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San Francisco homelessness battle heats up as Star Wars theme deployed from speakers

A speaker is spotted attached to a building on Eddy Street on Thursday. Locals say the speakers play loud jazz and “circus” music, as well as the "Star Wars" opening theme. | Source: Garrett Leahy/The Standard

The latest development in the battle for San Francisco sidewalk dominance is no longer heavy metal planters—designed to either beautify a neighborhood or block homeless encampments, depending on who you ask. Now, residents say speakers are blasting the Star Wars title theme, jazz, classical and what one unhoused man describes as “circus music.”

The phenomenon of blasting music to deter antisocial behavior is not new in the city, but it is seemingly a first at Van Ness Avenue and Eddy Street, a bustling intersection on the edge of the Tenderloin, the epicenter of San Francisco’s drug and homelessness crises. 

The building located at the corner of Van Ness Avenue and Eddy Street has two speakers right above the bus stop facing Eddy Street on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2023. | Source: Julie Makinen/The Standard

Unlike a Fillmore Safeway that deployed classical music at night to deter unwanted activity, the speakers at 790 Van Ness Ave. play intermittently through the day, seemingly whenever a large group of people congregate along the Eddy Street side of the building, where two speakers have appeared. Another speaker has also popped up around 40 feet away, on the side of an apartment building at 755 Eddy St.

“It’s fucking annoying,” said Oscar Pancho, an unhoused man who lives across the street from the speakers. “It’s like jazz or circus music, or something. It doesn’t work anyway; they still shit over there with the music on.”

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“It just plays the same thing over and over and over,” said Danielle Hardesty, a formerly homeless woman who lives in a subsidized Tenderloin apartment. “They’ll make dog parks for people to walk their dogs, with grass, but we don’t get no respect like that, no space.” 

Daneille Hardesty said she has heard the speakers on Eddy Street playing the "Star Wars" opening theme. | Source: Garrett Leahy/The Standard

Beyond the speakers as a supposed homeless deterrent, the area around the intersection also boasts some 99 planters, by The Standard’s count on Thursday.

Amy Brown, a formerly homeless woman who lives in a single-room occupancy hotel on O’Farrell Street, said in her experience, the music plays from 9 a.m. to around 3:30 p.m.

“I hear it come on when there’s like 20 people,” Pancho said. “Then it plays until the cops come and move them along.”

San Francisco Police Department was contacted for comment but did not respond by publication time.

Hardesty said the block of Eddy Street by Van Ness Avenue is notorious for homeless encampments and drug dealing.

Steel planters line the sidewalks as pedestrians pass by.
Two lines of garden planters were installed near Van Ness and Eddy Streets. | Source: Courtesy Sebastian Luke

“For years, Eddy Street has been known for that,” Hardesty said. “The Tenderloin’s known for that."

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Brown said the speakers have been on Eddy Street for more than a year.

“They were there last summer,” Brown said.

Pancho said he has only heard the speakers playing music for the last three months.

John Oh, co-owner of Ike’s Kitchen, a Japanese restaurant directly across the street from the speakers, said the noise is barely audible inside his restaurant.

John Oh, co-owner of Ike's Kitchen on Van Ness Avenue, stands inside his restaurant. | Source: Garrett Leahy/The Standard

“One of my staff said [the music] made him feel depressed,” Oh said.

Oh said he has complained of drug dealing near his restaurant, as well as graffiti that has caked over the windows facing Eddy Street—when The Standard visited his restaurant last year, a reporter could not see through the windows due to graffiti. However, Oh said the scene isn’t as bad as it was months ago.

“Honestly, it’s gotten better,” Oh said. “Maybe the city’s trying to clean it all up before the election or before the conference, APEC.”

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There are no permits for outdoor speakers at either of the addresses, according to the Entertainment Commission. The Department of Building Inspection said the speakers would require building and electrical permits, neither of which are on file in the department’s online permit tracker.

Jennifer Friedenbach, head of the Coalition on Homelessness, said the speaker systems are uncommon in San Francisco but believes that they’re a tactic meant to deter homeless people from settling on certain blocks.

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, sits in her office in San Francisco on Dec. 14, 2022. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

“We’ve heard of this as an anti-homeless measure,” Friedenbach said. “I don’t think it’s particularly effective. [Homeless] people don’t have anywhere to go and loud music doesn't change that.”

Cristin Evans, who sits on the Homeless Oversight Commission, said that a permit is needed to broadcast amplified sounds, including music, through a fixed speaker system. Evans, who owns two businesses, said that it’s appropriate for a business to play music, but said the speakers on Eddy Street wouldn't fit the bill.

“It doesn’t seem like the person doing this is doing it for public enjoyment,” Evans said. “Either way, they would need a permit for that.”

A real estate firm seeking to lease the vacant commercial property at 790 Van Ness Ave. was contacted for comment.