We emerged from the HIV/AIDS epidemic – still carrying scars and grief – stronger, more resilient and more connected. But the liberation struggle is far from complete: yet another generation of Black leaders are crying out against police violence and the chronic devaluation of Black lives. After spending my career as an affordable housing developer fighting to reduce homelessness, I have witnessed this chronic devaluation drive decision-making that causes disproportionate suffering and risk to Black lives. This moment is grim, but living each day in the City that led the fight against HIV/AIDS informs my unshakable belief that we can address homelessness in San Francisco in a racially equitable manner, and that we will.

My partner Thomas and I would come up to San Francisco when we were young and at first it was quite grand. I remember going to a “gay” restaurant for the first time in my life; it felt like I had made it. Increasingly, as the plague took hold, the area around the Castro became like an outdoor nursing home where you would see the same people walking around getting sicker and sicker before eventually dying. Or you would see someone one week and they would be dead the next — the Bay Area Reporter (BAR), our gay newspaper, was filled with page after page of deaths in the obituary section.

I can still remember—it was a beautiful SF afternoon, with the sun shining brightly through the breeze—I was reading the BAR at Cafe Flore, and it seemed somehow lighter. There had been fewer and fewer obituaries, and on that day, there were none.

The substantial progress we have made towards ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic was not simply driven by technical, medical innovation. Sure, condoms and antiviral medications remain necessary tools to prevent and cure HIV/AIDS, but it was a shift in the public consciousness, beginning at Stonewall and continuing through decades, that drove our society to develop those solutions and deploy them with a “do whatever it takes” approach. We survived because we made our neighbors – and the American public – see that we were human beings with inherent value.

Despite generations of uprisings and years of proclaiming that “Black Lives Matter,” systemic racism remains entrenched. The best way I know to commemorate Pride in the midst of this national reckoning will be to once more force a change in the narrative, and cement the inherent value of Black lives in our public systems and our advocacy efforts.

Systemic racism stands between us and a San Francisco where no one sleeps outside at night. 36% of people experiencing homelessness in SF are Black, even though Black San Franciscans account for only 6% of our community. It can never be the norm that children of God with inherent worth as human beings sleep on the ground outside. We must commit to seeing the survival of our unhoused neighbors as integral to the survival of our community.

As we fight to reject and replace a system that de-values Black lives, I will center the effort to provide unhoused people homes with services, and to eradicate the intolerable racial disparities in who experiences homelessness. Our work at the Chronic Homelessness Initiative at Tipping Point, from funding high-leverage programs to advocating for policy change, must assert the value of Black lives and the inherent human worth of people experiencing homelessness. We must declare with all the force and certainty that we unleashed in response the HIV/AIDS pandemic that Black Lives Matter. Only then can San Francisco emerge from COVID-19 on track towards being a City where everyone has a safe and stable home.

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