Defensive boulders arrive at a cleared SF homeless encampment

Public Works has placed boulders in a popular camping spot at the Hairball. Photo by Julian Mark

The Department of Public Works has installed $8,700 worth of boulders as a defense against homeless “re-encampment” underneath the tangle of freeway overpasses at Cesar Chavez and Potrero Avenue known as the Hairball.

More boulders are on their way.

“We put them in there to help deter re-encampment a bit and for aesthetics, just to change it up,” said Larry Stringer, deputy director of operations at Public Works.

In November, the city cleared a sprawling encampment at the Hairball that had persisted there for years. At present, only a few homeless residents remain under the overpass, while others have moved to surrounding sidewalks.   

“It’s more cost-effective than what we were doing,” Stringer said, referring to the weekly cleanups Public Works performed before the encampment was cleared. “We were doing cleanups three or four times a week to keep garbage out.”  

Public Works will continue to install the boulders over the next month, Stringer said.

“That is just typical anti-homeless landscaping,” said Kelley Cutler of the Coalition on Homelessness about the boulders.

She compared them to the highly criticized “anti-homeless” spikes that were being installed throughout London. “This is simply the same thing, but with boulders,” Cutler said.

The strategy isn’t new in the United States. Similar strategies have been criticized in San Diego, and more recently — like this week — in Seattle.

In July, redesign plans for the San Francisco Library’s Castro branch faced criticism for employing “defensive design,” which included hard rocks, spiky plants, and metal railings on the library’s exterior.

After a homeless encampment was removed in 2013 under Interstate 280 freeway near the downtown Caltrain station, Caltrans installed $300,000 worth of fencing to keep campers from moving back.

Walking through the Hairball recently, it became clear that some of the boulders were placed strategically, while others were clustered in certain areas, leaving plenty of room for people to occupy.

Stringer said that boulders are now being “stockpiled” in certain areas and will be relocated throughout the property.

Robin Walter, who has been sleeping in a tent at the Hairball, said she noticed the Public Works crews start installing the boulders two and half weeks ago.

“It’s stupid,” she said. “You could still put something there, and two of us could easily move them.”

Stringer said there are no penalties for tampering with the boulders, but California Highway Patrol — who has jurisdiction over the Caltrans-owned land — could issue citations for trespassing on the property.

Some boulders are “stockpiled” in areas and will be spread throughout the property. Photo by Julian Mark.

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31 Comments

  1. Grant Lovering

    Why they could not have thought of this 30 years ago? We are spending $250 MILLION dollars a year on this bullshit – more rocks please!

    • Perhaps you could donate your head.

    • Yes, this is a great solution for the heartless.

      • Mitchell

        I’ve been homeless, but I never took it for granted that the sidewalks and streets were an appropriate place to pitch a tent.

        As this article makes abundantly clear, these campers are abundantly clear that their encampments are an affront to the surrounding neighborhood and to passers-by — and their response is, “I’m gonna camp here anyway! Screw you!”

        So who’s “heartless”?

      • Mitchell

        I’ve been homeless, but I never took it for granted that the sidewalks and streets were an appropriate place to pitch a tent.

        As this article makes abundantly clear, these campers are well aware that their encampments are an affront to the surrounding neighborhood and to passers-by — and their response is, “I’m gonna camp here anyway! Screw you!”

        So who’s “heartless”?

        • John Joseph

          you are, Mitchell.

          • Mitchell

            Nonsense! Consideration doesn’t cost anything, and doesn’t even require a roof over one’s head. Been there, done that! I’m not demanding anything I don’t demand from myself. I don’t need to be patronizing in order to prove I have a heart.

    • AND YOU’LL continue to have this problem until a rational solution is found…..so far? nothing…..Tiny Home Villages are part of the answer….with services to ensure mental, health, security and education for rehab are included. A whole lot cheaper then $250,000,000 to build ‘affordable’ housing…..

      • Mitchell

        Tiny home villages (and dedicated campgrounds) are certainly part of the answer — along with Zero Tolerance for street encampments. So, too, perhaps, is a crash program for building low-income housing. Throwing money at “services,” not so much. First and foremost, this is a land-use problem and a housing problem. With a roof over one’s head (or an appropriate place to camp out), it’s one’s own responsibility to shape one’s own life.

  2. amyjo9

    San Francisco = dumb as rocks

  3. natethegrate

    Are you kidding me? San Francisco has nothing else to do with its money than this?

