"That's Wrong!" A Letter to Our Elected Officials from a Public School Parent

by Pui Ling Tam, Vice President of the PPS-SF Board of Directors

To my friends: Demand justice. Demand humanity.
— Pui Ling Tam

February 24, 2016

To whom it may concern,

This morning I got to let my seven year-old daughter know that the City doesn’t care about its people. She heard that the City gave people encamped under Division Street 72 hours to vacate, but that regardless of its own timeline, the City arrived that same day as the warning and trashed people’s belongings and then arrested the people who were there.

In her words: “That’s wrong.” She struggled with understanding why people would be arrested simply because they have no home. I had to explain that our government does not always take care of us, and that “order” is not defensible. Congratulations, San
Francisco: your actions on Division Street on February 23rd mean a seven year-old child now knows that those in charge are not right and do not care about people.

People are being pushed to the side in San Francisco right now, with 8619 evictions in San Francisco in 2015 alone (Anti-Eviction Mapping Project). A study in San Mateo county found that when people lost their housing, they didn’t leave the county, they tried to find ways to stay—couch-surfing, living in cars, living on the streets. They became homeless in their communities.

In San Francisco, 71% of the current homeless population used to have residences in the City (Homeless Point-In-Time Count & Survey Comprehensive Report, 2015). That’s 7 out of 10 of the people on the street who used to live in a building somewhere in this city.

And the population of our San Francisco public school students who do not have a home has “nearly tripled during the past 10 years: 844 in the 2004-05 school year compared last school year’s (2014) 2,352, according to data from the San Francisco Unified School District” (SF Examiner 9/25/15).

I can only imagine how many children had a home on Division Street that got churned into a garbage truck while they were at school, trying to learn, to grow, and to build their own brighter futures. The Department of Public Health posted the notice to vacate. The Department of Public Health surely knows about the impact of toxic stress on our low-income, largely communities of color. It is, to say the least, extremely hard to be ready to learn when you don’t know where you’ll sleep that night. De-stabilizing shelter for those who have the least in our community—including our children—is not in the interest of the health of any of the people living on these streets.

The problem the City is perpetuating will become endless. We will push people out of homes as they become too expensive, and our society prioritizes profit over people. We will stunt the growth of those in our schools who lack the basic necessity of shelter. And we will blame those children, both now and as they grow into older youth and adults, for problems we pushed onto them while refusing to address the root causes.

We need your leadership for this to stop, now.

Pui Ling Tam

PPS-SF Board member, Pui Ling Tam

PPS-SF Board member, Pui Ling Tam

To my friends:

Demand justice.

Demand humanity.

Recognize that as a culture, we do everything we can to maintain the status quo.

Recognize that what has been given was not given freely already, and was the least that could be given.  

And demand more.

It takes collective power, political will, and critical knowledge, analysis, and heart to make the change we need.

It’s not enough to be broken-hearted about what’s happening in our city; it’s not enough to be self-defeating about what can’t change, or offer conformist resistance. I want more. We can organize with our folks. We can talk with our children. We can support their learning about what is happening around them, including what they think is right or wrong.

We can write to our City leaders: civil servants in Departments carrying out orders; politicians who serve us, their constituents who voted them into power; and demand actual moral leadership through governance. And watch that they deliver.

And if they can’t or won’t, find the folks who will.  Take the job yourself.

We can elect new public servants. This is an election year, Districts 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, and 11. We have another slate of folks running for the San Francisco Board of Education—which, because it’s a city-wide election, is often a stepping-stone to higher seats in the political office—and the future of this city is at stake. Hold a house party. Donate to the people who will do right by the community. Walk precincts. Listen. Vote.

Work in the system and change it. Speak truth. Be stubborn, and grounded, in why the work is important, not the job.  

Babysit for your friend so she can speak and offer testimony at a late-night Board meeting. Take the other out for a meal, because they need fuel for the fight. Be there when we’re exhausted. Stand up for the ones who are being slandered, sideways or straight on.

Hold our community up. Insist on humanity. Justice, not charity.

Pui Ling Tam is the mother of a first grader at Flynn Elementary School, and a soon to be kindergartener in SFUSD. Pui Ling has been working in the fields of education, youth development, and social justice since she was 13. Currently, she leads grassroots professional development work for educators as a core facilitator of Teachers 4 Social Justice, empowers youth as agents of change as Executive Director of San Francisco Peer Resources, and promotes the fundamental value of public education in our democratic society as the Vice-President of the Board at Parents for Public Schools San Francisco.