Pacific Gas and Electric has installed temporary light fixtures at its Shotwell Street yard that the company said are an attempt to ramp up security measures, in part as a result of recent conversations with neighbors about homeless encampments in the area.

The lights elicited a mixed reactions from those living in the tents, some of whom consider the bright lights harassment.

A video taken by Amos Gregory, a Navy Veteran, muralist, and advocate for the homeless, during a night walk on October 5 along Shotwell Street between 18th and 19th streets shows what appear to be floodlights pointed directly at a 10-tent encampment located on the sidewalk adjacent to the facility.

The fenced off PG&E center is split into two yards, separated by Folsom Street. Lights have been placed at the Folsom Street entrance to PG&E’s yard – wedged between Folsom and Harrison Streets– where a large encampment existed for months.

That encampment has been cleared, but tents continue to line the sidewalk along PG&E’s other yard, located between Folsom and Shotwell streets.  Lights have also been set up there.

“It’s the way they are all angled at us, it’s like spotlight that is extremely bright,” said a woman named Jessica, who camps out directly across from the light fixture.

The lights are indeed new, confirmed PG&E spokesperson Andrea Menniti, and follow months of discussions that included “the police department, city leaders, nearby businesses and neighbors” on how to “keep the area safe and secure and address the issue of camps near our facility.”

Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Menniti said that the lights are part of a pilot program that was launched “a few months ago” and that the light fixtures on Folsom and Shotwell streets are temporary as the company is “figuring out the best solution” for addressing security issues on its property.  The latter will likely involve the installation of additional lights around PG&E premises, along Folsom and Harrison streets, she said.

The lights’ primary function, said Menniti, is to offer additional protection to  PG&E employees – who frequent the yard at all hours– as well as to customers who enter and exit the facilities. Menniti said that PG&E already has a round-the-clock security officer patrolling the yards as well as security cameras. Spiked fences run around the perimeters of the yards.

But Gregory called the bright lights and persistent buzzing of a generator that powers them a nuisance and said it adds to the harassment of the campers.

Many of those who are now in the spotlight say that they too, are bothered.

Jessica said the lights offer extra security to the campers because ”you can see what’s going on around you,” but they also interrupt her sleep.

A friend of Jessica’s, who gave his name as PJ, called the installation of the lights “psychological warfare.”

“They don’t want to let us rest,” said PJ, adding that he believes the lights were installed to encourage the campers to move over to other streets.

But not everyone in the encampment agrees. “There’s a lot of working women out here, in a way, the lights are respecting them –they keep them from getting raped or mugged, they deserve security,” said a man who lives in the encampment but declined to give his name.

The man called the light fixture a “big ass spotlight,” but said it doesn’t bother him much. “We don’t sleep much at night anyway.”

Instead, he wishes the company would work with the city to improve the conditions of the campers.

“Why don’t they ask the city to give us public toilets? Can we put in a request for regular street lights?” He wanted to know.

Jessica said she is not against the installation of street lights to ensure pedestrian safety, but called the overhead floodlights “a little over done.”

The woman has bounced between the 19th Street encampments on Shotwell and Folsom streets for some two and a half years, and said that security has never been an issue at PG&E.

“Nobody messes with PG&E’s stuff. They have fences, they have cameras – I’ve never heard of anybody going over the fences or messing with their stuff,” she said. “I think they put [the lights] there to put us on the spot. We are now so much more visible to the public.”

She is worried that the lights will give the company more reason to ask for her camp’s removal.

“They have to come out of pocket to do all this extra security because we are here – eventually they’ll be like, ‘we can’t spend any more money, they need to go,’” she said. “It’s giving them a reason, another complaint.“

When asked about security concerns at the facility, Menniti said she did not know of any recent break-in attempts. However, neighborhood safety is the company’s concern, she said.

When asked about the morality of the lights, Sam Dodge, deputy director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said that as property owners, the company “needs to take responsibility there and they have to find the right mix of stewardship and making it safe with lighting with other kinds of amenities.”

Still, Dodge said he wasn’t sure that installing the floodlights, used by the company for emergency repairs, is the right solution.

“I’ve seen some pictures of them and the generators seem loud and the lights seem bright. I don’t know if they found the right mix,” he said.

For now, Menniti said that the company is still working with the city in the “long process of figuring out the best fit for lights for neighbors, the community, employees and our customers.”