    • Patrick Waller

      Having spent a billion dollars on homeless efforts in the past decade, you’re upset at this? Where have you been?

  4. Dan Hodul

    How freaking sad that this is the city’s response to the homeless crisis

    • Patrick Waller

      The City’s been spending $245 million per year for at least the last decade. With zero improvement for the homeless and no reduction in their numbers.

  5. Missiondweller

    I’d like to see two people move a boulder.

    Housing should be found for the people but not in San Francisco. Nobody has the “right” to live for free here.

    100 years ago we had “Poor Farms” where people could live and work and feed themselves. These campers just want freebies.

    • Totally over it

      No, don’t grow a soul…I’m struggling to live in the Bay Area. I do not reside in the city because I CANT AFFORD TO. All these comments about the billion dollars over the past decade spent on homeless improvements…WHERE DID THE MONEY GO? I can think of better uses for it and I’m tired of the money being wasted on the homeless problem.
      Those of you who think it’s okay to throw a billion at an issue that has seen nothing but increase probably aren’t struggling to pay rent. My compassion for the problem may return if, I myself, am able to keep a roof over my head.

      • And I suppose if it was up to you they should just go somewhere and die? Is good to be heartless?

        • Mitchell

          There’s a difference between having a heart and being patronizing and self-righteous.

        • Mitchell

          No, they don’t have to go somewhere and die; they should find another way to make a life. Consideration doesn’t cost anything. By camping on the street — against the wishes of their neighbors — they’re saying (in effect), ‘Screw you, San Francisco!’” I’ve been homeless, but I never took it for granted that the sidewalks and streets were an appropriate place to pitch a tent — and instead of burning my bridges, I found ways to connect with people. That’s a matter of resourcefulness, of agency. There’s a difference between having a heart and being patronizing and self-righteous… let alone, an enabler.

  6. Mark

    Stupid, stupid, stupid. I’m not a cheerleader for the homeless but they have to live somewhere. If there are not programs to find them housing, you can expect they will come to places like this.

    • Mitchell

      There are ALREADY programs to find them housing, and there ought to be more — along with dedicated campgrounds (not necessarily in our most desirable neighborhoods).

      Meanwhile, these folks don’t all HAVE to live in San Francisco — and certainly not in whatever locations they choose. As I say in another comment, “Find somewhere else to go. If you have such deep roots in this city that you feel you must stick around, find a friend here who’ll put you up. If you’ve burned all your bridges, that’s your problem. Don’t make it ours. By camping on the street — against the wishes of your neighbors — you’re saying (in effect), ‘Screw you, San Francisco!’”

  7. Courtney

    Couldn’t they have used the $8,700 to build housing?

  8. Installing spikes is the only solution. Those boulders are useless.

  9. Mitchell

    In another story on these boulders, a camper says, “I mean the boulders to me, is like they’re saying – screw you guys!”?

    That gets it backwards. Camping on the street is like saying, “Screw you guys!”

    Find somewhere else to go. If you have such deep roots in this city that you feel you must stick around, find a friend here who’ll put you up.

    If you’ve burned all your bridges, that’s your problem. Don’t make it ours. That, again, is like saying, “Screw you guys!” What goes around comes around.

    • ...and another thing

      I totally agree with you. It amazes me the money WASTED on this. What about throwing some money toward schools, arts, etc. Yes, I’m an evil bitch. Thank you.

  10. Derek Warner

    This is a huge problem in our city and others
    Other countries have work/live farms, but folks have to be drug and alcohol free.
    Nothing is free for anyone , let’s get real here.
    Mist of us bust our humps everyday. No one hands us cash for doing nothing.

    • Mitchell

      Let’s get real here, Some people are indeed handed cash for doing nothing. It’s called “interest,” “inheritance,” or “capital gains,” among other things. In many instances, it’s harder to make money by working than for money to make more money. Fairness isn’t as simple a matter as one might like to think.

      Under such circumstances, it might not be unreasonable to view housing (or health care) as a right. Then again, even if housing is a right, people don’t necessarily have a right to impose themselves on others in whatever way they choose, wherever and whenever they choose. One’s right to swing one’s fist (or to defecate or erect a tent) ends where someone else’s nose begins.

      Forced labor isn’t necessarily an answer to what’s basically a land use question (nor, necessarily, is forced sobriety). Consideration is a responsibility all of us must face, each in our own way. To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose.

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