Homeless encampments in the Mission District are being “resolved” one by one, said city officials on Friday, in a bid to move unhoused San Franciscans into transitional shelter and offer them various services.
The difference between this and other encampment sweeps? Those who refuse services are told not to return to their former campsites.
Jason Albertson, head of the Encampment Resolution Team, said he and his team had been conducting outreach at a Mission District encampment as part of a new effort by the city to focus on tents and move their denizens into supportive housing.
As military jets roared overhead for Fleet Week and drowned out his words, Albertson explained his recent efforts at 19th and Folsom streets, the site of a homeless encampment surrounding the Pacific Gas & Electric building that was cleared on Wednesday after weeks of outreach.
“We came to know everyone who was in these tents, and we came to know everyone who was an occasional visitor to these tents,” Albertson said.
The Department of Homelessness announced in September that it would target encampments in the Mission District between 16th and 19th streets and Bryant Street and South Van Ness Avenue.
First on the list would be the 40 or so tenants around the PG&E building, right next to the Mission Cliffs gym and Lyft’s headquarters.
City staff met with homeless people there over the next three-and-a-half weeks, Albertson said, and were able to move 33 people of “some 40–50” into the Mission District’s Navigation Center. Two people were moved into drug abuse services, and another two into shelter.
Fewer than 10 refused services, said Albertson, adding that one of the problems staff faced was with undocumented people who had “legitimate concerns” about being moved into the system. Others who were difficult to convince had severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia, he said.
On Wednesday, the final day of a nearly four-week process, city workers cleaned up the area and removed abandoned property. Some had moved from the encampment days before the end, Albertson said. Others held on till today, but all left by Wednesday without any arrests.
“I think people make a decision,” he said. “The people with the steam cleaners are here and the police say, ‘You have to take down the tent and you can’t bring it back up because we’re here.’”
Spearheaded by Jeff Kositsky, the director of the newly-created Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, “encampment resolution” sees city workers stay with a single encampment for weeks, offering services and movement into the Navigation Center, the city’s flagship transitional shelter at 16th and Mission streets.
Since the first opened in the Mission District more than a year ago, the more navigation centers have been opened – one in the Civic Center and the other in the Dogpatch. The Mission District center will be dismantled next spring to begin construction for an affordable housing building.
Officials say that the encampments will be prevented from returning by coordinating with property owners, like PG&E, and ensuring they report new encampments.
Police and city staff then visit and ask people what services they need — and inform them that setting up tents is illegal. It’s unclear whether this will be successful in preventing the resurgence of encampments.
Supervisor David Campos, for his part, said that the new approach taken by Kositsky was more compassionate than others in the city, like Proposition Q, which would give a 24-hour notice to encampment residents before abatement.
“It just doesn’t work that way,” he said. “It took a few weeks to get to that level of trust with people. Unless you’re able to do that, the efforts are not going to be successful.”
Albertson helped abate the first encampment under the city’s new program: a dozens-strong tent city on the banks of Islais Creek in Mission Bay. The city moved more than two dozen people there into shelter, but eventually dismantled the encampment and told another dozen holdouts to clear out.
Following the abatement of the encampment around the PG&E building, Albertson and his team will focus on other Mission District encampments: those between 14th and 16th streets and Bryant Street and South Van Ness Avenue.
“This is an area that’s been very difficult,” said Sam Dodge, the deputy director of the Department of Homelessness.
Sprawling encampments line the sidewalks of 16th Street in front of the Muni building near Folsom Street, where a man was found dead last month. On Florida Street between the Best Buy and the SPCA veterinary hospital, dozens of tents have been a mainstay for years, ebbing and flowing in size but a persistent fact of life.
A count by Mission Local in September found some 50 tents in the area. More lie to the west on Alameda Street in another semi-permanent encampment, and still more populate the area under the freeways, Dodge said, but those areas would be addressed in due course.
Other areas near the PG&E building still had encampments. On Shotwell Street between 18th and 19th streets, where police officers shot and killed homeless man Luis Gongora in April, five tents were up. One person said the tents belonged to those who had been moved from the PG&E encampment.
“I think all of us was [from that encampment],” said a woman who wished to remain anonymous. She moved before the final day given by the city, but said that her neighbors were there and told to move along when city staff came.