When the city arrives at an encampment, it often means the homeless residents will be moved on.

But on Wednesday, city cleaning crews cleaned up the sidewalks on 14th and Mission streets and –although the encampment was visibly scaled down – the workers allowed most of the half-dozen or so tents and their residents to remain.

The day’s interactions at the three-week-old encampment shed light on the mounting frustrations of city workers, residents and the homeless.

For their part, neighbors feel the city has decided their blocks are open territory for the homeless who live in tents.

“This northeastern section of the Mission is a containment zone,” said Bryan Nazarian, a 15-year Mission resident who lives half a block up from the 14th Street encampment.

Other parts of the neighborhood, he said, don’t suffer from “the large, long-term encampments the way that we do.”

For its part, the Department of Public Works,  says it simply tries to respond to resident complaints. The cleanups are triggered by a high volume of complaint calls.

“You close what you can,” said a Public Works employee Tuesday afternoon, in reference to the complaints. “You try to get to what you can…by the order [the complaints] are called in.”

The cleaning crew descended on the encampment mid-morning. They had come to remove trash, clean the sidewalks and force the encampment inhabitants to downsize, said another worker – not to “displace anyone.”

One of the workers sprayed disinfectants on the sidewalk around the tents to suppress the smell of urine, he said.  Nevertheless, encampment residents met the cleaning crews’ efforts with dismay and anger.  

The cleaning crew hauled one seemingly abandoned tent and its contents, including a charred mattress, onto the back of a dump truck.

“You ripped somebody’s tent apart,” said one of the campers, who gave her name as Anne. “How the fuck do you sleep at night?”

The Public Works crew called for police back-up in response to the camper’s hostility.

“This is a thankless job,” said a member of the cleanup crew.

“She’s angry for a lot of reasons,” said Elizabeth Stromer, another camper, alleging that the Public Works crew began dismantling the tent and seizing its owner’s property, who was not present, without permission.

Stromer, a former hospice nurse who has been homeless for four years, said that the cleaning crews are “called upon us at least twice a week.”

Elizabeth Stromer, a former hospice nurse, in her home as DPW clears the encampment where she lives on 14th and Mission Streets. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Stromer was recently cited by police for lodging on the sidewalk.  She received four such citations last year. Wednesday’s cleanup, she said, came without notice.

“You guys have been doing this forever, I have seen you a million times – and this is no way to clean up,” Stromer told the Public Works crew.

Stromer said later that most of her interactions with the crews have been cordial and she pointed out one of the employees who had personally tried to connect her to services.  Nevertheless, campers feel harassed by city officials who offer no viable alternative. Moreover, she said, the encampments are the only protection from the violence on the streets.

“What they are doing now is they are clearing sidewalks. Which means that they don’t have to offer us anything,” she said. “But we stay neighbors for a reason – women out here and guys too are being raped and murdered.”

As campers refused to move, the Public Works crew withdrew from the street and lined up against their trucks to wait for the campers to clean up voluntarily.

“We are staying out here as long as we can but we have to leave at some point,” said one worker. “While we are out here, what’s happening to the rest of our work?”

Several residents passed by and thanked the Public Works crew for the three hours of work at the encampment.

“This is so dirty,” said an elderly woman walking along 14th Street toward South Van Ness. By 5 p.m., the tents were still present on 14th Street, but the campers’ belongings were consolidated and inside, leaving the sidewalk mostly clear.

Nazarian, the neighbor, said he was relieved that the encampment had been addressed. Still, he does not believe that the homeless should be shuffled out of sight.

“I want people to find housing – and I want the city to take responsibility for the fact that there is what, 6,000 homeless people and 275 beds,” he said. “This isn’t good for anyone.”