A group of residents from the northeastern Mission grilled city leaders on Tuesday about their plans for addressing crime and homelessness in the area, which many said were linked and on the rise.
In the wake of a double homicide on Sunday night just blocks away from where the meeting was held, some residents expressed fear that campers are bringing a criminal element to the neighborhood.
“One of the people who was killed was a long-time homeless individual,” said Carl Peterson, citing at least three other killings that occurred in or near homeless encampments in the past year. “A lot of our meetings have been about feces and tents but it’s getting a lot more serious than that when people are dying so much and all in one area.”
Some 40 of them crammed into a studio space above the confection shop Sixth Course near 15th and Mission streets, where they had met for the first time earlier this month to form a community group.
Concerned with rampant drug use and convinced that the Mission had become a “containing zone” for the city’s crime and poverty, others vehemently opposed additional homeless services – such as a proposed soup kitchen at 1930 Mission St. – moving into the area.
“Everyday it’s very frightening for people like me to get to work,” said one neighbor, adding that she has lived in the neighborhood for two years and is regularly harassed for “being white and having a decent purse.”
“The last thing I need is another 150 people to try and fight my way to down 16th to get to the BART,” the woman said, in reference to the soup kitchen’s clientele.
A homeowner who gave his name as Mark also rejected the idea of serving the neighborhood’s poor and homeless, and called out city leaders for creating a “permissiveness and allowance where everything goes.”
But not everyone in the group opposed services, and philosophical differences on how to solve homelessness quickly became evident among its members.
“We contain people in poverty,” said a neighbor who gave her name as Natasha. “When I see all these tents I feel glad – they actually protect more people. It’s a safety mechanism.”
Several of the neighbors walked out of the meeting prematurely as the woman urged them to be compassionate and help “lift up” the homeless in order to evoke change.
A woman named Melodie, who is homeless, expressed concerns about all campers being lumped into a category of drug users and criminals.
“Every single night when I put my head down, I am breaking the law. I haven’t busted into your house and stolen nothing from you,” she said. “And I am sleeping two feet away from these people that you are not happy about, that you don’t feel safe around, and that I don’t feel safe around.”
Three city officials fielded the group’s questions and frustrations with tent encampments: the Mission’s newly elected supervisor, Hillary Ronen; the director of the new Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, Jeff Kositsky; and the Mission District police captain, Daniel Perea. The meeting was also attended by several advocates for the homeless.
While many of the neighborhood’s large scale encampments were recently cleared by the city, the neighbors say that the campers continue to return, many now settling on their sidewalks.
Kositsky told the group that his department has wrapped up a nearly five-month effort to connect the Mission’s encampment residents to services and housing, and that the responsibility of preventing re-encampment now lies with local police.
“Once we were done, the mayor made it clear [that] it’s the police department’s responsibility to keep those encampments from reforming,” he said. Some 125 people have been moved, he said, with approximately 101 receiving services and shelter. “We have completed our work here in the Mission and I realize it may not look like that.”
His new and understaffed department is doing the best they can within the confines of city resources, he said, adding that the city’s shelter waiting list for the first time hit 1,000 people last week.
But many of the neighbors and local business owners could hardly agree.
“It’s really disarming and concerning to me that your work here the Mission is done,” said a board member of Rainbow Grocery, located at at the intersection of 13th and Trainor Streets. The intersection hosts about a dozen tents, and a customer was recently chased by a knife-wielding camper, she said.
“I have sympathy for folks on the street but I don’t have sympathy for folks committing crimes and hurting people,” she said.
Ronen, who will assume office on January 8, agreed with neighbors that crime and the encampments are unacceptable, but that the latter should be addressed with compassion and more resources. Ronen said she demanded that the encampment resolution team continue its work in the Mission at a meeting with Mayor Ed Lee last week.
Calling the issues of housing and and homelessness “my obsession,” the supervisor elect said she plans to create more shelter spaces and to look at “innovative models” to address mental illness and substance abuse, such as wet houses and safe injection sites.
She then challenged the police captain on his role in ensuring that encampments remain at bay.
“We the police are not going to solve homelessness,” responded Perea, adding that his officers are focused on solving crime. “What we do doesn’t give people the results that they hope for which is, ‘Make that disappear.’ We don’t have the power to do that.”