On the evening of Thursday, August 6, police officers and a Department of Public Works garbage truck dismantled and trashed a block-long homeless encampment that residents say had existed without problems for six months.
“Every single place I’ve been besides here I’ve been told to leave at least once or twice a week,” said Deanna Daly, a 30-year-old woman who has been homeless for a year and a half. “This is the only spot I’ve been in where we haven’t had to move in a few months.”
Many residents of the camp, located on Alameda Street between Bryant and Potrero, were hopeful that they would be taken to the Navigation Center at 1950 Mission Street – a transition center that opened in March and connects the homeless to city services and permanent housing.
In fact, the outreach team visited the encampment a week before it was taken down, residents said, leading many to believe they needed only stay in place a few more days before being housed.
Brenda Meskan, the director of the Mayor’s Homeless Outreach Team (HOT), said, however, that the outreach team does not tell anyone beforehand that they will be taken to the Navigation Center.
“We do not like to ‘leave anyone behind,’ so [we] never know what encampment will be taken until we know how many we can bring in,” Meskan wrote in an email.
She did not know why the Alameda Street encampment was taken down, but its size might have been a problem. The center can only hold 75 people at once, and usually groups of 6 to 12 move in at a time.
Tents and Tarps
Heavy-duty camping tents and rough blue tarps made up the encampment of 20 or so residents. And life there was a novelty for many. Patrolling police officers knew some residents by name and handed out dog treats to those with pets, residents said, and employees who parked nearby trusted them around their cars and dropped off “sodas and sandwiches.”
“We see the same people on a regular basis. They’ll give us change or they’ll drop off food,” said Daly. “Over here, [the cops] are a lot nicer. These cops are I guess the ones that are told to deal with the homeless. They’re more geared towards helping us instead of giving us citations.”
“The Mission seems to be where you could live, you know what I’m saying?” said 37-year-old Trevor Toms, who used a fake name and has been homeless for seven years. “Nobody will be chasing you, calling the police every five seconds. If you go anywhere else, they’re on you.”
City officials confirm this squeezing of the homeless. Bevan Dufty, the mayor’s “homelessness czar,” told the Chronicle last month that people are getting pushed towards the Civic Center and SoMa, which the Alameda Street encampment bordered.
The city’s biennial homeless count shows that the homeless count in District Six, which includes the Tenderloin and SoMa, has increased by 800 since 2013 despite the city-wide population staying steady at around 6,500 for the last decade.
The northeastern corner of the Mission on the edge of SoMa has long been known for its encampments. Residents on Shotwell Street have complained of tents in the past, and a quick walk-through of the industrial corridor reveals small tent groupings in dozens of places.
But encampments twenty tents strong are rare.
“This is the first time I’ve ever set up a camp, because they’ve left us alone,” said Steve Smith, one of the residents who did not wish to use his real name. “[Before this] I packed up every single day at five o’clock in the morning, for four years or more. Five o’clock in the morning, packed all my shit. I’ve been setting up, having a home, for the first time.”
And homes, though modest ones, are what they were. A chain-link fence behind the tents was decorated with toy dolls and mostly non-functional clocks, while worn-out pillows and milk crates made up seating areas for residents who grouped together.
Having resources nearby helped. St. Martin’s around the corner offered food, showers, and an ability to charge phones and alarm clocks, while the U-Haul down the block allowed residents to use their bathroom and refill canteens.
“If you look decent,” Lorrie Taylor, a 49-year-old resident, clarified.
“It’s basically a subculture,” said 50-year-old Linda Plasse. “Instead of going to the store and paying money for what you need, we trade off what we have. If someone needs a blanket, we trade them a blanket for some food or some soap or water.”
Friends visited friends on the block, Plasse added, which created solidarity.
“As long as you don’t fuck with anything that belongs to [other residents] and respect the rules of their strip, you’re more than welcome to come and stay,” said Debora “Champagne” Carr, who was invited in by a friend. “But the minute you violate other people’s stuff, we’re going to stop [you]. You don’t have to lie or steal from us because if you ask it and we got it, more than likely we’re going to give it to you.”
All of which grew the camp — and may have ensured its end.
“Any day now [the police] could come and throw it all in the garbage truck and take it away,” Smith said, a few days before that happened. “Without warning. For no fucking reason at all. None. I did nothing wrong. And it doesn’t matter because every single thing I have here is garbage.”
“It sucks like anything else”
Being in an encampment is small consolation to most homeless people, however. And not everyone there saw the collection of tents as a community.
“It sucks like anything else. I’m fucking homeless living on the street,” said Smith. “There’s no pleasure in this. Try it sometime, try it. Spend a week outside and tell me if one place is better than another.”
“I don’t know half these people, I really could care less about them,” said 55-year-old Alton Predew, an Air Force veteran who came to San Francisco from Berlin after the wall fell in 1989. “I got my own things to deal with. When you go to sleep someone may steal your shit. It’s like a tweaker block, that’s what I call it, a tweaker block.”
“Drugs are the issue, drugs are the big issue,” Trevor agreed. “We all do drugs out here. There’s not a motherfucker out here who don’t do no drugs. We do heroin or we do methamphetamine.”
Most were open about the drug use – though they said not all are addicts – and there were more than a few syringe needles and glass pipes on the strip.
“Your money goes to that,” Trevor continued, “and everything else falls in between. I’ll go try to get a bed for detox — there’s no detox beds available. Where do I go then? I’m turned out to the street.”
Hope for the Navigation Center
Drugs, however, is something the Navigation Center often deals with.
Sam Dodge, deputy director for policy at the Mayor’s Office of Housing Opportunities, Partnerships, and Engagement (HOPE), said that though drug and drink are prohibited at the center, substance abuse does not result in removal.
“We do everything we can to try to keep them and understand that as far as using substances on site, though it’s formally against the rules, we try to say ‘Next time this is going to be more of an issue,’” Dodge said.
The leniency is a core aspect of the Navigation Center, which also admits couples and pets in an attempt to keep relationships intact, features that made some desperate to get in.
“I’ve been jumping from encampment from encampment trying to get in,” Plasse, a resident of the Alameda Street encampment, said. “I want to get on [Social Security]. I can’t keep my appointments if I’m on the street. I’m 50 years old, I’ve had two strokes, I don’t want to be out here no more.”
Meskan, the head of homeless outreach, said that anyone over the age of 18 who can take care of themselves is eligible for the Navigation Center. “All encampments are eligible for the Navigation Center. Unfortunately, due to [the] space issue, we cannot take [them all] into the Navigation Center,” she wrote in an e-mail.
So far, the center – open since March of this year – has helped 95 formerly homeless residents either enter affordable housing or stay with family and friends; another 65 are currently being served.
Data from the center, however, showed no pickups from the Alameda Street encampment.
Parked cars have reclaimed the former encampment space, and homeless people from surrounding blocks said some return at dark to set up tents for the night. But the daytime encampment is gone, though a few regulars were still in the area.
Smith was on the block, collecting cans worth 5 or 10 cents each and pushing four or five can-filled bags in a shopping cart. He didn’t know where the other residents were.
“I’m just glad they’re gone,” he said.
Richard Blackie, another former resident, was also in the area, wandering underneath the 101 Highway in a tattered trench coat. Angrily weeping, he said that he needed “somebody to love,” because he had had “no mother, no father” in his life.
“The only way I can deal with this,” he whimpered, referring to his homelessness, “is with this,” he said, a heroin syringe clutched in his hand. He trudged away sobbing and yelling, half a loaf of bread under one arm and a full plastic trash bag in the other.