Despite ongoing efforts by various city departments to dismantle the Mission’s homeless encampments, residents of the northeast areas of the neighborhood say the tent sprawl there has grown in size and brought crime to their doorsteps.
At the Mission Police Station regular community meeting on Tuesday, the group of some 30 neighbors – many dressed in black to signify unity in their efforts to clean up their neighborhood – asked Mission Police Captain Daniel Perea to ramp up efforts to thwart criminal activity that most said they witness daily and attribute to a permissive attitude towards homeless campers by the city and local police.
“Lots of people are losing their minds, I feel totally unsafe,” said a woman who gave her name as BeeBee, and described the 14th and Mission streets intersection as a “war zone.”
Loitering, drug use, illegal camping and theft were among the list of complaints that many say plague an area roughly encompassed by Mission and Harrison streets and stretching from 16th Street to Division Street. The group asked for more police presence and rigid enforcement of anti-camping and loitering ordinances.
“We want to know what you are going to do about cleaning up the people on the street who are breaking the law everyday,” said a resident of the area, describing a “a caravan of tents and campers [vans]” that line neighborhood streets.
“Captain, your patrol officers have said to me point blank, ‘We are told not to intervene with anybody on the street’.”
Perea disagreed and said that police intervene if crimes are being committed, but that being homeless is not a crime.
“We can issue warnings, citations and we can make arrests if there is evidence of criminal activity,” said Perea, but he added that the department’s resources are often needed for higher priority calls and that their ability to enforce anti-camping laws often boils down to numbers – the Mission has one of the highest calls for service of any division.
Perea said that in the months of July, August, and September, the Mission received, respectively, 563, 690, and 685 “encampment reports,” through the city’s 311 system.
“The only area where we have similar numbers is South of Market,” said Perea, adding that “non-emergency calls for services in other district are often in the teens, if even breaking into double digits.”
He said that he has been attending monthly meetings with officials of the city’s Department on Homelessness and Supportive Housing, Public Utilities Commission, the Homeless Outreach Team, and Mission Supervisor David Campos’ office, all of whom are collaborating to resolve the homeless encampments in the Mission.
While the city’s approach to encampments, Perea said, is “longer and softer” in terms of transitioning residents off the streets and into housing, the police’s role has not changed.
“Our role is to enforce the law,” he said, but added that his officers are increasingly instructed to focus on connecting the homeless that they encounter to resources.
Regardless, some neighbors felt that homeless campers were being directed to their neighborhood as their camps are cleared out in other parts of the Mission.
“We feel like our area is an area where people are telling folks to go,” said neighbor Kelly Alberta, describing a swelling number of tents on 15th and 16th streets, as well as along South Van Ness Avenue and Mission Street.
“Near Foodsco, there’s a whole encampment – they even have a generator,” said Alberta, referring to the supermarket at 15th and Shotwell streets.
Perea reassured the neighbors that there is no concerted plan to shuffle campers throughout the district.
“We can’t just tell these people to move along – if somebody is on private property [or] committing a crime, that’s another issue,” said Perea.
The group of neighbors said that crime and grime around the encampments was their biggest concern, and specifically questioned the captain about the legality of street vending in the area.
“What can be done legally about the flea markets that pop up on Saturday and Sunday between 15th and 14th on Mission?” asked Alberta.
Andrew Presley, who lives near 14th and Mission streets, described the street vending as “camouflaging” the illegal activities that he said transpire along the intersection.
Perea said while some vendors are permitted “to sell things on the street,” he would task his lieutenants with instructing patrolling officers in the area to “check people” for permits.
Beebee, another neighbor, said that some of the illegal street vendors encourage crime in the area by selling stolen property, and called an empty lot with “eight electrical sockets” at 1801 Mission St., a “blight’ in the neighborhood that grants many of the local vendors and homeless access to electricity and encourages loitering.
“Extension cords are run from 1801 Mission –all the laptops, phones, everything they sell are charged through [those] outlets,” she said.
Others questioned the captain about enforcing existing policy, such as the city’s sit-lie ordinance, that makes it illegal to sit or lie on sidewalks and in public spaces between 7 a.m and 11 p.m. daily.
That city ordinance is enforced, said Perea, but through a three-step process that includes a verbal warning and a written warning before citations are issued. The law itself contains several exceptions, such as a person suffering from a medical condition sitting on the sidewalk.
“People are frustrated with certain issues and lump people into categories,” said Perea. “We can’t do that. We don’t enforce the law that way.”
Still, Perea encouraged the residents to continue calling the police and to file police reports in incidences where a crimes has been committed.
“If you’re not certain, call 911 – you’re not doing anything wrong,” said Perea, adding that any information given to police is helpful in building cases against career criminals.