Camps on Harrison. Photo by Lydia Chávez

On any given morning in the Mission’s northeast corridor, the homeless have set up multicolored REI tents in encampments that stretch entire blocks. On streets like Shotwell between 16th and 17th, the tents will remain all day. On others, like Folsom between 18th and 19th or Treat between 17th and 19th, the homeless will pack up during the day, but not always.

Residents and local businesses — some of whom are sympathetic to the homeless — say the growing numbers have become a problem. Regardless, the men and women living in the tents, police said, are likely here to stay.

“Ten years ago, the streets were really rough,” said Andrea Combet, who lives on Shotwell with her husband and daughter. “But now, it’s worse in a totally different way. There’s been a very marked increase in tent encampments. They [homeless people] weren’t living on the streets as much then.”

Combet said the “more permanent situation” has developed over the last year or two.

At the August community meeting at the Mission Station, Captain Daniel Perea said that enforcement is ineffective because it only temporarily displaces the encampments. Further enforcement, he added, “is not going to correct this,” since officers (unable to physically relocate people) are left with the ineffective option of handing out fines.

“I could go to all these places everyday and give tickets to everybody,” he said. “But if I give someone who’s homeless a citation, they’re not gonna stop. And nine out of 10 times they say no to shelters. We just have no answer to this.”

Combet said the growing number of tents creates a nuisance. Homeless people are often “breaking glass, screaming obscenities, and getting in altercations with each other,” all of which wake the family up in the middle of the night “at least once a week,” according to Combet.

But the family’s house, flanked by the Mission Neighborhood Health Clinic and the limousine firm RLM Transportation, is the only residential unit on that block of Shotwell. And Combet acknowledged that because the area is primarily light industry it’s “very appealing to tent encampments.”

The police agree. Captain Perea recalled an encounter he once had with a homeless man in the neighborhood. “I heard something I’ll never forget my entire life,” Perea said. “A man said to me: ‘You know what, I know people don’t want to see us, but we gotta be somewhere. This area is industrial, we don’t see any houses. We’re trying to stay out of the way.’”

That makes the Mission Creek neighborhood attractive to the homeless — who aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

The Mayor’s June 2014 report on homelessness estimated that the number of chronically homeless residents at 1,977, down from a peak of 4,039 after the 2008 recession. The report cites 2,699 new units of housing for the chronically homeless between 2007 and 2013, but adds that only 407 units are “planned and in the pipeline” for the next three years.

“The truth is there’s nowhere we can put our folks,” said Andrea Combet’s husband Gilles, speaking at the same police community meeting. Gilles, who was homeless for some time in his youth, questioned the commitment of city government to tackling homelessness, asking “As a city, are we really compassionate? Who are we to not protect these people?”

Camps on Shotwell. Photo by Lydia Chávez

Martin D., who works at the Ocean Door and Sash Co. at the corner of 17th and Shotwell and was homeless for two years, said that he hasn’t had any problem on this block and that he’s sympathetic, since there are so few avenues available to homeless. “There’s not a lot of places for these people to go,” he said. “You get hauled out a lot, and a lot of these people are disabled or homeless. There’s just no support system for them.”

Gilles also said that he had no problems with the encampments per se, and that they’ve always existed on the block in one form or another. The problem, he said, is that they are growing in size. Before, there were two or three tents; now, there are six or seven, and that number keeps growing, he said, unless there’s constant pressure for them to move.

Others, however were insistent that something needs to happen.

A “concerned citizen” employee at RLM Transportation said that homeless people enter their garage “quite often” to “steal whatever they can.” This is usually the bags and briefcases that their drivers leave near the doors, which are immediately retrieved. “Our chauffeurs have to chase them down,” the employee said.

And Lan Le, who opened Jobila Cafe a few weeks ago on the corner of 17th and South Van Ness, said that tents are often set up right outside her place and that she’s received a notice from the Department of Public Works to scrub the sidewalk clean of grease stains, which she says, are left by the encampments. “What would help is if you could chase the homeless away,” she added.

