San Francisco Public Works workers clear a homeless encampment on 14th and Mission Streets in 2017. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

In response to increasing tensions between San Francisco’s housed and unhoused neighbors and an ever growing stack of complaints about homeless encampments – the city’s Department of Public Works last week decided to take matters into its own hands by “deep cleaning” and essentially removing a number of them in the Mission and in South of Market.  

Nuisance and public safety complaints made attending to the encampments a high priority.

Rachel Gordon, spokesperson for the San Francisco Department of Public Works who was clearly frustrated with the number of calls the department is getting said cleaning crews picked up some “55,000 pounds of trash and close to 4,000 needles” over the course of a week in mid-March.

“We looked at the top 10 encampments in terms of size, complaints and the time our workers are putting into deep cleaning of areas,” said Gordon “I call it deep cleaning, some people call it sweeps.”

Campers, though forced to vacate their camps and remove their belongings, have the option to return, said Gordon.

The clearings differed from a massive encampment removal effort last March at Division Street because campers there were not allowed back.

“The difference with Division in March 2016 was no re-encampment,” said Gordon. “Police actually did go through the area for … months and said ‘you can’t be here.’”

The operation bypassed the city’s latest effort to address the homeless crisis through a coordinated entry system in which tent encampments were targeted one by one, their inhabitants served with a written notice of their removal and primed over the course of weeks for their transition into shelters or supportive housing.

While that process was looked on as more humane and permanent, it proved to be slow-moving because there is no permanent housing situation to take in the 1,000 plus people living in tent encampments and makeshift shelters in San Francisco.

Proposition Q, passed by voters in November, gives homeless campers 24 hours to move and mandates that they are provided with a shelter alternative and property storage before their tents are removed – but with long wait lists for shelters, this ordinance is unenforceable.

The Mission, SoMa and Potrero Hill neighborhoods have the highest concentration of the some 75 active tent encampments in the city according to Gordon.

Ahead of last week’s encampment clearings, Public works notified police and the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. Campers also received a verbal heads up by cleaning crews, she said.

Public Works has previously said that while it is tasked with cleaning encampments, it is not responsible for removing them or displacing campers.

Routine cleanups by the department’s hotspot crews are usually administered in the morning and include removing trash and hazardous materials, power washing sidewalks and forcing campers to downsize accumulated trash or debris if they are blocking pedestrian or vehicular pathways.

Gordon said, however,  that last week’s effort “went a step further than routine cleanups.”

Encampments were removed and their inhabitants asked to “pick up and leave,” said Gordon, adding that the encampment clearings were temporary and that campers could return to their old campsites if they wished.

“In every instance, people moved across the street or around the corner,” said Gordon.

She said that none of the campers that were forced to move took the cleaning crews up on the department’s offer to “bag and tag” their property – a program in which personal belongings of campers are preserved at a Public Works storage facility for 90 days.

But amid growing frustration, the agency said it was forced to act. The clearings were prompted by a number of complaints by the public.

“Today I saw an encampment on [17th and Utah streets] where tents were in lane of traffic. That is unacceptable,”  said Gordon on Friday. “People are putting themselves in danger by having to walk on the street [because the sidewalks are blocked].”

Also unacceptable, said Gordon, are encampment residents “sleeping on top of rats.”

“This is inhumane,” she said.

In the fiscal year 2015/16, the city spent almost $8.4 million on labor and supply for routine cleanups that include encampment clearings – up from $4.7 million in the year before.

Mission District Supervisor Hillary Ronen said that “moving people isn’t the answer.”

“People should only be moved if they are being offered a shelter space,” said Ronen. “The problem is that there are only 1,700 beds for 7,000 people living in the street.”

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The only way to fix that problem, she said, is to “create many more beds in our system.” Ronen said that she is actively advocating for the construction of additional Navigation centers and housing units.

Sam Dodge, deputy director of the Department on Homelessness and Supportive Housing, told Mission Local that 270 units will be added to San Francisco’s supportive housing stock this fiscal year.

But the urgency of the homelessness crisis is seemingly outpacing her efforts and those of the other city leaders working to address it.

“Unfortunately the movement … it feels that the response is too slow for the seriousness and the gravity of the problem,” said Ronen. 

“I can’t authorize spending of city dollars to acquire new lands for navigation center– that’s only possible through the mayor’s office,” she said.

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  1. For sure so happy to see the city getting that cleaned up but I agree what are we going to do to solve this never ending issue. Tents popping up every where with blocks and blocks full of garbage bringing down home values making neighborhoods unsafe. I hope for the safety also of these workers I saw these homeless people walking with a needle in his hand in broad daylight. Sharing with the other homeless people this is a very sad and disturbing epidemic.

  2. I remember when Mayor George Moscone had a plan for homelessness. Maybe you should hold a convention or conference for all city mayors to come up with a “plan.”

  3. Hillary,
    If you could snap your fingers and have 7000 beds, do you think the homeless problem would end? Do you think people wouldn’t come here (like they do now) from all over the country to get free beds and food (and easy access to drugs in the mission)? Amazing that you think more beds would solve the problem.