Clenching his dog’s leash in one hand, Ortega Flowers’ voice trembled with frustration as he recounted an interaction he had with a police officer shortly before his tent was removed during a city cleanup of a homeless encampment on Shotwell Street.

“They just took my tent. My dog’s food is in there, and his brush,” said Flowers, alleging that he had notified a police officer that his tent was not abandoned and was promised that it would stay. “I came, the officer said that as long as I move the stuff away from my tent I’d be fine. He even called it in on the radio.”  

But when Flowers returned to the spot where he had left his tent, he discovered that it was gone.

Flowers, like many other people who have been camped out on Shotwell Street since the city moved them off of Division Street at the end of last month, were told to move on March 17 some into shelters, some just a few feet down the street.

“They’ll make me move around the corner,” said Eddy, who was one of those camped on 18th Street between Shotwell and Folsom. He explained that he had been in the Mission for about a year and pitched his camp on 19th Street before being told to move a street over. 

Timeline of a Sweep from Mission Local on Vimeo.

The sweep on March 17 was part of an on-going cycle in which the homeless put up tents on one street and remain a from a few days to weeks before the city  comes in and moves them to another block.  While some sweeps are routine, others are in response to complaints from residents.

Rachel Gordon, spokesperson for the Department of Public Works, the city agency that conducts the camp cleanups known as “sweeps,” said that the homeless are only asked to relocate if Public Works crews need to get into an area to clean.

“In some instances, people move their belongings off to the side, or across the street, and later return,” said Gordon. “Many times the encampments are littered with rotting garbage, discarded needles, and human waste.”

Anne Kyle, who lives near the Shotwell Street encampment, said, “My neighbor was complaining and she asked me to join in with her, but I didn’t think it was necessary at this time.” She said she considered the homeless, neighbors.

Personal belongings taken to storage facility

By Thursday afternoon, when a Public Works truck pulled up to Eddy’s tent, many of the tents that lined Shotwell Street and had sprawled onto 18th Street were already gone.  

One of the last campers remaining, Eddy told the Public Works crew, “I ain’t moving.”

Sitting in front of a blue plastic tarp that covered two shopping carts filled with groceries, pieces of cardboard, and other items that he had collected, Eddy said his belongings have been  deemed abandoned and hauled off by the city many times.   

This time, he was resolved to stay posted at his tent and refused to move for hours. “They should give me at least a day’s notice,” he said.

Through its “bag and tag” program, Public Works’ policy is to take valuables confiscated at abandoned tents during sweeps or handed over by homeless people entering shelters to a storage yard at 2323 Cesar Chavez St. Items are held there for up to 90 days, and it is up to the owner to locate them.

Eddy said that he has heard of the yard, but never managed to make it there. “They say they bring them to storage, but they just smash them up. You never get them back.”

“You have to minimize,” said a Public Works employee in a standoff with Eddy, advising him to take only as much as he can carry.

Reluctantly and at the request of two police officers who later joined the sweep, Eddy began to load pieces of cardboard onto the Public Works truck.

A public health hazard

The tents on Shotwell Street were among the smaller encampments that have cropped up in the Mission since a series of homeless “tent cities” on Division Street came down at the end of February.  At its peak, that encampment there counted more than 100 tents along the Mission’s freeway underpass.

Since March, to the dismay of law enforcement and many residents, many of the homeless have dispersed into smaller clusters around the Mission often onto residential sidewalks.

“Imagine if this was in front of your door, or if your kids had to see this everyday,” said a Public Works employee who wished to remain anonymous. He related stories of cleanups in which he was exposed to feces, drug paraphernalia, and rodents.

Gordon, of Public Works, confirmed that the Mission has seen an increase in homeless camps since those on Division Street were dismantled, but added that the department has not changed its cleaning operation.

“Our hot spots crews are out every day cleaning encampment areas in the Mission, South of Market, and other impacted neighborhoods,” she said, adding that at least 100 people moved off the streets and into shelters following the camp’s removal.

Concerns over hygiene prompted the initial crackdown on the Division Street camp, when the city declared a public health hazard and gave homeless residents 72 hours to move or face arrest.

But the homeless on Shotwell Street said they keep their areas tidy.

“We know how to clean. And keep it clean. We are not trying to get sick out here,” said a man standing near an encampment on Shotwell street who gave his name as Maurice.

Maurice said that many of the homeless campers that he’s encountered know the law and try to abide by the rules.

“If it’s kept clean and neat they won’t bother you,” he said. “But if you’re just constantly collecting stuff it becomes an eyesore.”

flowers

Ortega Flowers, a homeless man living in the Mission, refused to enter a shelter unless his dog could come with him. Photo by Laura Waxmann

Sweeps

In the Mission, tent clusters are often dismantled using the sit-lie law, which makes it illegal to camp on sidewalks during most hours. Police said they accompany Public Works crews to ensure the safety of city workers.

“It’s not a crime to be homeless. But they can’t be on the sidewalk, that’s illegal,” said a sergeant with Mission Station.

The frequency of sweeps – from daily to weekly –  varies depending on “the extent of the problem.” Sweeps have been routinely conducted in hotspot areas for the past two years, and notifying campers of cleanups beforehand is not a requirement on the part of Public Works, said Gordon.

But the homeless say that Public Works staff only displaces them from certain neighborhoods and leaves them more vulnerable than before by confiscating tents, food, and other essentials.

“For some people, this is all they have to live with,” said Maurice. “You have to constantly go through your things and downsize, and if you’re alone you have to have somebody watching your tent when you leave [because] if you’re not there when they come, they’ll take your stuff.”

Shelters Not a Good Fit for All

“I’m in shambles,” said Flowers, sitting on the ground where his tent had stood hours earlier. “My tent was not a hazard. My dog’s food was in there, you call that a hazard?”

Public Works employees on Shotwell Street said that they had placed a call to the Homeless Outreach Team to help Flowers find shelter for the night.

But Flowers was skeptical about being lodged in a shelter because of his dog.

I’m not going to the shelter unless it’s a shelter that accepts me and my dog. He’s not a service dog,” said Flowers. “If he can come with me, that’s fine. But I want to be compensated for my things that were taken from me.”