Perea called homelessness the “single most frustrating thing” about his job because “homelessness is not a crime, and the police cannot and will not eliminate it.” Instead, he said, efforts should be made to “have some compassion” and “give [homeless people] a place that can last.”

To this end, officers frequently partner with the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center (MNRC), the mayor’s Housing Opportunities, Partnerships and Empowerment office (HOPE), and the new Community Ambassadors program to guide people to different services. But the homeless are often wary of staying in shelters or using the showers provided by the MNRC or programs like Lava Mae, which provides free showers to the homeless from their mobile bus.

“You’re not guaranteed a bed in those shelters, and once I was 30 minutes late and they kicked me out,” said 62-year-old David Lee, who just moved to San Francisco five months ago but has been homeless for years throughout the United States. “You can only have a limited amount of stuff. At Lava Mae they don’t let you bring in your stuff, and it could be gone when you come out,” he added. (Lava Mae does allow you to bring your belongings inside the bus, and has at least four staff outside guarding possessions if you elect not to.)

Marlise Williams, who is staying with Lee on the street, said she doesn’t like using shelters because they’re often dangerous, and that it almost seems safer being out on the street. “In there, if you got something they want, they goin’ take it. It’s survival of the fittest.”

Others agreed, pointing out the curfews enforced at the shelter, the impermanence of the stay, and the danger of losing one’s carefully accumulated possessions. What’s really required, Williams and Lee said, was a way to get them off the street and into a permanent housing and work environment.

“San Francisco is the worst place to be homeless right now,” Lee said. “I want me a place, I need help, I can’t work. We need help. People who work, help us!”

Leah Filler, a community engagement manager at Lava Mae, the mobile shower unit, said she understands the frustration that homeless people have with service providers. “Their automatic response is not to trust us,” she said. “People have different experiences with services, and a lot of it is negative. And this could be for any number of reasons: something small like an interpersonal issue, or their stuff is stolen, or they get kicked out of a shelter.”

The real issue, however, remains the dearth of permanent housing in the city. Bevan Dufty, the director of HOPE, says that with 97 percent of shelters at capacity and with stabilization care management (a service to temporarily house and help high-risk individuals) with “only a handful” of units available, it’s a “challenging time” for the homeless in San Francisco.

“We do need more permanent housing in the city,” he said, adding that the city expects to reach its 10-year-goal of creating 3,000 units for the chronically homeless by next year. “We’re opening a building for families in the next month, and in November we’re opening 130 units for homeless veterans,” he said, adding that a proposal to establish another 100-bed shelter is in the works.

But even if the additional 300 units are created in time, it will hardly put a dent in the 3,401 unsheltered homeless (of 6,436 total) that currently roam San Francisco streets. Without a more serious commitment to the creation of permanent housing, the only recourse for the homeless is what’s already available, leading Dufty to say that, for now, “engaging people with services is the best way to help them exit homelessness.”

Join the Conversation

56 Comments

  1. The reasons for homelessness are plenty and it is extremely sad. However, to best serve the homeless, shouldn’t the city try to first, get a full head count? It seems like we have burgeoning numbers by the week. All those homeless should be issued an ID, so they can then be catered to through a system that should be designed to transition the homeless out into jobs and low income housing. Some of the streets are so filthy, they need hazmat crews to clean them up. It is a terrible tragedy that in this ‘first world’ city, there are worse conditions than I’ve seen in most ‘third world’ situations in South Asia, Africa, and other poor countries in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s an appalling case of looking the other way. We do need to care for the people we can account for, all others who seem to filter into San Francisco need to be dispatched to wherever it is they are coming from so they can be catered to in their cities. Whatever, but this is a national disgrace.

  2. Finally, an article on the homeless issue. This is obviously a giant problem that the city seemingly is doing next to nothing about. Thanks for this article, I hope ML continues to explore this intelligently.

    1. Ben, why do you say the city does nothing for the homeless when the annual budget for the homeless is over $160 million a year? That’s a massive spend.

