James Lawson sitting outside his yet-to-be-dismantled tent, looking at the Department of Public Works trucks down the road. February, 2016. Photo by Joe Rivano Barros

The Department of Public Health declared the homeless encampments on Division Street underneath the 101 freeway a public health hazard on Tuesday and posted signs ordering street denizens to dismantle their tents within 72 hours — or face referral to the police department.

“The conditions have really deteriorated and it is no longer safe for them,” said Rachel Kagan, a spokesperson with the department. “When you have growing numbers of people living in those types of environments, the opportunity for disease to spread and other risks multiply.”

More than a hundred tents have sprung up on the Mission-SoMa border in the last six weeks. Many homeless moved in response to worsening weather and downtown sweeps in the weeks before for the Super Bowl, prompting a city-wide debate in which supervisors, newspaper columnists, and former mayors weighed in on the need to clean up encampments.

The Department of Public Works began its own clean-up on Tuesday afternoon, leading some media outlets to speculate that Public Works was dismantling encampments ahead of schedule — something the department denies.

“This really is not much different than what we’ve been doing,” said Rachel Gordon, a spokesperson for Public Works.

She said the department routinely cleans up areas on and around Division Street, but added that Tuesday’s operation — which began at 4:30 a.m. and lasted 12 hours — was part of a “deep clean” that also hit peripheral streets. “We’ve been out there prior to this and we’ll continue to be out there to keep the sidewalks clean.”

They are currently doing major sweeps on Division. Throwing people’s belongings and tents in the dump truck. Told to “move along” but not told to where… not even pier 80. Reports of some being arrested and taken to jail.

Posted by Kelley Cutler on Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The tent encampments — which house more than a hundred people — were investigated by health officials on Tuesday, after which the director of the Department of Public Health announced that the whole street was a health hazard.

A statement issued on Tuesday afternoon — hours after the San Francisco Chronicle first published information of the impending crackdown — stated that encampments between South Van Ness and 11th on both sides of Division had become “a public nuisance” due to “accumulation of garbage, human feces, hypodermic needles, urine odors, and other insanitary conditions.”

The hundred or more residents in that area will have until Friday evening to leave.

In reference to Tuesday’s deep clean on Division Street, a Public Works supervisor at the scene said that there was a brief hiatus because of the holiday season, Super Bowl, and Chinese New Year. Resources were stretched at that time, he said, and the clean-up teams had not hit “hot spots” on Division in weeks — though spokesperson Gordon said such hot spots were cleaned recently.

“This is one of them, [but] we haven’t been able to get to it lately because the Super Bowl and other activities,” said the supervisor overseeing a sweep by Rainbow Grocery. He said complaints by the co-op grocery store and other businesses on Division Street were one of the reasons for the cleaning, which only moves encampments temporarily so the sidewalks can be power washed.

“If they move their stuff and we power wash it, we’re finished,” he said. “They can come right back afterwards.”

And they do, though the homeless on-site said they felt rushed and fatigued by ceaseless packing and unpacking.

“Like 20 minutes ago, they said we all had to leave within like an hour,” said a homeless woman who did not wish to be identified. She had been living on the block near Rainbow Grocery and OfficeMax for three weeks and was dismantling her encampment as Public Works personnel looked on.

Two Department of Public Works trucks filled with the belongings of homeless people, parked across the street from Rainbow Grocery. Photo: Joe Rivano Barros / Mission Local.

She and five others were camped at the last clean-up stop for the day, according to the supervisor on-site. He said trucks had already gone to San Bruno, Dore Alley, and parts of Division earlier in the day and were now centering on Rainbow Grocery, beds filled with tents, sleeping bags, cardboard boxes, and other former belongings.

“We did a lot of work today, a lot of cleaning,” he said.

They weren’t the only ones.

James Lawson, who has been on San Francisco streets for three years and lived on the OfficeMax block for a week and a half, was dripping with sweat while packing his tent underneath the noon sun. He had been woken up by Public Works personnel a few minutes earlier to gather his belongings.

“I feel like I’m about to have a heart attack,” said Lawson. “I had an appointment this morning [that I missed], and I’m not going to be able to make it to my methadone clinic, so I’m going to be sick.”

Public Works personnel helped encampment residents trash belongings they no longer wanted, and waited while they cleared the sidewalk for cleaning. Lawson said he was originally told the cops were on the way and “mad as hell” — an incentive to clean faster from personnel on site — but a few hours later none had shown up.

