City workers speak with homeless individuals at an encampment. Photo by Rajiv Rao

San Francisco crews have completely removed the encampments that previously stretched along Division Street from Mission to Harrison streets and beyond, leaving behind signs and barriers to prevent homeless campers from returning to the area.

The sweep, which began at around 4:30 Tuesday morning, came four days after a 72-hour deadline to vacate set by the city, which had deemed the area a public health hazard. Residents and businesses had been complaining about needles, feces, urine and garbage for weeks.

“People get scared, even my workers,” said Jason Huang, who has run an auto body shop on Division street for six years. “It’s hard right now.”

Huang said his business dropped by about 20 percent in the time the encampments were at their peak in recent weeks, and said he believes the encampments will come back.

Department of Public Works has been sweeping the area routinely, collecting and crushing abandoned items, bagging and tagging belongings for later retrieval, and telling people to move along. But homeless individuals and their advocates continue to ask – where should they go?

“Many of the folks are just further destabilized and just moving a block away,” said Jennifer Friedenbach of the Coalition on Homelessness. Reports about availability of shelter beds at Pier 80 and the Navigation Center have varied, in part because availability fluctuates. But Friedenbach estimated that at its peak, the Division Street encampment sheltered some 300 people.  

“They don’t have near enough beds for everyone,” she said.

Rachel Kagan, a spokesperson for the Department of Public Health, said as of Tuesday morning 17 beds remained open out of the 160 existing at Pier 80, and 11 beds are available at the Navigation Center. At both facilities, individuals are only accepted by referral from service workers. 

But even if space were ample or there were no referrals required, not everyone wants to go to Pier 80 or the Navigation Center.

Tony Machado said she has been homeless for 10 years and takes work with climate-control systems and sheet metal where she can. She said she is working on getting her high school diploma equivalent. Packing up her belongings on Division and Potrero streets Tuesday morning, Machado said she didn’t know where she would go, but she had no intention of going to Pier 80.

“I won’t go to the FEMA camp. It’s like jail,” she said. “It takes me back to when I was a kid in foster care.”

Still, what she needs most urgently is a place to stay, where she can keep her belongings and then leave to go to work and come back. On Tuesday, she wasn’t sure where she’d go.

Machado is not alone in her distaste for the city’s newest shelter. Chanell Jones and Linda Fuchs were moved from Division Street on Tuesday morning and also have reservations about going to Pier 80. Jones said the shelter posts an armed guard at the entrance and requires regular check-ins with staff throughout the day to keep a bed, though Sam Dodge, the Mayor’s point person on homelessness, said later that the shelter requires check-ins every 48 hours. That doesn’t fit with Jones’ and Fuchs’  schedules – Fuchs worked in retail and Jones was a cook until recently, and both are trying to find work again. They have started a Gofundme in the meantime.

“I’m a taxpayer who doesn’t have a home, and we helped pay for Super Bowl City? That pisses me off,” Jones said.

According to Department of Public Works spokesperson Rachel Gordon, some 65 tents had been on Division Street Tuesday morning, and only a handful remained by 10:30 a.m. By noon, all were gone.

“We’re doing everything from hand sweeping to raking to flusher trucks…we’re being very mindful and respectful of people,” Gordon said. During sweeps, Public Works staff either discard refuse in a garbage truck, bag and tag it for storage at a facility where the owners may retrieve it by giving a description of the item and when it was collected, or transport it to the shelter where the owner is moving to. Tuesday’s goal was a Division Street completely cleared of items – as well as rats, feces, urine and needles.

“When it’s the dense encampments, that’s when the big public health problems occur,” Gordon explained.

Jones also shares business owner and resident frustrations over hygiene problems.

“We agree with Mayor Lee as far as needles and feces and urine,” she said. “I say, give us porta-potties and give people who use needles a biohazard box.”

Kagan, with the Department of Public Health, said she has no knowledge of such proposals.

“This week’s priority is to ameliorate the situation that had become so unsafe for the people who are living there,” Kagan said. “The main solution that we’ve been using is to help people to relocate to better, safer environments.”

This post has been updated to reflect new information from Sam Dodge about the frequency of check-ins required to keep a bed at the shelter at Pier 80.

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  1. I’m really counting on Mission Local for a follow-up and update on this story and the people affected.

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  2. There is only one question: will this action solve the problem of homelessness, or does it compound the problem? Tent cities, FEMA camps, and “shelters” are emergency measures, not a solution to homelessness, which is increasing nationwide and worldwide due to rapacious Capitalism and the servility of the general public. Usery and rent-taking have become the law of the land. The genius of Capitalism is in convincing a bunch of farmers that they can be royalty if they only work long and hard enough…or win the lottery. Winning a lottery is also the only chance you have of getting affordable housing in this town.

    Both private enterprise and public officials have utterly failed to provide for the needs of most people in ths country. It’s almost like we’re going to have to form an Alternative Government to address the needs of the common person. A public bank could aquire land and build cooperatively-owned housing, finance local family and cooperative enterprises, and even develop entire new communities within and outside of San Francisco. But power concedes nothing without a demand. And most Americans are too busy staring at a screen of one type or another to demand anything more than cheaper data plans.

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  3. This article leaves a lot of unanswered questions: 1) was there urine, feces, and needles even found during the “sweep”? 2) DPW usually destroys everything they take from those people – do they have any recourse to save their belongings? I had a good friend that worked at the shelter on 22nd street. I visited once and it was indeed much like a jail. The guards treated people terribly and the room was so crammed with people it wreaked with a bad smell and a surprising amount of noise from 50 people snoring in a tiny packed room.
    This treatment of our population without homes when the city is undergoing a war of eviction (over 20,0000 lost homes in recent times) is mind-boggling. Compassion is what we need right now, any one of us living paycheck to paycheck could be out there next.

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  4. It is surprising to me that you were unable to learn what the situation is at Pier 80. This report would be very much more informative and useful if you had done the investigation necessary to find out from the city exactly what the rules are there. I look forward to your update.

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