      The problem may well be that we do too much for the homeless, relative to other cities, and that as a result SF becomes a mecca for them. In fact, one of the homeless people cited in this article says that he only came to SF five months ago. I would have liked an exploration of why he came here, and from where.

      The article says there are 3,400 homeless people in the city who are not in shelters. So suppose the city spent a billion or so dollars building homes for those 3,400. Can you guess what would happen? 3,400 more would show up, because word would get out that in SF you can get a free home just for showing up.

      Throwing money at these folks isn’t the solution; it’s the problem.

      1. The $160 million figure means little more than cheap propaganda points. What does the money get spent on? How much of it actually reaches the proposed beneficiaries (in relation to how much is skimmed off by city contractors etc.)? How much is the $160 million in relation to what’s needed? You make it seem as if the homeless are to blame. But there were no homeless in SF (hobos yes, homeless no) before 1982. It didn’t just happen. Homeless people didn’t suddenly materialize like they came from Mars. Homelessness is a direct result of deliberate federal government policy. You make the obvious point that the issue cannot be solved on a local level. It is a national issue and will take national leadership of the kind we have not witnessed in 5 or six decades to solve it. Money is not the solution. Politics is the cause of the problem and the route to its resolution.

        1. Homelessness is a national problem – one too big for SF to tackle on it’s own. Our reward for being compassionate are quality of life issues. I understand that homeless people are people that deserve to exist but at the same time I’m not happy to see them passed out on sidewalks, leaving trash in their wake, and defecating on sidewalks

        2. Not very much reaches those it is supposed to help. Most of it goes into the pockets of people like Randy Shaw, who repays Ed Lee by writing puff piece on his BeyondChron website.

          1. You are accusing people of committing serious crimes. You are accusing the mayor of giving public money to a writer in exchange for favorable coverage, and accusing Randy Shaw of accepting payments of public program funds in exchange for writing favorably about the mayor and perhaps others.
            Whether one agrees with the mayor or not, or agrees with Randy Shaw or not, that’s a pretty irresponsible and perhaps actionable thing to do in this space unless you have some evidence.
            @Mission Loc@l, Lydia Chavez, you going to leave that comment up?

  3. Bevan Dufty says, “engaging people with services is the best way to help them exit homelessness” … Fine, but according to Perea, “nine out of ten times they say no to shelters.”

    So how do you make someone accept help if they don’t want help?

  4. So, about a half a billion a year spent on the homeless and the non profits with no end in sight. Wonderful.

    1. Those “non-profits” are very profitable and they count on having homeless forever to ensure those profits! Hence the Homeless Industrial Complex ! Only a new responsible voting pattern, to get rid of the enabling stupidvsors, will dislodge this nightmare

      1. Interesting. Many countries have had universal health care and education for a long while. They help their mentally ill, instead of relegating them to the streets and in and out jail. Ah, speaking of prison, the US has the highest incarceration rates in the world, and once you’re down that path there is virtually no going back. And increasingly others have decriminalized drug use and instead spend money on treatment and training. They also have restrooms available for the public, even if for a small fee. Guns and the media are involved too …

        Look at the homeless here and ponder deeply what could be their precise route back into ‘your’ society?

        The US this all backwards. The philosophy is that all the ‘used up’ people will either die on the street, in prison, or some ghetto, to be replaced by the next waves of eager recruits lured by false promises. On the other hand, if you’re affluent, then the dice keep rolling in your favor. Just look at our current housing bubble … A pile of poo in front of million plus households is about as bad is it gets for them …

        SF is somewhat of exception in this country, no surprise that its a destination for the down and out … as such it is reflective of the country at large.

  5. I would rather that the city spent money on the *middle* class, who have jobs and who contribute to society, but have a hard time living in our expensive city. Affordable housing for those who work would be my priority. First show that you have something to contribute, and then the city can help — but throwing our hard won taxes away on an infinite supply of homeless is just insane. They will just keep moving here from elsewhere looking for an easy ride. Back in the midwest in the 80’s I remember bums dreaming about hitchhiking out to SF because they heard that it was easy to live on the streets out here…… that is the source of our problem!

