Trina, a resident of the homeless encampment on Trainor Street between 14th and Division, stands next to Lisa Gray-Garcia (left) and homeless rights advocate Queen Nandi (right) while speaking at a press conference on homelessness organized by Poor Magazine. Photo by Laura Waxmann

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

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

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.

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  1. Too bad the problem of homeless is not taken into account, as to who is a drugged and who is abused innocent. The druggers abuse and use. There needs to be accountability, even in homeless territory. The way innocents are abused and taken advantage of, is the problem. The homeless should have to show records of their activity, in order to find out who is simply abusing the system. If someone is taking, drugging, causing problems to the homeless who are trying to get out of this situation, that someone should be not allowed even in the shelters, for these are the ones who are not interested in trying at all, and causing pain and difficulty to those who ended up there due to criminal types and drugging.

  2. ‘“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.”’

    -Lisa Gray-Garcia

    What a load of crap. Whites make up less than half of SF’s population. Making this a racial issue is beyond laughable.

    ‘ “There is no ‘humane, prompt way’ unless we have land to go to,”

    As is this little gem by Gray-Garcia. ‘Land’ ? For free ? That’s all you want ? Can I get some ?
    In SF ? These people could be living in a shelter. Well, except for the drugs/alcohol that they prefer to keeping a roof over their heads. Sorry, no sympathy here.

  3. For me, I overcame homelessness after someone else encouraged me by sharing their experience, struggle and victory. This person didn’t give me money, certainly didn’t give me drugs, or food, or needles, or a tent. Encouraged by his story, I overcame homelessness by taking personal responsibility and not blaming others. As long as I blamed the City, other people or any host of other factors for my situation, nothing got better, but when I took responsibility, and went to Treatment Access Program (1380 Howard Street) to ask for a referral to a treatment program, attended 12 step meetings, got on G.A. (Care Not Cash), obtained emergency housing vouchers from Tenderloin Health and AIDS Housing Alliance, found a part time, minimum wage job as a desk clerk at homeless SRO hotels, got a SRO room, then a room in a house, followed by my own studio back in 2008. Once I started taking responsibility, I never stopped moving forward….against the odds, today, I own a below market rate home in San Francisco and I have a great job in helping to house homeless, disabled, and low income people. San Francisco has amazing service providers, the Human Services Agency. Department of Public Health, and Mayor’s Office of Hope are wonderful, and there are so many other non profit agencies that help people, like Mission Neighborhood Resource Center, Hospitality House, Episcopal Community Services, Hamilton, Larkin, AIDS Housing Alliance, Lutheran Social Services, Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, Positive Resource Center,..and the list goes on and on. I know some people might get mad at me for saying this, but I actually agree with Scott Wiener and appreciate him asking our City Department heads these difficult questions. I don’t think its compassionate to anyone to leave these tents out on the streets, not to the homeless, and not to the neighbors and businesses. I will do whatever I can to encourage the City to find a solution to this problem.

  4. Part of the homeless problem is the Local Homeless Coordinating Board prefers to remain under the radar. It doesn’t meet at City Hall, the meetings are on the first Monday of the month at 11 am and they’re not aired on SFGOVTV.

    A smart Supervisor, would use the LHCB to be an incubator of solutions but David Campos can only complain he can’t get the mayor do anything. After seven long years of the inept Campos, his mantra of “the mayor sucks” is not a way to deliver change.

    This Monday, Feb 4th, at the monthly LHCB meeting, the Mayor is presenting his plan for creating a Homeless Department. Details here:

  5. I am sympathetic toward the situation of those who have to live on the street, but this situation along Division is out of control. While riding my bike down that stretch of road where the dedicated bike path is located between the sidewalk and a row of parked cars, one of the “residents belongings” spilled out into the street, blocking the bike path. In addition to his tent on the sidewalk, he’d pulled up a van that was parked on the other side of the bike path.

    In order to get through I had to get off my bike and weave my way through the litter and even a pool of vomit (yes, really). I kept my mouth closed because I was feeling intimated by the nearby crowd, but this didn’t stop the “owner” of this piece of real estate from harassing me as I made my way through his mess.

    By the way, clearly this fellow was operating a bike chop shop. He was in the process of painting a perfectly good child’s bike with white paint – slopping it all over “his” yard. I doubt the pile of dismantled bikes were pulled from the dump. Not cool.

  6. ATTN: I was homeless in this city for over 1 year. I never had to panhandle not once. In that time I slept outside 2 nights out of 365+. There is a degree of naivetee about the people in these tent cities. The vast majority are there by choice because they refuse to be responsible to follow the basic rules of the shelters. They are also not interested in working. Many of them are theives or worse and have drug problems but refuse treatment. The percent of them that are legitimately infirmed or down on their luck is near zero. And they have no problem disengeniously riding the wave of sympathy to continue to live a life of irresponsibility. There is so much free food in this city that anytime someone panhandles you for money for food you are a sucker for giving and your money is most likely going to alcohol or drugs. The homeless industrial complex in this city is a scam. Those who choose to live on the streets and participate in the life of filth, irresponsibility, and possible thuggary do not deserve to be put ahead of the hardworking people who get up every day and make positive contributions to our society. Sadly, the city officials are too weak to take real action to fix the problem and the good intentioned but naive enablers of these people continue to exacerbate the problem.

      1. Your a fool. This isn’t rubbish at all. I too was homeless in SF. And trust me the majority of the other homeless are junkies. Chomos thieves and always looking for a fight. The tourists and poverty pimps enable them instead of truly helping them.. Rubbish you say?! Lol What are you one of those tweakers that want to remain a nuisance?!

    1. You speak the truth, I always tell beggars they can eat for free at St. Martin de Pores on Potrero and they ALL know about it. Usually they say they don’t like the food there, I guess beggars can be choosers.

    2. Yes Yes Yes! The homeless services in SF are incredible. If these homeless wanted to be off the streets they could be. There was even an article in the Chronicle last week about one of them being a kid who just wants to get high and hang in his tent. He had no interest in taking advantage of the services that would help him get off the street.

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

      Yeah, because the $100,000,000+ budget that the Housing &Homeless Program get each year isn’t enough? These people are there by choice. They could go to the navigation center. They could go to CAAP. They could go to a resource center. They could call 311!!! There are so many ways these people could get off the streets if they wanted to. It isn’t about money, it’s about choice