According to official figures, San Francisco’s homeless population was around 7,750 people in 2022, with 57 per cent living outside officially sanctioned shelters.
Drugs also plague the area. San Francisco’s UN Plaza – about 1.6km (1 mile) from the Moscone Centre – saw more reported overdoses each year from 2018 to 2022 than any other block in the city.
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Despite San Francisco’s move to clear its unhoused population around the site of the summit, there were still homeless people in the area on Tuesday, a day before Biden and Xi meet to hash out issues from AI governance to tensions over Taiwan.
California Governor Gavin Newsom – a possible future presidential candidate who visited Beijing in October and met Xi – addressed the issue of moving on homeless people ahead of the Apec summit at a press conference earlier this month.
“I know folks say, “Oh, they’re just cleaning up this place because all these fancy leaders are coming into town. That’s true because it’s true,” Newsom said. But he also insisted the removals were part of the broader “Clean California” project that has moved some 3,300 encampments since 2021.
The city’s homelessness and supportive housing department said it would not be expanding shelter capacity during Apec but would allocate funding for 300 new beds as winter approached.
San Francisco’s downtown area has been a favourite punching bag in recent months for the US right-wing media, which cites homelessness and illicit drug use as by-products of liberal policies in the Democrat-controlled city.
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As Apec approached, Chinese state media – which sometimes uses negative overseas examples to showcase China’s system – ridiculed the city’s social problems. “San Francisco hogs limelight for wrong reasons,” read a China Daily headline in July.
Global Times commentator Hu Xijin asked: “Why doesn’t the US put up some money to resettle these homeless people?”
Closer to home, San Francisco activists wanted the money spent on the summit to help marginalised communities instead.
Local organiser Joemae Santos said residents would see little benefit from the US$20 million in sponsorship agreements to fund the event. They “will only benefit the political elite and the wealthy”, she wrote on a blog.
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Pamela Holmon, executive director of San Francisco’s Project Homeless Connect, said the city had “provided a lot of options and a lot of pathways to resources for those that were encountered on the street”.
“Everyone that has been in an encampment was offered shelter access services directly by San Francisco’s city and county emergency response team,” she said. Holmon also noted that the level of homelessness had not increased around her office, about 1.6km (1 mile) from the Moscone Centre.
San Francisco is also on a tourism drive, offering free or discounted tickets for boat trips, art exhibitions, Chinatown restaurants and historical tours to showcase its stunning scenery and long record as a gateway to the Indo-Pacific.
“I love my city,” said Curtiss Hayden, a “welcome ambassador” in an orange jacket printed with an image of the Golden Gate bridge. “It’s a world-class city, people who live here get along even if we have a few issues.”
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Beijing made a similar effort to put its best foot forward in 2014, enlisting 400,000 officials to cut smog and shut down factories ahead of its own Apec summit.
While Chinese authorities do not face the fierce public backlash experienced by US politicians for heavy-handed policies ahead of major international conclaves or visits, there was indirect criticism on China’s social media platforms.
Internet users coined the term “Apec Blue” to describe the temporary clear skies over the capital that resulted from the factory closures and other measures. They also said the picture-perfect conditions staged for foreigners should be extended permanently for locals.