Police, outreach workers and the homeless residents of an encampment that had been targeted for resolution in a city-sanctioned process that was already underway were surprised when cleaning crews descended on the encampment at the crack of dawn on Thursday and, without warning, ordered its inhabitants to pack up and move.
The 30 or so residents of the encampment – split between 15th Street and Alameda Street at San Bruno Avenue – had been told earlier that they would be moving on April 27.
“Under no circumstances did they ever come and tell us that this was happening to us today,” said a woman named Shy, referring to the Department of Public Works’ cleaning crews.
On the contrary, Shy and her fellow campers got an official notice that their moving day was still two weeks out.
Those notices appeared earlier this month along 15th Street warning campers that they had to move on April 27, said Shy. Until that time, the encampment residents on 15th Street were receiving counseling and other services priming them for their eventual removal by the city’s Department on Homelessness and Supportive Housing. Shy said she expected outreach workers to service Alameda Street’s campers next.
“We are working to resolve that very large encampment there,” confirmed Randy Quezada, spokesperson for the Department on Homelessness and Supportive Housing, about the campers set up on both streets.
Rachel Gordon, spokesperson for Public Works, said that Thursday’s operation was not a sweep but in fact a cleanup, adding that the campers are allowed to return.
“Today’s action was based on complaints – the encampment became a serious public safety hazard and was spilling into traffic lanes,” said Gordon.
Campers failed to understand that they could return.
Quezada said that the Encampment Resolution Team, the department’s outreach arm, was instructed last week to start with the 15th Street encampment and eventually move campers off of Alameda and Vermont streets as well.
That multiple week resolution process, which ends with some campers getting shelter placements, was instituted by the city last August as a more permanent and humane solution to the tent encampments.
But the department’s ongoing work was interrupted on Thursday morning when Public Works cleaning crews arrived sometime around 6:30 a.m. with dump trucks and police officers to clear the streets.
“I’m not sure about [Public Works’] action there today,” said Quezada.
Neither were police who accompanied the cleaning crews – several officers on site said they were notified at 4:30 a.m. of the cleanup scheduled for two hours later. One said he is tired of moving the homeless without having the ability to offer them a place to go.
“This was a surprise today,” said a sergeant on site who found herself consoling Shy and several other Alameda Street campers. “It seems like there was some miscommunication. I feel bad because these guys were told that they were going to be moved on the 27th, and then we show up today.”
Public Works has long responded to encampments that have grown problematic with either routine cleanups, in which campers are asked to pack up, downsize, and relocate temporarily as cleaning crews sanitize their camp sites, or with sweeps.
While Gordon said it was not a sweep, campers failed to understand that and most simply moved over to another block.
In March, Public Works began authorizing the removal of encampments that had amassed a number of public nuisance complaints, bypassing the city’s encampment resolution efforts.
In regard to the ongoing resolution of the encampment by the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, Gordon said that her teams were aware.
“I believe the teams have been in discussion about resolution process. We couldn’t have the camp spilling into the traffic lane any longer,” she said.
Quezada said his team had no absolute jurisdiction.
“As we are resolving an area we do have to adapt to conditions on the ground,” he said. “These are dynamic spaces.”
But for those who live in these dynamic spaces, the additional shuffling is taking a toll.
“I’m feeling misled,” said Shy, addressing police who were overseeing the action. “You are making us move today just to make us move again in two weeks?”
As a wooden dresser was heaved into the back of a Public Works truck, Shy broke out in tears. “They look at it as trash. But there is some sentimental value in everything that I own,” she said. “It’s all we have and to have such a short amount of time to pretty much get our stuff together… they don’t care. They are just crushing our shit.”
“This is a sweep,” said Kelley Cutler, a human rights advocate with the Coalition on Homelessness who had been notified of the sweep by one of the campers. “This is Public Works going rogue again.”
“While there was a resolution in process, they just came through and throw the whole process out the window today,” she said. “It makes no sense.”