Despite a city ordinance that gives homeless campers 24 hours to move and mandates that they be connected with a shelter alternative, police maintain the right to move encampments at their own discretion.

Two long-term homeless encampments that existed just a street apart from each other have been cleared since Sunday, one by police in a virtual sweep and the other by city homeless agencies in a three-week resolution process that included finding an alternative for the campers.

“SFPD still is acting as though they have the ability to sweep an encampment without offering shelter or noticing,” said Amy Farrah Weiss, founder of the Saint Francis Homelessness Challenge. “We need to have a different approach that actually assesses and addresses unsanctioned encampments prior to being targeted by the Department on Homelessness.”

In a process that involved almost a month of outreach and ended on Valentine’s Day, some 35 residents of the Trainor Street encampment, located on the alleyway wedged between Folsom and Harrison streets behind Rainbow Grocery, were offered refuge from the streets. Most were placed at the Mission’s Navigation Center for the homeless, a low-barrier 30-day triage center, while two more were admitted to city shelters.

But about a dozen people living on Erie Street, an alleyway on the west side of Folsom, were moved without notice, without offers of shelter and with no regard to the protocol required by Proposition Q that voters approved in November.

The so-called “tent-ban” ordinance makes tents pitched on city sidewalks illegal and amended the police code to empower officers to remove encampment residents with a 24-hour notice. As it turns out, however, police can go in at their discretion and move encampments – without notice or shelter.

“If a Public Works worker was to confiscate a tent or a homeless outreach worker were to [move] an encampment resident, they would have to give 24 hours and the option of a shelter,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition on Homelessness, calling Proposition Q’s promise of “housing for tents” a “false narrative.”

“But police have a whole host of laws against homeless people they can use to remove encampments,” she said.

Sam Dodge, deputy director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive housing, which since last summer has spearheaded citywide efforts to clear sidewalk encampments and transition their residents into housing, said that the agency is following its own best practices that offer even more time than required by Proposition Q.

“That 24 hour notice [policy] is specific to Prop Q. – we are not using that,” said Dodge. “We give a written notice and post it with at least 72 hours warning.”

The police, Dodge said, are not named as an “enforcement entity in Prop. Q,” adding that “it doesn’t supersede other safety or criminal parts of the [police] codes.”

As far as local police are concerned, Proposition Q carries no weight when it comes to moving encampment residents.

“We have not received any instruction or directions about Prop. Q,” said Mission Police Captain Daniel Perea. “My basic understanding is that there is nothing in that proposition that [says] police are involved in the enforcement of it.”

The confusion was evidenced on Saturday morning when the Erie Street campers were roused by “a group of lieutenants and sergeants” standing outside of their tents, armed with an ultimatum: the campers had to move immediately, or else would become subject to ticketing and arrests.

“They told us we have 45 minutes and that [Public Works] trucks were on their way,” said a woman named Couper, who said she has been living on Erie Street for about a year.

Grounds for the encampment’s removal, according to Perea, were accumulated complaints against several of the campers that culminated in the weekend sweep after a local merchant complained that they were blocking the driveway to his business. Police officials have set up barricades along the alleyway sidewalk to discourage re-encampment on Erie Street. 

“We didn’t go out there because there is a Prop Q. issue,” said Perea, referring to the ordinance’s criminalization of tents on sidewalks. “We went out there because there was a law being violated – people were substantially blocking the sidewalk.”

The Erie Street encampment had received a number of complaints, according to Perea. Couper acknowledged that two of the encampment’s residents refused to comply with her demands that they keep the area tidy and cooperate with their surrounding neighbors.

“We did have some problem people that we wanted gone. They made the whole encampment suffer,” she said.

Police’s efforts to remove the Erie Street encampment on Saturday were stalled by homeless advocates, but the encampment was ultimately removed on Sunday morning.

Barricades have been set up along the sidewalk on Erie Street. Photo courtesy of Amy Farrah Weiss

None of its residents received an offer of shelter, and instead dispersed into the surrounding neighborhood.

“I said, ‘do we have any backup, like housing opportunities?’ And they said, ‘no, that’s not our job. We are here basically to get you to leave,’” said Couper. According to the woman, no one from the city’s Department on Homelessness and Supportive Housing’s Encampment Resolution Team was present to offer services or placement.

Couper, a former San Francisco firefighter, said that after making phone calls to outreach workers, members of the HOT team arrived, but all of the campers remain on the street.

Dodge said the Erie Street development was “not something [police] preplanned with us.”  

“It appears that it was a police operation based off of other activities not to do with housing status,” he said.

But advocates for the homeless said that police’s efforts to address the merchant’s complaints only further destabilized the camp residents, and did nothing more than push the issue a few blocks over. Couper, for example, moved her tent less than 50 feet away.

“With the city’s new Department on Homelessness,  they’re supposed to be having a kinder gentler approach to sweeps and giving people two weeks notice. They are doing that for some encampments and not for others,” said Friedenbach. “What we are doing is destabilizing people … [and] pushing people around from block to block. We are using a lot of resources to move people around …and [that is] not solving the issue.”