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?”
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.”