  6. As we’ve heard from affluent property owners many times on this site… everyone is looking for an angle to get ahead. Moreover, most of California, and the country, is still economically depressed so just like the 20 year olds flock here to become the next tech billionaire, people who are down and out arrive to get some basic services and literally scrape a living on the streets. Just like the affluent migrating here, they also could care less what the price of housing and cost of living here is.

    Barring ‘eligibility’ checkpoints for entry into the city, SF has no means (and no right) to keep anyone out.

    Homeless encampments being a poignant sign of inequality, they are here to stay and are likely only to get bigger. Just another overt sign that we have regressed to a robber baron age.

    It is remarkable that so many poor countries have so few homeless in comparison, it is really a quintessential American product and is widely seen as reflective of our moral compass.

    1. Other countries don’t allow this kind of behavior.If it’s a “moral” issue at all it reflects on the morals of the homeless and not on the morals of self enabled people, self supporting people are not the problem, the homeless are! Thinking that we have a moral obligation to support these people is why IT WILL ONLY GET WORSE !

  7. At a minimum, for the sake of public health, at any site with people living on sidewalks, porta potties and trash containers should be provided (by DPW?).

  8. Lets clarify whom are the homeless, as this word is a generality. A percentage are down on their luck due to economic factors like losing a job, this is the smallest %, next there is a percentage with mental issues, the largest slice of this pie are the street people, addicts be it alcohol or street drugs and young or old panhandlers.
    Solutions, house and give job training as needed to the first group, as most will rebound fast.
    the second group need care, a mental institution or facility that will care for them. Laura’s Law needs to be applied.
    The biggest group the street people, these are the most difficult as living on and on and off the streets is a way of life for them. Most don’t want to change their life style. Police to enforce existing laws, sit lie, aggressive panhandling etc.

  9. Then they get drunk and poop in front of my house. I shovel it up with some cardboard and hose it down with Lysol. Try doing that a few times and then be sympathetic to the encampments.

  10. As the cost of living in SF increases, homelessness will only increase. Think of it as the byproduct of capitalism.

    1. No, it’s a bi-product of an overly-tolerant local government. There used to be tons of street people and drug addicts meandering the streets of NYC harassing passers-by and defecating on the streets. Then Giuliani cleaned up the city by changing policies. Now the city is a lot cleaner and safer, and you’ll never see a homeless encampment blocking an entire sidewalk. It’s time for this city to embrace similar policies, because the current situation means that one small but volatile segment of the city’s population holds our streets hostage from everyone else living here who wants to safely use them. That’s an abomination. Everyone from Bevan Dufty to Mission Local wants to cannonize the vagrants who wander our streets, but those who work in local social services know that the majority of these individuals reject help, reject rules, abuse drugs and/or alcohol, and pose a threat to the safety and security of everyone else in this city. If so many of these individuals choose to stay on the streets rather than take advantage of services, yet they make it miserable for everyone else who works hard, pays rent, and just wants to be able to walk safely down the sidewalk without being attacked by meth-heads or have glass bottles thrown at them by lifetime drug abusers, why isn’t the city changing the way they approach this problem? Maybe more services offered isn’t the solution. If they don’t want services, fine, remove them from the city. Add more lighting to the streets. Clean those sidewalks with pressure hoses at night. I guarantee no one will want to sleep there while that’s happening. Let the chronic homeless know that their choices are to take advantage of those services, or leave.

  11. Where do they get the money for such nice tents and all those bikes?
    I appreciate the homeless aspect but the drug dealing, syringes and needles left lying on the street and
    the cracked out arguments and loud blaring music, no, sorry I don’t accept that.
    Some of us own property here and have done for years. This is a blight on the neighborhood that needs
    to get cleaned up one way or another…

  12. how about moving them to subsidized
    organic farms in the central valley, teaching them to grow food and there could be homeless farmer’s markets in the city.

