At about 11 a.m. on Thursday, three Department of Public Works trucks pulled up to a row of tents pitched alongside the 101 freeway underpass. At the same time, a group of protesters gathered across the street at the corner of Division and Trainor to expose citywide sweeps of encampments they say are inhumane and have robbed the homeless of their property.

They had only come to pick up trash, the Public Works workers told protesters who darted across the street to confront them, yelling “Homelessness is not a crime.”

As the city gears for Super Bowl 50, a recent increase in tent settlements in certain neighborhoods is a growing point of contention for city leaders and residents alike. Thursday’s protesters called on the city to allocate abandoned property for the homeless to set up their tents and eventually build houses.

“The city could help us if they got a piece of land or a block or something where we can go without being moved all the time, where we can keep our things,” said a woman named Trina, who lives in the encampment on Trainor Street.  “That would help people to empower themselves.”

District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener called on the city in mid-January to eliminate tents and find a “prompt” and “humane” alternative to house those who live in them. In a letter to various city department heads, Wiener requested data on the number of people living on the streets, the number of shelter beds available, and the health hazards presented by homeless encampments.

The letter drew outrage from homeless advocates and progressive media outlets, who accused Wiener of disingenuously implying that the city had plenty of available shelter for the homeless.

Tensions are particularly high because many homeless people have reported being relocated from downtown areas for the Super Bowl City opening there next week.  

Sam Dodge, the director of the mayor’s office on homelessness, confirmed that some efforts have been made to connect the homeless to resources in light of the Super Bowl, but also credited a “cold and rainy” winter with the surge of tents along the freeway. He said his office has worked intensely to transition people settling in the downtown area overnight into shelters. “There’s not a concerted plan to push people anywhere or out of anywhere,” he said.  

Lisa Gray-Garcia wasn’t buying it. “[Sweeps] are happening in a surreptitious way,” said the community activist and founder of Poor Magazine. “These huge corporations want to come into this clean, shiny, white, rich city that Ed Lee has sold them on, and he’s going to give it to them.”

“If there is money for Super Bowl, then there is money for the homeless,” said protester Al Osorio.

Police spokesperson Carlos Manfredi said that officers only accompany Public Works sweeps to inform the homeless of a cleanup, hand out flyers and to connect them to resources.

But sweeps, whether connected to the Super Bowl or not, are nothing new.

Queen Nandi and other protestors confront DPW employees at the Division Street homeless encampment. Photo by Laura Waxmann

Queen Nandi and other protestors confront DPW employees at the Division Street homeless encampment. Photo by Laura Waxmann

Contentious Sweeps

Efforts to clean out the encampments have failed because “they keep coming back,” said Mission Supervisor David Campos. “We are as frustrated as the residents of this district because we have been asking the Mayor’s Office to deal with this issue for months now.”

Campos confirmed that there has been an uptick of tents coupled with increased frustration by residents in his district, though the number of homeless hasn’t risen significantly — only about 4 percent in the past three years, said Dodge. Still, government and residents want the tents out, though there’s no easy fix.

“There is no ‘humane, prompt way’ unless we have land to go to,” said Gray-Garcia.

Gray-Garcia said the city and police are displacing homeless people from downtown areas through street cleanups by Public Works, known as “sweeps.” She said during these sweeps, the tents and personal belongings of homeless campers are often confiscated and eventually discarded.

Often accompanied by police officers, Gray-Garcia said that Public Works employees “come late at night and early in the morning to threaten folks” with taking the belongings of those who refuse to move.

Data collected by 86 homeless individuals over a one-year period for Poor Magazine’s WeSearch Project showed that each individual reported at least one instance of “theft of property” by Public Works for items like medicine, tents, cosmetics, phones, and other technology. The study concluded that 94 percent of participants were unable to retrieve their belongings from the city.

“These are their belongings, but people look at it as if it is trash, and they treat it like that,” said Queen Nandi, an organizer and teacher at Decolonize Academy in Oakland. “Because you are homeless, you suddenly don’t have the right to own property.”

Because it is a “highly impacted area,” Public Works sends trash removal crews to areas under the freeway daily, Dodge said. Only tents and items that are “abandoned” are removed, he explained. What seem to be personal items are brought back to the department’s yard and kept in a storage container for up to 120 days for retrieval.

When asked if the homeless residents, who may or may not be present during a Public Works cleanup, are notified where their personal items are held, Dodge said the location of the storage yard is “widely known.”

Victoria and Elizabeth, who declined to give their last names, both live underneath the overpass and have experienced multiple sweeps, saying they have not been able to retrieve their belongings. Victoria said she has experienced as many as four sweeps in a day, each time being told by Public Works staff — accompanied by police officers — to move farther down Division Street.

“When they take our tents, it’s like we have to start over again. We have to find clothes and blankets, and it really interrupts your life,” said Elizabeth. “If you have an appointment or actually have work, you have to always have somebody at your tent who you trust to watch your stuff, otherwise it gets taken.”

Many of the Division street tents had already been cleared early Thursday morning, according to a homeless man named “Uncle P,” who has lived under the overpass for almost three months.

Public Works spokesperson Rachel Gordon said she was unaware that one had taken place in that area.

A woman named Trina tidies her spot at the homeless encampment where she lives. Photo by Laura Waxmann

A woman named Trina tidies her spot at the homeless encampment where she lives. Photo by Laura Waxmann

Community Frustration

Uncle P usually pitches his tent on a piece of sidewalk in front of an auto repair shop near the underpass, and said he keeps his spot tidy. Because of this, the owner of the shop doesn’t mind him being there, and neither do police — for the most part.

“There are some asshole cops that will trash all your belongings,” he said. “Imagine someone coming into your home when you are not there and taking your property. They’d need a warrant for that.”

In other areas, arrangements are less harmonious. Sean Buckley runs a shop that sells and services outdoor power equipment near the encampment — and the side of his shop is lined with tents. He claims that their presence has increased “tenfold” in the past two months and blames the Super Bowl.

Buckley said the increased tents bring trouble. Last week a generator was stolen from his shop and he believes that more crime was brought to the area by the newer tent residents. Safety concerns and the visibility of the tents have caused him to lose customers.

“It’s like walking through a urinal,” he said.

Zach Todd, manager at Cathead’s BBQ at 1165 Folsom St., echoed Buckley’s concerns. He described having to personally escort homeless people out of the restaurant’s bathroom while trying to wash themselves or use drugs.

“It’s just a big hassle,” said Todd, adding that he no longer feels safe in the area after a homeless man threatened to stab one of his friends.

Activists and many who work or live close to the camps agree that the city needs to step in to permanently house those living in tents.

“You can go ahead and ‘sweep’ them under the rug, but eventually the rug has to be dusted,” said Queen Nandi. “I’m a football fan, but why would I care about football right now when we have children on these streets?”

While the city is searching for solutions, grassroots efforts are aiming to address homelessness at its most basic level by providing those afflicted with some form of shelter. The Chronicle reports that the Coalition on Homelessness is planning to set up a tent city next to Super Bowl City.

In response to the sweeps, Shaun Osburn, a Mission resident, launched a GoFundMe campaign Thursday aiming to “fund replacement tents for the individuals who have lost their homes due to the heartless actions of local government.” Osburn exceeded his initial goal of raising $2,000 in just one day, and has since increased it to $10,000, which he reached at press time.

Buckley says that he has written to the mayor repeatedly, regularly calls the police and Public Works, but rarely receives help with the problems he said the camp residents have brought to him.

“I don’t know what the answer is, but it’s definitely not dumping the problem on innocent people, small businesses, and homeowners,” he said.