With the sidewalk clean and his belongings packed in a shopping cart, Lawson sat on a milk crate in the sun with his dog at his side, thinking about the work ahead.

“I’m just fucking exhausted,” said Lawson. “I missed lunch, I missed everything today. I’m trying to get the energy to pitch this tent.”

But most were unbothered on Tuesday, and almost none had heard of any impending sweeps. Dozens of tents still occupy the sidewalks in front of Best Buy and the StrEat Food Park — though some spots on Division were emptier than before and full Public Works trucks could be seen hauling off belongings throughout the day.

Gordon said some 20 people had been transported to Pier 80 — the new 150-bed shelter much touted by Mayor Ed Lee and Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius as one solution for the tent city under Division — during the day’s sweeps. Many of the homeless themselves, however, brushed off the shelter, saying it was too far from services, too open, and too disruptive of their routines.

“Since the whole Super Bowl thing they’re making a big deal about going to Pier 80,” said Kerry Hagan. “But there’s nothing to get out there, no services.”

Hagan scoffed at the notion that she and others “would go to a jail” like Pier 80. Living on the streets, she said, provided her with a means to get money and go to appointments, more difficult at the isolated Dogpatch pier.

“How do we get back and forth? Mama Brown’s is the only place to eat out there, and I’m sure they’re already overwhelmed,” she said, referring to a soup kitchen in the Bayview-Hunter’s Point.

A Public Works employee agreed, saying he did not think Pier 80 the most innovative approach.

“Opening up a big old warehouse and throwing them in is not the answer,” he said. The homeless he’s seen during the last 30 years on the job have homes and routines on the street, he said, and city officials do a poor job accommodating their lifestyles. “They need to understand the people going in there more.”

Whether the public health notice changes the tactics used against encampments remains to be seen. Police Chief Greg Suhr told the Chronicle that officers would be used for the protection of city workers only, and Captain Daniel Perea of the Mission Station has previously said that the police can only give citations, not physically remove people.

But in 2011, the Department of Public Health issued a similar notice for the Occupy protests at Justin Herman Plaza, prompting a crackdown by Public Works and the arrest of 70 illegal campers.

“I want to know too, with the 72-hour notice, will we be asked to do something differently?” asked Gordon from Public Works. She said the department would play a supportive role if the health department requested their assistance clearing specific sites. “If they make a request for us to clean the sidewalks we’ll be there, [but] we have not been asked yet.”

Some, however, were ready to leave on their own.

“I’m getting sick of it here,” said Lindsey Boynton, who came to San Francisco from Redwood City in pursuit of her boyfriend.

Boynton said her belongings are frequently trashed during sweeps and that notice is never given ahead of time. One of her friends was recently stabbed, she said, and she has had five bikes stolen in recent weeks. “I’m going back to Redwood City. If he wants to stay here with this, well that’s fine.”

Ashante “Prophet” Jones was more critical, saying “someone needs to hold [Mayor Lee] accountable” for the homeless situation and that continued sweeps would provoke “open hostility with the [California Highway Patrol], the cops.”

“What you’re doing is you’re really waging war [against] a subculture,” he added.

Ashante Jones outside his camp site on Division Street. “Me, myself, I’m not going anywhere,” he said. Photo: Joe Rivano Barros / Mission Local.

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  1. i was on site three times today photographing and talking with many folks. here is an interesting exchange:
    man: “see those five tents? i rent those, this one is mine”. me: “so you’re a landlord?”
    man: “yep, guess so”. i call it ‘hobo junction'”. me: “are you going to leave?” man: “no, never, they can’t make me. why should i?” another landlord protecting his income stream i guess.

  2. This area is primarily in the Disaster Known as David Campos’ district, yet I’m not aware of any leadership from him or his protege HIllary Ronen to address Tent City leading up to yesterday’s sweep. Did I miss his newsletters (does he publish one?) or open letters or tweets detailing any actions he was taking regarding the homeless folks and public health hazards near Rainbow Grocery?

  3. Sweet bike chop shop Ashante! Glad these criminals, addicts, and mentally ill are being given an ultimatum to either utilize the services the city is providing or being “hassled” enough they will leave.

  4. That last picture is a perfect example of the lawlessness these camps enable – Ashante Jones willing to be photographed proudly in front of his bicycle chop shop.