“I think that’s pretty shitty,” said Greg Jensen, a 52-year-old homeless man in the Mission District, of a proposed law that would ban tent encampments and give the city the power to seize the property of those who refuse to disperse.
“What the fuck?” Jensen added, scratching off a lottery ticket near his encampment. “They’re gonna take my stuff and throw it away?”
The new proposal would amend the police code to make it illegal to camp on sidewalks. After getting the sponsorship of four supervisors — including its main backer, Supervisor Mark Farrell, who represents the Marina and Pacific Heights — the measure will be on the November ballot and requires voter approval to become law.
City workers would have to give residents of encampments 24 hours notice, however, and provide an alternative option — like a shelter bed or bus ticket to family or friends — before dismantling the encampment.
All belongings would also be held by the Department of Public Works for 90 days, and written notices would be posted alerting encampment residents of where they can go to retrieve their stuff.
But in interviews with some dozen homeless residents, most said the measure would increase sweeps and dreaded the prospect of not being able to stay in one place for long. Many said the actions taken by the city earlier this year to clear out encampments on Division Street had only moved them into residential areas, and feared more laws would do the same.
Others said they shelter system was broken and that frequent fights and stolen belongings turned them off from seeking such housing. All said the law would codify what is already common practice on the streets: city workers taking the property of homeless people and moving them from place to place.
“They’ve been doing that for five mayors,” said Oscar McKinney, a homeless man who moved to San Francisco for its status as a gay haven. McKinney said he’s been homeless for 35 years and that Public Works has taken his stuff time and again. “The city’s thrown away my dentures four times.”
McKinney did see an upside — the one day notice. Currently, camps are often swept with no notice at all. He said moving day is “always a hateful day in everyone’s life,” straining camp dynamics and creation tension between friends and partners.
“Mike and I argue the most [on moving day],” he said, referring to his boyfriend. “We don’t know what to keep, we don’t know what to do.”
“That’s straight up robbery,” said Mia Dowell, a 30-year-old homeless woman. She also said the new law would continue the status quo, and said her stuff has been routinely taken by Public Works. “They use DPW as a tool to steal our belongings to begin with.”
Andre Davis, a 63-year-old homeless man, said he doesn’t like the “impositions” shelters put in place on people, like late-night curfews and 6 a.m. wake-up calls.
“Then you got nowhere to go, not even the liquor store,” he said. “I have a problem with people telling me what to do, I have a problem with authority.”
“They’re gonna put you in a bed with bugs and parasites,” said Khalilah Mitchell, his partner. Both said the city should improve its shelter system or instead create open spaces where encampments can grow unmolested, with showers and bathrooms for residents — similar to a plan drafted by Supervisor John Avalos earlier this year.
Some said confiscating belongings could jeopardize lives. A 35-year-old homeless woman who did not wish to be identified said the prospect of the city taking her tent away would invite more sexual violence, already a mainstay living on the streets.
“This is what keeps us safe,” she said, referring to a wooden shelter on wheels. “I’m a woman, I’ve already been raped once, I need my shelter.”
“I’m a seven-time rape victim,” said another woman, worried for her security if her things were confiscated.
Current city law prohibits sitting and lying down on sidewalks between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m., and the health code is often used as a means to clear out homeless encampments, but there is nothing in the police code that explicitly prohibits setting up a tent in the public right of way.
Farrell’s proposal would change that. Homeless advocates have come out against the law, saying it criminalizes homelessness without addressing the lack of housing and services, while Farrell says it simply ensures that residents of encampments are given the option to move into shelter.
“There is no criminalization element whatsoever in our policy,” said Jess Montejano, an aide to the supervisor. Montejano said the law would give the new Department of Homelessness — along with the Department of Public Health and Department of Public Works — the ability to more effectively coordinate available shelters with those on the street.
Police would become involved as needed, he said, and they are not explicitly stated in the proposal. Police officers routinely help Public Works clear encampments now, however, and the law specifically amends the police code.
In interviews with the homeless, many say they’ve been told to move further and further south into the Mission District and Bayview-Hunter’s Point in recent months, cops explicitly saying they should avoid downtown areas.
Not Enough Shelters
Proponents of the law hope that the offer of shelter will be taken and that it won’t become just another means of moving the homeless from place to place. But those on the street are skeptical that there are enough shelters to take them in.
The last point-in-time count for San Francisco homeless was taken in January 2015 and found 6,686 homeless people in the city, 4,358 of whom were unhoused on the streets. The city does not have the thousands of units that would be required to take them in.
And many of those interviewed said they have already been visited by members of the Homeless Outreach Team with promises of shelter that don’t materialize, while others said the waitlist at shelters is just too long.
Kelley Cutler, a organizer with the Coalition on Homelessness, said there’s more than 800 people waiting for shelter space and that Farrell’s law could make those already waiting for shelter wait even longer, as encampments with neighborhood complaints are given priority.
“This could make it worse, prioritizing services based on complaints rather than a fair process,” she said.
Montejano, the aide to Supervisor Farrell, said the Department of Homelessness and other city agencies would coordinate prioritization for those needing shelter and would have their own criteria.
Cutler was also skeptical that the law would make it easier for the homeless to retrieve their belongings. Already Public Works says it bags and tags property confiscated from encampments, but several homeless residents said they don’t understand the process for retrieving their belongings or have tried to no avail.
This story was published as part of a citywide initiative of some 70 news organizations to cover homelessness. You can see the full range of coverage here.