Some 40 people participated in a Sweeps Watch training conducted by the Coalition on Homelessness on Wednesday. Photo by Laura Waxmann

In response to a surge of complaint-driven sweeps of homeless encampments by city officials in recent months, advocates for the homeless are now organizing and training civilians to monitor and document the rampant encampment removals.  

On Wednesday, organizers with the Coalition on Homelessness conducted the city’s first ever “Sweeps Watch” training to coach some 40 residents in identifying and monitoring a sweep. The trainers also encouraged community members to step in and document incidents of harassment or wrongdoing by police and city officials.

“In this period of crisis, you will find people there who are losing everything they have to their name,” said Dayton Andrews, also a human rights organizer with the coalition.

The trainers urged participants to check in with the homeless before addressing police or city officials during a sweep, which trainers defined as a city-sanctioned process in which “people who are forced to live on the street are mandated to move along and there’s nowhere else to go.”

In most of these cases, campers return to swept sites or resettle close by.  

“We call this the sidewalk shuffle,” said Kelley Cutler, a human rights organizer with the Coalition.  

Kelly Cutler, human rights organizer with the Coalition on Homelessness, coaches civilians on supporting the homeless during city sweeps. Photo by Laura Waxmann

“Introduce yourself and identify as being part of Sweeps Watch,” Cutler told participants. “Ask them if this is a sweep or a routine cleanup.  They may look similar but are different.”

Police barricades set up along sites where encampments were removed are a sure sign of a sweep. Otherwise, city services at a camp site is likely a routine sanitation effort in which campers are asked to downsize their belongings or sometimes relocate temporarily.

One woman who participated in the training inquired about the protocol city agencies must follow during a sweep.

“What is illegal for them to do during a sweep and what is legal?” She wanted to know.

Cutler explained that it is illegal for city cleaning crews to trash or destroy camper’s personal belongings without permission and asked residents to note, time, place and details of any sweep.

Last December, a number of civil rights groups filed a lawsuit for confiscating and illegally trashing the personal belongings of campers during sweeps.

Another participant wanted to know what items she could bring to assist campers during sweeps.

“Would bringing plastic bags help people pack up their stuff?” she asked. “Is that a good one thing to have on you at any given time?”

Cutler said that while “bags are good,” but that the city’s Department of Public Works, which facilitates sweeps in San Francisco along with police, usually provides bags to campers.

“It’s more about being there,” she said. Another man present at the meeting suggested bringing a notepad and pen to document the campers’ testimonies and details of the sweeps.

Most importantly, the 40 or so people who attended the training were told to ask the homeless how they could help.

The training on Wednesday stood in contrast with other forums held in the neighborhood by police and neighbors venting their frustrations.  

The Mission District in particular has been left bearing much of the brunt of the city’s homeless crisis.  

Following a major sweep on Division Street last year that permanently removed some 100 people from underneath the freeway underpass but offered few an alternative, many campers resettled in the Mission’s residential neighborhoods.

Andrews told participants that while they have the right to document and record interactions between city officials and the homeless, they are not legally permitted to interfere.

“Our main goal is to observe document and offer support,” said Andrews. “We are not here to escalate.  We try to change the way the city goes about these things.”

The organizers stressed that the work of cleaning crews who are removing trash from encampments is also not to be interfered.

“[Public Works crews] are not our enemies,” said Andrews, explaining that cleanups of encampment sites are necessary to help the campers rid their campsites of unwanted trash.

Members of the city’s Homeless Outreach Team often accompany sweeps, but ultimately work to support the homeless, he said.

“They are social workers. They want to help these people and get them into housing,” he said. “But they are in between a rock and a hard place because they is literally no place to go and they are given a task that’s impossible.”

Sweeps Watch participants are asked to either send documentation and any information they have to or to call the Coalition on Homelessness at 415-346-3740, preferably as the sweep is happening.

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  1. What’s happening with that lawsuit filed in December? I vaguely recall it but haven’t seen anything about it till you mentioned in this story. Sure would like to know if any good has come out of just filing it with the court.

  2. Enough is enough … while I certainly applaud their efforts I would suggest that their concern is misguided at best and at worst contributing to the issue … in fact I’m not at all clear on what exactly they are attempting to do with this ‘observation’ process given the lengths the city goes to in order to conduct the move with as much decency as they can.

