Community members and homeless advocates frustrated over dozens of tents that have popped up in the Mission District shouted down city and police officials on Wednesday during a discussion of a new plan to tackle homeless encampments in the neighborhood.
“We had encampments catch on fire right on my street. After living here all these years, I’ve seen things really get ugly,” said Gilles Combet, who lives on Shotwell Street between 16th and 17th streets and has voiced concern of an encampment there for years. “We are letting people live without bathrooms, without showers, with nothing at all – that’s wrong.”
Some 60 people filled the theater of the Oberlin Dance Collective at 17th and Shotwell streets to voice their concerns over what they called the “crisis” unfolding on their streets that has been neglected by local leadership at a town hall meeting hosted by the dance company.
Mission District Supervisor David Campos used the meeting to update the community on the city’s steps in assisting the some 102 people who currently live in encampments in the northeastern areas of the neighborhood. Campos promised on Monday that all of the homeless encampments in the neighborhood would be dismantled within four months.
But when city officials attempted to outline their new plan to target and clear encampments to move homeless residents to shelter beds, they were criticized by advocates who said the city does not have enough housing for the 3,500 people on the streets on any given night.
“Can you talk about housing and the fact that there are zero units for single, adult homeless people?” said Laura Guzman, director of the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center, to Campos.
The meeting grew increasingly contentious as others challenged a member of the recently launched Department on Homelessness and Supportive Housing on its success with moving the homeless out of tents and into supportive housing.
Emily Cohen, a spokesperson for the new department, said that it was successful last month in clearing out an estimated 60 person tent encampment near Islais Creek.
“What was the number of people who actually got into housing?” one audience member wanted to know.
Cohen said that “close to 20 placements” were made between the Navigation Center and other shelters. “It’s not everyone…But it’s certainly more than when you just go in and sweep.”
Homeless residents are given up to a month’s notice by city staff and provided with services — like help getting ID or health check-ups — before being told to move along, according to the head of the Department of Homelessness.
The department will go encampment by encampment and move residents into the Navigation Center.
Because the city only has some 1,300 shelter beds, city staff will be going through the list of encampments city-wide and only tell people to leave a block if they are offered a shelter bed or spot at the 75-bed Navigation Center.
Another attendee who claimed to have been waitlisted for a spot at the Navigation Center — the city’s flagship homeless shelter at 16th and Mission streets — for some five months said that the promise of placement there is not a viable solution for everyone.
“When you talk about it like it’s a real solution for people, I feel that you’re not being very honest about that implication,” the woman said to Cohen.
Cohen countered that the department is in the process of expanding its shelter capacity by opening additional Navigation Centers throughout the city and is currently coordinating all city agencies involved with camp removals – from Public Works to the Health Department and Police Department – to develop a plan for each camp.
“We want [an assessment] of the needs of everyone in the encampments, an assessment of our resources, to make the best matches possible,” said Cohen, adding that large encampments in the Mission will be dismantled by October 5. “We don’t want this to be a surprise to anyone.”
But hours before the meeting, residents at one of the first Mission encampments to be cleared out near 19th and Folsom streets were confused about the process.
At least one person there has accepted placement at the city’s Navigation center while others said that they have not yet been seen by the department’s new Encampment Resolution Team, which is tasked with preparing the camp residents for the removal of their tents and providing them with services.
“Yesterday I got interviewed by the navigation center and they told me it would be at least a week or two,” said the man who gave his name as “Dojo.”
But a man living in a tent next to Dojo said that he has not seen the outreach team at all in the week and-a-half that they have been engaging with his encampment. JR Carter, who has been living in the encampment for three months and has been homeless for 17 years, said he is ready to move into the Navigation Center and out of homelessness, but has not been offered a bed at the center.
“I’m somebody that would benefit from it,” said the 36-year-old. “But I hear that they’ve offered it to other people.”
Some attendees of Wednesday’s meeting, disturbed by the encampments’ increasing visibility, expressed confusion about how to interact with their homeless neighbors.
“I have a lot of things to lose based on the encampments and I get really bad reviews on my restaurant that affect me economically,” said Mission restaurateur Manuel Torres-Gimenez. “I don’t know what to do next time I have tents in front of my restaurants, when my clients cannot walk [on the] sidewalk.”
Other neighbors worried over a wave of crime on their streets that they attribute to nearby tent encampments. They called for more police involvement and blamed Mission District officers for failing to enforce laws that criminalize encampments, like lodging on public sidewalks.
“When are we going to enforce the law? When are we going to remove these people from the streets?” said Craig Weber, a resident on Shotwell Street. He was quickly interrupted by booing audience members who yelled “Where are they supposed to go?” and “Poverty is not a crime!”
Captain Daniel Perea, captain of the Mission Station, fired back: “We are not going to solve homelessness by giving people tickets or arresting people. ”
While Weber criticized city leadership for caving to “claims of entitlements” by the homeless, their advocates chastised city officials for “making decisions that impact the homeless” without actually involving those living in the encampments.
“They are the experts, not you, not the supervisors, and certainly not the mayor – you all have a home,” said Bilal Ali, an organizer with the Coalition on Homelessness, to Cohen. “You and others like you are talking about homeless people, not for homeless people.”