By Curtis Skinner
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - As many as 200 demonstrators rallied in downtown San Francisco on Wednesday near where Super Bowl festivities are being hosted, protesting what they say are the city's plans to clear away homeless people to make way for tourists and events.
The demonstrators, confronted by helmeted police, shouted, "No penalty for poverty" and hoisted signs and tents emblazoned with such slogans as: "Sleep. It's not a crime," as they rallied just blocks from the so-called Super Bowl City in downtown San Francisco.
The Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers are scheduled to square off in Super Bowl 50, some 50 miles (80 km) south of San Francisco at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara on Sunday.
Shekinah Love, 32, said he has several homeless friends and has been homeless himself before, and added that the city was giving the issue the attention it deserves.
"People are getting kicked off the streets with nowhere to go," Love said. "San Francisco needs a real solution to the issue of homelessness, not criminalize it."
Mayor Ed Lee told media outlets as early as last August that homeless people would have to leave the area ahead of the Super Bowl events.
A spokeswoman for the Mayor's Office said on Wednesday that the city has planned for a long El Nino winter and have expanded its shelter program by 1,100 beds. City officials estimate that there are around 7,000 homeless people living across San Francisco.
Nikki Millett, 25, said she was not necessarily against the Super Bowl, but added: "What I am against is that homelessness has been a huge problem in this city for a long time and Mayor Lee hasn't done anything about it until (the Super Bowl)."
Super Bowl events have been considered a likely target for demonstrators, and authorities said they have factored that into their security planning.
San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr, who has been the focus of protests since the police killing of a black man in December, told Reuters on Wednesday that his department would work "painstakingly" to protect demonstrators' free speech rights.
There were no immediate reports of injuries or arrests.
(Reporting by Curtis Skinner in San Francisco; Editing by Michael Perry)