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.