One of the few relatively isolated homeless encampments in the Mission District that self-regulated and seemed to exist with a semblance of order underneath Highway 101 ramps was taken down a month ago by the California Highway Patrol, forcing its inhabitants onto the surrounding sidewalks.
Since then there have been visits twice a week from cleaning crews that campers say have further dispersed what was once a close-knit community.
A month ago, the homeless tenants still lived on the empty land at Cesar Chavez and Potrero Avenue owned by Caltrans, a state agency. Then suddenly, state patrol officers forced them out of land protected by a fence, padlocked the gate that has always been open, and shifted the residents to the other side of the fence and onto the city’s sidewalks and bike paths.
Up until then, the Hairball community, a name attributed to the encampment because of the tangle of 101 on and off ramps that it lived under, had lived protected by the chain-link fence and monitored who came in and out of the gateway.
It has been a difficult transition for the homeless residents who said they had found a certain amount of protection inside the fenced off property.
“I guess it was an eye sore or some shit,” said Corinthians Redmond, who had lived inside of the encampment and has now set up his belongings on the sidewalk. “But look at all this now. This is crazy. It looks worse.”
Indeed, on Thursday the tents were scattered along the sidewalk, leaving little room to pass by. A Caltrans dump truck and cleaning crew and a handful of California Highway Patrol officers stood by for a routine cleanup of the encampment that morning.
The public sidewalks are governed by the city’s Department Public Works and the campers will be subject to cleanings by that department as well, according to a Caltrans employee who engaged the campers in Thursday’s cleanup.
Robert Hause, a spokesperson for Caltrans, said it is unclear what specifically motivated the encampment’s recent removal from the state property but said it is illegal for campers to be there.
In response to the campers now blocking the city’s walking and bike paths, he said: “Where they go is out of our hands.”
Rachel Gordon, spokesperson for Public Works, said that the agency has received increased complaints since the campers have set up along the Hairball’s bike pathways.
“From yesterday’s operation [cleanup] they moved to one of the nearby parks and to bike paths,” said Gordon on Friday. “We wanted to keep them off bike paths because we got complaints from [cyclists] that they can’t get through.”
Gordon referred to the move as a “rotating circle.” To the campers, the relocation made no sense.
“I was under there and now they moved me over here,” said Redmond, who moved from the Caltrans property onto the sidewalk across Cesar Chavez Street. “Now we are blocking the sidewalk.”
A Caltrans cleaning crew employee on Thursday morning said that the fence was chained shut sometime last month and the campers kicked off the state property because “they were breaking into the electrical” boxes underneath the underpass.
He also listed complaints from businesses and nearby residents, pointing to houses on top of a hill that overlook the freeway.
Hause said that he didn’t have documentation for a recent break-in but said that they are common.
“We’ve been dealing with break-ins of our electrical junction boxes – not just from the homeless – because it’s so profitable,” he said, referring to the sale of its wires. In the case of encampments, he said, inhabitants will often “tap boxes and use it for power.”
On Thursday morning, the campers sorted through their belongings and downsized under the watchful eyes of the cleaning crews and police. The latter said it was a routine clean-up – the second one of the week.
Throughout cleaning effort, the campers’ belongings were moved onto a narrow pedestrian walkway, leaving little room for people to pass by.
A cyclist riding northbound on the sidewalk along Cesar Chavez Street shifted onto the street to navigate around two campers sitting on the sidewalk next to their property.
For almost a year, some 30 people lived in the Hairball encampment. Behind the fence that separated the encampment from pedestrians and cyclists, its inhabitants had set up their tents and kept dogs, garbage bins and several grills.
The Hairball was one of the more organized homeless enclaves – it housed families and according to campers who lived there, most respected a set of informal rules in an effort to remain inconspicuous and safe.
“It’s because there’s a lot of shady characters – People that come here and they might want to do bad,” said Redmond, who had been living in the encampment with his aunt. “We all look at each other like a family. So we all stay safe like that. That’s how we keep all the women safe too.”
Redmond became one of the camp’s leaders, and kept an eye on the happenings inside and encouraged respect for the surrounding neighborhood.
“We got rules down here. The rules are you don’t do your dirt outside. If you do anything, take the party to your own tent, that’s your personal business,” he said.
If an outsider came bearing trouble, Redmond turned them away.
“If I see a person coming through and stealing shit, or coming here with stolen shit, I’ve told them ‘hey you’re making this [area] hot. Police are going to come out here and arrest us all for your stupidity,” he said. “I don’t want to go to jail for somebody else’s shit.”
Highway patrol officers supervised Thursday’s cleanup and served as backup for the cleaning crews. One officer referred to the hairball campers as “a community within a community.”
Still, he said, camping on state property is illegal, and it said it was his job to remove them from the area. But with nowhere to go, he said, the campers never move far.
“It’s a circle,” he said. “You want to know the problem, start from the top then go towards the bottom,” he added, referring to city politics regarding homelessness.
Caltrans had posted 72-hour notices warning campers of Thursday’s cleanup, according to Hause.
The state agency and Public Works have a maintenance agreement, and in the past year cleaning crews from Public Works and Caltrans intermittently came by once a week to pick up trash from the encampment.
Hause said his agency will coordinate future cleanups with Public Works in an effort to “do sweeps at the same time.”
But with campers now on sidewalks and on the Hairball’s bike paths, Gordon said Public Works will likely soon be forced to remove them.
A member of the Caltrans cleaning crew on Thursday said that the camp cleanups are “good for them because sometimes they’ve got a lot of garbage.”
“I know some of them they don’t like what we are doing. But we are just cleaning. Yes they have to move. But they can come back,” said a Caltrans employee who posted notices informing campers of next week’s cleanup, and warning them to vacate the intersection from Monday to Thursday. Those who refuse to cooperate could face citation and arrest.
He later added: “To be honest, I don’t like this part of my job because they are already in the streets. I have to do it. But I think one of the things about this is… at least I give them respect.”
The recent relocation has made it difficult for the campers to regain the stability that they once enjoyed in the area – and some speculated that this was the agency’s intention.
“They are making it hard for us to stay here,” said Norma, who lived at the Hairball encampment with her boyfriend and daughter, who is in her 20s, for the past year.
Redmond said that the relocation has in some ways broken up the camp, but that he is grateful that he hasn’t been removed from the freeway entirely.
“At least the police didn’t come through and said, ‘alright that’s it, no more, you guys have got to stay out of this area or you’re going to jail,’” he said. “We are still doing cool, and staying out of the way.”
For her part, Norma expressed resignation.
“They want us the hell out of here but they are not offering any alternatives,” she said, adding that it has been months since the city’s outreach workers have visited the Hairball.