    When a city spends $241M (1026 budget) and we still end up with these tent cities and all of their associated issues then we have a failure of policy and a lack of accountability. Street community residents (campers) have choices and clearly they are making the wrong ones (and yes that is being judgmental) but you know what I’m tired, tired of spending egregious sums of money (coming from my property taxes) on supporting social safety nets that clearly do not work. What about the rights of those of us who are in fact the revenue suppliers for the city’s coffers … where do people who want all this ‘help’ to be provided think all this money comes from to deal with this amongst a myriad of city issues. And for those of us who are the tax base we also deserve to receive benefits from the city and that starts with safe clean streets not inhabited by massive tent cities.

    So what’s the solution … as a scientist I would first suggest that they start looking at the EVIDENCE that is published by communities who have successfully dealt with this issue. Second bring the services to the street and at times of day that make sense. Third engage the community of homeowners, business owners, renters, the homeless, subject-matter experts, and those who are ‘concerned’ and may not fit into those aforementioned groups and have them assist the city in finding a sustainable workable solution.

    Frankly I have virtually no confidence in our current District 9 Supervisor, if she’s anything like here predecessor then she is as much the problem. And if I should heartless that couldn’t be further from the truth … I have owned a home in the Mission for 11 years, sending my tax dollars to the city WITHOUT question and putting my faith in their collective ability to make the city better for all but now I’m at my wits end. Every day I walk throughout the Mission and see the collection of tents, garbage, household materials, grocery carts, mess, and yes excrement my anger escalates to the point where I know I need to take action. And now I know that we are reaching a critical mass amongst residents (based on the comments here) and we want this problem addressed, immediately!

  3. Would love these folks’ help observing the needle sharing, burglaries, and assaults outside our office. Our employees are between a rock and a hard place as they have to decide between their safety and getting to their jobs.

  4. Thank you for recognizing the outreach teams and their efforts….they really are in a difficult and very politicized position. A point to make: the police and DPW would rather be doing ANTHING than clearing these sites! They are about as happy with this situation as the campers themselves so please don’t abuse the city workers for just doing their jobs!

  5. Several people in our neighborhood have been working hard for months to resolve the encampment on Mission between 14th & 15th St. We have been repeatedly contacting Supervisor Ronen’s office and Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing to prioritize this location, because the encampment routinely forces pedestrians into the street by taking up the entire sidewalk, prevents neighbors from sleeping at night due to excessive noise, and litters the area with needles and all manner of other items. The location was the site of a bloody stabbing during an attempted rape on March 22.

    The city’s plan is not moving fast enough, apparently due to the lack of Navigation Centers and other services (Proposition K which would have funded these services was voted down in November, for example). Does the Coalition on Homelessness offer workshops with coping mechanisms for neighbors of encampments, or does the Coalition liaise between residents with and without homes? Our neighborhood’s housed residents have been subjected to some pretty intense stuff in the past few years, and we need help building empathy.

    Do advocates like the Coalition believe that the city plan is working? Is the city mis-managing things? Things have come to a boil at 14th & Mission with a very bloody event last week (not to mention the murder on 16th St in December). Is the city doing a good job? It’s a huge problem and a gargantuan undertaking, but the city really seems to be failing.

    1. Very thoughtful post and I would suggest that the city is in fact ‘failing’ … when you have some $241M being spent on homelessness and we still end up with these tent cities and all of their associated challenges then we have a clear failure of policy and a gross lack of accountability! This has got to end and its going to take some very hard and equally transparent conversations around how to get these folks off the street …

  6. I was wondering if any of these good hearted kind and compassionate people would volunteer to be on call to clean up the human feces and syringes that people in homeless encampments leave in residential areas?

  7. I guess the “Sweeps Watch” is not interested in monitoring parked cars for break-ins or secured bikes for theft, or keeping poop and syringes off of the sidewalks. For starters…

  8. just a point of clarification, it is legal for city cleaning crews to trash or destroy toxic items, chemicals, items infested by rodents, items soiled by infections materials, contraband, etc. As Cutler states city cleanings crews are supposed to “bag and tag” personal items during these operations.