  13. You can’t spell “Campos” without “(permanent homeless en)camp(ment).” If you can be homeless one place in SF, you can certainly be homeless somewhere else. How about rotating camps on the blocks where each Stupidvisor lives, until the problem is solved?

  14. No good can come of letting this take root. The area will become a biohazard without plumming, the surrounding businesses and any vehicles on the street will be broken into. The incompetence of a city to just shrug its shoulders and say, “Well, nothing we can do” is telling. I’ve seen the same woman sitting on the sidwalk at 17th and Folsom for the past two years, and before that I’ve seen her passed out on the sidewalk for the last decade. I watch many of the people on the street panhandle and then buy drugs. The guy in the jean jacket who runs between cars at the intersection at 17th/Mission with his hand out and can barely utter a word performs this behavior until he gets enough money, then I see him walk up to a drug dealer and buy crack. Then he smokes it. Then he does it all over again. This is a block from the Mission Police Station. So for the police and city to shrug its shoulders is criminal. They subject the addicts and mentally ill to a brutal life on the street, while the rest of us clean up after them. Shame on Ed Lee and the Chief of Police.

  15. I’d be willing to pay $1 to $2/day to have homeless people camp out in front of the supervisors houses. If we get enough to donate, we could actually pay about 5 homeless people per supervisors house. I’m thinking about $100/day per person. This could be like a jobs fair for the homeless. They already know how to do the job so no training is necessary. We give half the money up front and the other half at the end of the day. They would camp outside the supervisors house and panhandle the neighbors on their way to work every morning. I think we have 11 supervisors so that means 55 homeless per day at $100/day. That’s $5500/day or a little over 2 million/year. I’m sure there are enough sf citizens willing to contribute to this fund. The sf supervisors couldn’t be opposed to it as they have said over and over that homeless people should be able to live wherever they want. This also produces jobs which are so scarce. II think this is a compassionate way to help some homeless people. Who’s with me?

  16. You fools chased the RV’s accusing them of all kinds of unproved crimes yet you let people camp wherever they want. So I’m going to park my RV and move into a tent in front of your house.

  17. By your logic, the police are dependent on crime for their jobs so they have a vested interest in ensuring crime exists; the fire departments have a vested interest in ensuring fires continue; doctors and nurses have a vested interest in ensuring the population does not get healthy, , etc., etc

  18. Why not build an encampment on Seawall Lot 330, the location George Lucas turned down? It’s probably a couple of acres. SF could provide sanitation and services there while working on more permanent solutions.

    1. So very true. They only enforce the laws against this (in some neighborhoods) if you call them every day when the miscreants return. Every day… Beyond absurd!

  19. You can bet if this was happening in Pacific Heights the City would clear this out. I’m tired of the MIssion being the designated dumping ground for our social problems.

  20. “…said 62-year-old David Lee, who just moved to San Francisco five months ago but has been homeless for years throughout the United States.”

    This. Is. The. Problem.

  21. Whatever you say about them it shows that we have become a third world country with its very rich and its very poor. Shanty towns made of cardboard boxes are next. They can be shunted aside and thereby more easily ignored.

  22. This is ridiculous!! The police refuse to do anything about this, the city government refuses to do anything about this, and those of us who live here and just want to walk down the sidewalk safely, without stepping in human feces and on used drug needles have to just grin and bear it?! No, that’s NOT acceptable! I’m tired of this! Other cities don’t have this problem, so obviously it’s how our city deals with it currently that is the problem. Everyone wants to coddle the “homeless”, which is a euphemism for crackheads and meth addicts who poop on the streets, harass pedestrians, attack families with small children who are just trying to get from point A to point B! My friend was attacked by a vagrant the other day: He tried to stab her with a knife. That’s not acceptable. She shouldn’t have to just grin and bear that as part of the joys of living in San Francisco. None of us should.

