Belongings of encampment residents line a bike path at the Hairball. Photo by Julian Mark

An homeless encampment resolution is underway at the snarl of freeway ramps and bike paths located at Cesar Chavez Street and Potrero Avenue. The so-called Hairball encampment is one of the last large encampments in the Mission District.  

In the next few weeks, homeless people won’t be allowed to camp under the freeway overpasses that have been used by homeless residents for years — perhaps decades.

Once cleared, cyclists and pedestrians will be able to ride through the tangle that goes under the freeway without encountering obstructed paths.

“The intention of our encampment resolution work is to resolve an encampment and work with the neighbors and the community to make sure … folks don’t move back in,” said Emily Cohen, a policy manager at the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing.

Cohen said her department had started finding Navigation Center placements for encampment residents two weeks ago.

So far, 19 encampments have been resolved citywide, and 17 have remained clear. Only a few large encampments remain in the Mission, including one on 14th and Shotwell streets, and another on Division near Best Buy.

“That means having conversations with people who come back to the space and saying, ‘you’re not able to camp here any more — this is no longer a camping zone,’” Cohen said. 

After an encampment is “resolved,” it’s up to the police to keep it clear. “If you go back to an area that’s resolved — it is a law enforcement issue,” said Kelley Cutler of the Homeless Coalition. But Cutler added a resolution’s success hinges on where homeless individuals go after leaving the Navigation Center. “It’s really important to look at who is discharged back to street,” she said. 

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In a recent interview, District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen said the Hairball “could not be more urgent for me.”

“I’m urgently concerned about the safety of people camping in the Hairball and worried that someone’s going to get killed,” she said.

On average, Cohen said, an encampment resolution takes three weeks to complete, and becomes officially “resolved” when the police and the Department of Public Works move residents into the Navigation Center on so-called “resolution day” and restrict them from coming back. 

The outreach team had placed 17 people in a Navigation Center and four people were in the process of getting beds, Cohen said at an Oct. 11 meeting hosted by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. An assessment by the department showed some 40 people living in the encampment in August. Cohen said an initial assessment taken not long before counted around 60 residents.

Public Works and Caltrans are blocking off Hairball’s most dangerous areas to make sure they’re not re-encamped, Ronen said.

Throughout the Mission District, the resolution strategy seems to be taking effect. At a recent Board of Supervisors meeting, Ronen declared that the number of homeless tents in the Mission is down from 200 to 50, according to a count her office performed. Later, she said they noticed a reduction after the Navigation Center on 1515 South Van Ness opened.

“We’re working to get more navigation center space so there is enough space for everyone who’s living in the Hairball,” she said.

But over at the Hairball on the Monday, it became clear how difficult it is to get complete buy-in from residents who have been living on the streets for years.

Some people living in the encampment said they didn’t qualify for a spot at the Navigation Center or didn’t want to go.

“I feel it’s a good thing to do,” said Corinthians Redmond, who received an offer from Homeless Outreach Team to move into the Navigation Center. “But I would rather take care of myself on the streets. I’d rather be in a place where I’m comfortable.”

Redmond said he’s reluctant to move into the center because many of his possessions are on the street, and he said he couldn’t move all of them into the center. He also said the center’s atmosphere isn’t right for him.

“I can’t be in a closed area with too many people,” he said.

Romeo Estrello said he missed the outreach team, but he probably wouldn’t take an offer anyway.

“A huge percentage of us don’t want to be in a shelter,” Estrello said. “It’s almost like prison. It’s rowdy, it’s loud, and the Navigation Center is the same.”

Although Estrello has been in and out of numerous city shelters, he said he’s never been to the Navigation Center. Yet he imagines the “dorm setting” would yield many similar anxieties about noise, overcrowding and theft.

“Don’t really feel at home because of the dorm setting with people you don’t really know,” he said.  

Others, like a woman who goes by Norma M., took a placement at the 1515 South Van Ness Navigation Center a couple weeks ago. But, on a recent Monday, she was out at the Hairball encampment to be with her 25-year-old daughter, Vetta, who was waiting for a placement in the center. Her other daughter, who is 18, already received a placement, she said.

“I’m waiting for the HOT team to come and get her,” Norma said. “I can’t be indoors and have her out here.”

Norma was feeling positive about finding housing during her stay at the center. Her brother, she said, found housing at an SRO after 120 days at the center.

“I’m optimistic to find something — a hole in the wall or an actual place,” she said, noting that last winter was especially harsh.

“I’m tired of that,” she said.  

But, like Estrello and Redmond, she was not keen on shelter life. “The Navigation Center isn’t what the media is saying it is,” she said. “You need to light a match under their ass — the food is microwaved and the water is cold.”

Some, like a 33-year-old man who went by Ruben, said they didn’t qualify because they hadn’t been homeless long enough. Ruben said the outreach team told him he didn’t qualify after he told them he had been homeless for eight months.

“That made me lose hope in programs in general,” he said, spray painting a bicycle. “People who are homeless for 10 to 12 years want to be on the streets.”

“I’m gonna get on my feet by myself,” he added. “The more I stick around here, the more fucked up it’s gonna be.”

Priority is given to people who have been homeless for 13 years, said Cutler of the Homeless Coalition. But “if it’s a resolution, they should be offering everyone in that encampment something,” Cutler said.

A resolution might be in its early stages if only some are being offered services, “because they only start with folks who are high need,” she added.

Yet some felt neglected by the outreach team because they weren’t staked out in the encampment.

“They walk right past me and don’t ask,” said a man who called himself Dallas, who was sitting on a bench at James Rolph Jr. Playground, which sits adjacent to the Hairball. He said he’s been on the streets “too long.”

“At least they can ask me,” he said. “They just look at me.”

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Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times.

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  1. I’m confused because when I passed by here yesterday, there were more people and tents and belongings than ever. I have a lot of empathy for both the homeless and the city workers, but I’m honestly just confused about what’s being done. As a member of the neighborhood (I live on Vermont near 25th), is there anything I can do to help?

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  2. Article didn’t describe the effect of allowing those encampments at all.

    FOA, they haven’t been camping there “for years – perhaps decades”. Not at least on the public pathway. There have been campers situated on the Caltrans property under the overpasses; however, for the most part, they didn’t obstruct anyone on the pathways trying to get from A to B. Then about a year or so ago, Caltrans kicked them all out for good (periodic sweeps previous, to no permanent effect). Then, they moved onto City property (the pathway), where they started crowding the path so that it was almost impossible to ride a bike thru. As one of the pix demonstrates, tents on both sides of the pathway. And riders have been assaulted! After one nasty encounter, I avoided the route for months. Can’t imagine too many females using that path. And maybe, as a result, not using their bikes and consider driving.

    Its not a healthy situation for campers, But its even less so for civilians.

    (BTW, they may complain about cold (running) water at the Navigation Ctrs, but there’s NO water at the Hairball!)

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  3. Sometimes I feel some of the homeless are as entitled as the millennials people freely chastise. In your article, Norma says someone should light a match under the ass of the Navigation center because her food is microwaved and the water is cold. This is typical. Why doesn’t she clean up her act and help out – whether it’s in the center or doing something to pay taxes to support the $260M we spend on hell.

    I spoke with a guy (Tony) camping in front of Parque Ninos Unidos. He said he tried a shelter but they kick him out at 8, and what should he do all day? When I was young these people would be called “bums”, plain and simple.

    How about spending some money on teachers and parks? Or transportation improvements?

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  4. It’s not that they “only” offer people with higher needs help, but they do prioritize them, which makes total sense. The reality is that resources are limited.

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