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  • Writer's pictureVeronica Irwin

When it comes to San Francisco’s homeless crisis, Wayne Justmann has seen it all

‘This is an issue where we just need to show a little empathy and understanding’


SF Examiner

Wayne Justmann, who was homeless in the late 1980s and turned into a homeless activist, in his apartment. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

In 1989, San Francisco had two mayors.

There was Art Agnos, elected by 70% of residents excited by the former social worker’s commitment to diversity and plans to increase affordable housing. Then there was Wayne Justmann, the so-called “Mayor of Camp Agnos” — the colloquial name for a several hundred-person encampment in Civic Center meant to put pressure on city government to provide more services for the homeless.

“Art thought I cost him his reelection,” in 1991 says Justmann. “But that was not my intention. My intention at that time was just to ask, ‘Can you help people like myself who are homeless and want to do something about it?’”

Thirty years later there are 2,000 more homeless people in San Francisco and Justmann, who’s moved through many of The City’s homelessness services and helped design a few himself, is at a loss. The 76-year-old is just not sure how much of what he learned can be applied to homelessness policy today. That’s because when he was homeless, drug addiction and what to do about it wasn’t the epicenter of the debate.

“I don’t even recall us in Civic Center even smoking cannabis,” says Justmann. “I don’t remember anybody at that particular time having any kind of drug issues.” For the record, pot smoking and drinking was at least a small part of life at Camp Agnos; anecdotes were reported in multiple papers covering it at the time. Rhetoric about drug addiction and crime was a big part of the push from some city residents to clear out the public square, too. But nightly news segments about half-used syringes in the streets of San Francisco’s downtown were but a glimmer in Rupert Murdoch’s eye.

Mike Sugerman, a longtime TV news reporter who covered Camp Agnos at the time, also backs up what Justmann says. “You needed something to get through the night, but middle-class people do, too,” he says. “So there was alcohol and pot, but I don’t remember the hard drugs at all.”

Justmann came to San Francisco in 1987, and initially stayed in the Spaulding Hotel while teaching a restaurant hospitality course. But when he ran out of work and staying at the hotel became too difficult to afford, Justmann, who had been involved with grassroots organizing since his college years, says setting up a tent in Civic Center just made sense. That’s because encampment was as much a political movement as a place to sleep with safety in numbers. Sugerman remembers a volunteer police force organized by the homeless, akin to what was seen at Occupy demonstrations in 2008. Former District Attorney Terence Hallinan, a supervisor at the time, would visit the tents on a regular basis — the start of what would be a multi-decades long friendship between him and Justmann. Supervisors Angela Alioto and Nancy Walker came by to visit regularly, too.

A Tenderloin Times newspaper from 1989 with a photo and story on “Camp Agnos,” a homeless encampment meant to put political pressure on then-Mayor Art Agnos, in the apartment of Wayne Justmann. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Justmann even stayed on good terms with Agnos despite how costly the encampment was to his reelection. “We had him work extensively with my staff because he was very knowledgeable and fought his way through the travails of homelessness to become very articulate about this entire situation,” says Agnos. “He was a huge help to us as we developed the first homeless plan for The City.”

Sugerman and Justmann, on the other hand, met when the media-savvy activist asked Sugerman if he’d like to stay in his tent for the night and see things up close. Justmann, who is gay, jokes Sugerman was “one of the first men I slept with without having sex in San Francisco,” though Sugerman says he didn’t sleep much — reporting at the time (and recalling today) that Justmann kept him up all night with his snoring.

That kind of collegiality between homeless residents, the media, and city government is hard to find today. Grassroots homelessness activism is still alive and well, as exemplified by the occupation of a vacant 19th Street home by the group ReclaimSF last year. Groups such as the Coalition on Homelessness, established in the Camp Agnos era, have helped shaped legislation on length of shelter stays and wait times, taser use, Housing and Urban Development preferences and homeless sweeps in recent years.

But whereas people were able to organize around a singular goal when Justmann was homeless — access to shelter — today, activism has splintered. Questions about the extent to which drugs and mental illness are tied to The City’s homelessness problem puts groups at odds over programs such as safe consumption sites and needle exchanges. There’s a prominent divide between those who believe resources should be spent on immediate short-term housing or invested in more time-consuming but longer-term plans. Homeless sweeps have, on multiple occasions, emerged as litmus tests of Mayor London Breed’s leadership.

“We didn’t have to ask for a lot of different services 30 years ago” says Justmann. “We didn’t have to talk about substance abuse, which would have probably been very controversial for some people. Housing and public health services are not as controversial.”

Camp Agnos made homelessness a top agenda item for the media, and a political lightning rod for San Franciscans. Activism had started a few years prior, during then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein’s tenure, with street protests beginning in San Francisco as early as 1975. But Camp Agnos brought the struggle to city government’s front door, raising alarm about Feinstein’s temporary approach to the problem. Shelters were mainly run through churches and private hotels, with little attention paid to upkeep or drafting long-term rehousing programs. In one notorious example, a set of old Muni buses were used as temporary shelters.

Looking at the diverse range of safe sleeping sites, private hotels, shelters and subsidized housing offered in The City, Justmann believes the demands of protesting homeless people at Camp Agnos were met. And yet, whereas there were 6,000 homeless people in The City in 1989, there were 8,000 in 2019, when The City last counted the number of unsheltered residents.

Wayne Justmann, who was homeless in the late 1980s and turned into a homeless activist, looks at some of the old newspapers from his activist days in his apartment. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Justmann struggles to find words to describe the intractability of the problem. “Housing is available if you have the knowledge to go about getting it, and just the existence of housing was the biggest issue that we had,” he says. “But we still have homeless issues, and I’ve come to believe that some people enjoy being homeless. That might sound cold, but I just think some people go, ‘I’d rather be out here in the streets than in a structured way of living.’”

Justmann left his tent in Civic Center when he had the opportunity to move into a shelter, called the Next Door Shelter today, established by a group of Episcopalians at the corner of Geary and Polk. He moved into his first apartment shortly after, where he was able to offset rent working as the building manager. He was also diagnosed with HIV during this time, and began receiving rent subsidies because of his condition. He has now been positive for 33 years, with no signs of slowing down.

He’s still a political activist, focusing most of his energies on improving cannabis policy, especially for patients like himself who find aid in the substance for symptoms like neuropathy. But while it’s no longer his primary project, Justmann has stayed connected to the homelessness struggle in San Francisco, using his networking abilities to connect activists and, on occasion, people he knows to services.

In between his political obligations, Justmann spends his time seated in front of his TV, tuned into cable news, looking out his window onto the streets of Lower Nob Hill from a rent-controlled apartment he’s lived in for over 20 years. In fact, he’s never resided anywhere in The City other than the approximately one square mile between Lower Nob Hill, the Tenderloin and Civic Center. Thus, he’s faced with the legacy of his activism every day, thinking through possible solutions for every unhoused individual he sees sleeping on his street below.

“This is an issue we can see up close and personal — I can see the person sleeping on the couch, or standing in line at Glide. It affects all of us,” he explains. “The Tenderloin is as much a part of the city as the Sunset. This is an issue where we just need to show a little empathy and understanding.”

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