    It’s time to pass laws against camping out on the sidewalks. It’s time to put flood lights on the streets where this happens. It’s time to have city employees pressure-hosing down the sidewalks at night as a preventative messure. It’s time to give these life-style homeless a one-way ticket out of town, unless they start accepting services.

    But the thing is, they don’t want to work, or follow rules, or go into shelters where they can’t just sit around doing smack all day. They want to get high and yell at nothing all day. They want to scream at people just trying to walk down the street unmolested. That’s not okay, and I refuse to feel the least bit sorry for habitual drug users and street kids with giant attack dogs who think living on the streets and smoking meth is cool. When it came to drugs, I ALWAYS just said no. I followed the rules. I worked, I paid taxes. So why do I have to be afraid to walk out my front door, so that no one steps on the delicate toes of these habitual re-offenders?!

    1. I’m with you 100% and there’s a lot of home owners and others in the city that feel the same way. Just last night there was an obviously mentally ill individual screaming obscenities on my front steps while a family with a young boy was trying to get into their home across the street. I felt so bad for the Mom and her son having to rush into their house shocked and scared by what this person was yelling. I called the police but I’m not even sure they came around since he left about 20 minutes later. It’s obvious this person has mental and most likely severe substance abuse problems. I really felt it wasn’t even safe to ask him to leave without arming myself. That’s what this city has become! A wild free for all where laws don’t matter any more and we must feel like we have to arm and defend ourselves. I’m not even exaggerating THIS IS the way I feel in my own home.

      There has to be a way to help people like this off the streets or out of town. Allowing these types of people to slowly kill themselves on the streets in the real inhumanity of the supposed solutions being offered by the city in dealing with this severe problem.

    2. Then what do we do about this.
      We need to organize and let them know we’re not going to take this anymore.
      I’m not so worried about the property values decreasing.
      I AM worried about my three year old daughter stubbing her toe on a needle.
      Photographs of which I have taken showing them all over the street next to the encampments.

      I’m tired of their problem becoming our problem.
      We live here and shouldn’t have to put up with this day in and day out.

      I just got out the hospital last weekend and needed to rest.
      Yet I was subjected to really loud reggae being blasted across the street at me from an encampment. This went on from 7am until 9pm.
      Unacceptable.

  23. What none of you seem to realize is Guiliani put people into housing and
    there was a great deal of empty housing in NYC poor neighborhoods at the time.

  24. Many commenters seem to have misunderstood what exactly the police are able to do about homeless encampments. Captain Perea’s comment that there is “no answer to this” is a description of the police’s legal limitations to solving homelessness: The police cannot legally move people from the sidewalk, nor can they instruct people to camp elsewhere. Instead, the police has the lone recourse of handing out citations — fines — which Perea says are ineffective at solving the issue, as homeless people either are not dissuaded from camping by being ticketed, or simply move elsewhere for a few days before returning to their original location.

    Complaints that the police simply “shrug their shoulders” incorrectly understand the abilities of law enforcement to solve the issue. What Perea and the rest of the article emphasize is that homelessness cannot and will not be solved by the police, because the police have no legal means to solve the issue. Homelessness is a problem for city government, not law enforcement. Frequent calls to the station may be effective for temporarily displacing camps, but it would be poor thinking to believe that this is in any way a “solution” to the problem, and that a lack of police response when called constitutes a “refusal” to do anything about the problem.

    — Joe Rivano Barros

  25. There are multiple discussions about this issue on Nextdoor.com as well. Someone on one of those threads posted a link to the following article article and I’ve found it to be one of the more enlightening/thoughtful articles with respect to potential solutions, how those solutions worked in another large urban city, and why those same solutions are tough to implement here in San Francisco.

    http://www.sfgate.com/nation/article/Salt-Lake-City-a-model-for-S-F-on-homeless-5587357.php

    Mission Local, you guys wrote about it yourselves here https://missionlocal-newspack.newspackstaging.com/2014/07/san-francisco-following-salt-lake-citys-footsteps/.

    It’s worth a read IMHO.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *