Looking Homeless


root - Posted on 21 October 2002

An elder houseless woman uses a hospital library computer and is profiled, assaulted and arrested

by Valerie Schwartz/PNN Media intern

I was at a San Francisco Hospital last week to go to my physical therapy appointment. I decided after the appointment that I would go and see what the hospital library was like. As I hobbled towards the old red brick building and entered through the automatic electric doors into a large empty hallway, I noticed it was stark in contrast to the newer buildings at the hospital. It was dimly lit and for some reason, it felt somewhat spooky. To my immediate right there was a wide area before the beginning of the hallway that led to the library. There was a white sign about the size of a sheet of paper with dark blue letters that said, PATIENT RESOURCE LIBRARY. As I was looking up at the sign I recalled a recent conversation I had with a woman about the hospital library and its security/police. Fresh in my mind, as though we were still talking, I could still hear her saying...

" I am in shock and I don't feel good, he didn't have to do what he did to me" In a recent conversation with an elder houseless woman I was told a frightening story of abuse, injury and arrest at this same San Francisco Hospital by the San Francisco Institutional Police who used excessive force. Her crime: using the computer-lab in the hospital's library while waiting for her prescriptions to be filled, and… "looking homeless"

I remembered reading her expressions that were like a tome of chronicled journals on the plight of a poor woman . I couldn't help but notice her gentle demeanor conveying an innate wisdom as she sat and adjusted the red scarf around her neck and told me what had happened, that at first in the library's\computer room no one had approached her for awhile, that she had been working on graphic design slides, and web designs, and had also checked her email. "Then it happened," her words rushed out in tense pockets, "the librarian came in to the area and said, Will everyone please put up their badges".

She continued, "I didn't see any badges and I don't think anyone had any, I'm not good at fending for myself. I tried to explain that poor people have computer skills too. It was not obvious that I was in a place I shouldn't have been. The librarian then told me to go to the public library."

Her words filled my head as I continued my walk through the scene of the "crime", the Patient Resource Library, I noticed a large desk area for the library staff, no one was seated at the desk. There was a huge copy machine, also not in use. I moved further into the room which was divided into sections of what appeared to be mostly medical texts and medical reference books. The first section had two computers that were hooked up to a printer and although it looked like it was probably for printing research articles, so far I saw no information posted as to who was allowed to use these computers. I continued into the library passing section by section of huge medical books. No one seemed to be aware of my presence or much less concerned if I needed any help. I meandered through looking for any kind of pertinent information that might be posted as to who is allowed to use the library. Silly me I thought to myself... the sign said "Patient Resource Library ". Continuing on I finally saw a sign suspended from the ceiling that said: MICROCOMPUTER CENTER.

I looked to my right and noticed two other stations and three to my left. They were separated by small walls in between the stations. On the wall above four of the five-stations there was a sign posted on a standard size sheet of paper. These signs said: Effective January 24th, the Microcomputer Center is limited to faculty, staff and students affiliated with the University of California or the Community Health Network". Unfortunately if the stations had all been in use the signs would not have been seen, except by the people sitting at the computers. Remember... I was looking for them.

In the aisle between the stations there was a wooden door with a glass window, it was ajar and it opens up into a another computer room/lab that has nine-stations. In this room there are no signs posted anywhere in reference to who is allowed to use it. As I left the room I noticed another sign the same as the others posted on the wall near the fifth-computer in the first -computer stations, it is on a bulletin board that is about two-by-two. This once again is not posted in the most visable place but if you are on your way out and are looking to the right you might see it.

As I looked around, I was brought back to the conversation with the elderly woman who’s hand was bandaged and was wearing a large stiff neck cast.. "What happened next, " I asked.

"The librarian went out and came back with security. I wasn't asked to leave the building. In a instant he was manhandling me, twisting my wrists. I felt my rib pop and he threw me to the floor, handcuffed me, and then jerked me up off the floor. I have Osteoporosis ans Osteo-Arthritis... I was afraid for my bones. My thumb is broken... they said I resisted... He lied, he used a submission hold".

I asked her how much time had elapsed from the time he entered the room and the time he grabbed you? "I dunno, it was very fast. I found it offensive that it was the librarian's call. They humiliated me, absolutely humiliated me. They took me through the lobby in cuffs. He said I threw myself on the floor and she backed him up...I knew I was in trouble". She then told me that she was taken to jail and cited out. When she appeared in court the following morning her charges were dismissed. She then went to another hospital where she was treated for a broken thumb, a sprained neck, and a possible bruised rib.

I was curious to know if in fact the security at this hospital was a part of the SFPD even though in the past several different times, when receiving treatment at this hospital the security staff has told me that they were a part of the SFPD when I asked them. After a few phone calls I was told in no uncertain terms that they weren't. I spoke with a Sgt. at Southern Station-SFPD. I asked him if the San Francisco Institutional Police at this hospital was a branch of the SFPD? He answered, "Not actually, they are just institutional police however they are merging with the Sheriff's Department any day now".

I then called the hospital library and asked the librarian:" Who is allowed to use your library?" She replied, "Anyone can come in and use the library, but you must be a Staff member to check out books". I then asked, "What about your computer room?" She answered, "It is for Staff only".

I called the Administration office at the hospital and spoke to a woman I had been put though to by the switchboard. I asked her, "Does your hospital have a stated policy on how people are to be arrested on hospital grounds?" She answered, "You'll have to call Administration." I explained to her that Administration had put me through to her and she then said, "You'll have to call security."

So now I was feeling that I was chasing my tail I called the Hospital’s Institutional Police and talked to the Watch Sgt. I asked him, "May I ask what your stated policy is on arresting people on hospital grounds?" He said, "We just follow the laws of the laws of the State of California". I wondered if that meant that if a person wasn't literate of the laws of the state would they be in danger of being arrested?

I then mulled over what seems to be a never ending double-standard; preferential treatment, i.e., how people are treated, or should I say mistreated because of the way they appear or "look" and the way they are then stereotyped. I think about the time my thumb was broken by SFPD when using a submission hold and question why would an already disabled elder throw themselves on the floor to resist arrest for using a library computer is claiming, especially when then have Osteoporosis and Osteo-Arthritis? As I seek out a seat in the disabled section of the crowded bus leaving the hospital I wonder how many people are harmed by abuse of authority, especially poor elders and homeless folks, and how many of them are afraid to report it for fear of repercussions. I remember asking the woman who was still in shock from her experience, "Why do you think they made an example out of you?" She answered sounding as if still in disbelief and angered, " I had been singled out because I looked poor and didn't fit in".

Valerie Schwartz is very low-income, poverty scholar and recent graduate of the New Journalism/Media studies Program at POOR. She did original research for this piece for another student at POOR who because of fear of repercussions did not want exact names or places mentioned in this article We are currently seeking an attorney to help with a possible lawsuit based on the facts presented in this story.

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