Large encampments are gone, but homeless residents are still here

#SFHomelessProject. Coverage all week.

Gone are the Mission District’s major tent encampments of two years ago, but a seemingly growing number of homeless residents remain, according to a count by Mission Local. They have become a permanent part of the neighborhood’s demographics, remaining here for many of the same reasons that real estate agents promise their clients: good weather, friendly neighborhoods and convenient transit.

Earlier this month, Mission Local counted 261 homeless individuals and 70 tents in the area between Dolores and the freeway, Cesar Chavez and Market Street over the course of four days.

This compared to the 257 unsheltered individuals in the city’s 2019 point in time count of District 9, an area that is nearly double the geographical area of the central Mission. 

Despite the new Navigation Center near Division Street, the encampment resolutions of 2017 and 2018, and politicians scrambling to come up with solutions including a temporary navigation center that has since closed, Mission Local’s count of 261 individuals in the heart of the Mission is roughly similar to the 248 counted by the city’s point- in-time count in 2015 in all of District 9 and the 281 counted in 2017. 

 “You have a lot of programs that are enabling a lot of people to exit homelessness, but at the same time you have a big influx of people who are coming into the condition,” said Peter Connery, the vice president of Advanced Survey Research, which provides the methodology for most homeless counts throughout the Bay Area, including San Francisco’s

As has been the case in earlier years, many of the homeless are found in the Eastern Mission closer to Potrero and near industrial blocks. The largest encampment — comprised of five tents — was found at Hampshire near Cesar Chavez. Two large tents able to accommodate a half dozen people each were situated under the freeway overpass, in the area known as “The Hairball.” 

Julie Dias, right, and Ronald Hicks, left, set up their tent at one of the walking paths underneath Highway 101. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

Otherwise, the neighborhood’s homeless tend to live in groups of two to three tents and singular tents while others find shelter in doorways, against the sides of buildings, or on stoops.

Earlier: In San Francisco, we obsess over contrived homeless stats — and neglect the ones we really ought to know. 

Another barometer of an increase, said Carolina Morales, an aide to District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen, are the number of email complaints Ronen’s office receives. While those had diminished earlier this year, they have surged again in the last two months, Morales said. 

Earlier in July, Morales walked by the Santana Mural on 19th Street near Mission Street and said that the musician’s face was nearly covered by a “humongous” tent. “That is a huge thoroughfare,” Morales said, “and evidence that the Department [of Homelessness] is not paying attention and being consistent.” 

Morales, who once did her own weekly count, says the Department of Homelessness needs to keep itself accountable by doing more frequent counts, a test of whether its measures are succeeding. 

The further we got from Valencia Street, the fewer homeless folks our reporters saw. At times, the neighborhood could seem almost suburban, and then abruptly, at Valencia Street, residents pushing carts with their belongings began to appear. Figures, mostly men, slumped inside doorways or against the side of buildings. Some slept – sometimes in the middle of the sidewalk – others stared into space or appeared disoriented. Few, if any, panhandled at all. 

The majority of the men and women we spoke with seemed almost disbelieving that they would be anything but homeless. Orlando, at 17th and Valencia Streets, said he had simply been “homeless all of my life.”  

Orlando on 17th and Valencia Streets. Photo by Aleka Kroitzsh.

It’s not an uncommon trend, according to Connery. “We’re generally seeing longer episodes of homelessness,” he said. “There are new people coming in and it’s harder for people to get out of their homeless state.” 

Housing stock is being taken away and not being added quickly enough, he said, and there are not enough low-barrier shelters.  

Most of the individuals our reporters talked to had long been in the Mission. “I always come back to the Mission,” said 48-year-old Mission native Stiles Sisson, who was living at Alabama and Alameda Streets, near Highway 101. “I’ve been here my whole life” 

Stiles Sisson, a 48-year-old homeless man, said he’s dealt with homelessness his entire life. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

How can you help the homeless? A Bay Area guide. 

Connery said that this, too, is a common trend, with 66 percent of homeless people tallied in San Francisco’s 2019 point-in-time count having previously lived here. “There are a lot of locals,” he said. “The folks … want to access personal safety nets which are more local.” 

For Sisson and others, these are the practical concerns of any resident. “It’s the warmest part of the city and the flattest,” he said. “It’s best for riding bikes here, which I like. There’s a little bit more freedom here, more elbow room here and less scrutiny. A lot of positives.” 

Kat Davis and her puppy on Potrero Hill. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

Kat Davis, 43, who has been homeless on and off since 2013, agreed. Although she said it was very dangerous for a woman anywhere in the city, she added, “I like the Mission District because of the Hispanic community. I feel very drawn to that culture. I love how they treat family, how family is very special.” 

And 60-year-old Clay Monts De Oca, who had been homeless for a year, said the Mission was “the nicest area there is.” He lived in Stockton when he lost his housing and headed to San Francisco, a place he had always liked. 

“It’s beautiful,” he added. I love families and there are a lot of them here.” 

Some of those Mission Local spoke with, like De Oca, had only recently become homeless, but they were the exceptions.

For the newly homeless, there seemed to be one event that made the difference. 

Clay Monts De Oca, a Stockton native, said he loves San Francisco and the Mission. His experiences have been positive here, he said. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

Antonio, 26, lives with his mother in side-by-side tents, and has only been homeless for eight months, he said. He nearly got housing after being in a Navigation Center on Bayshore, but failed and placed the blame on himself. 

“We kind of waited until the last minute to complete one of their requirements,” he said. 

Nathaniel Schull, 60, lives on Alameda Street between Bryant and Potrero. He had just been evicted on the 16th of June, he said. 

“I’m a veteran and on General Assistance,” he said. “About three or four years ago I was beaten in the head by four guys and I was in the hospital so I’ve got some memory problems. They sent me a letter that I forgot to reply to and when I didn’t respond to it, I got evicted.”  

Although he once had a room at Mission Hotel SRO, Nathaniel Schull finds himself among the many homeless surviving on the streets of the Mission. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

Some people living on the street, like 47-year-old Marlon Munoz Cruz, never recovered from an initial setback. As the Cuban native stood with his cart at Valencia between 22nd and 23rd streets, he said he had been homeless in the Mission since the cancellation of his Social Security.

While some of the longer-term homeless residents had spent time at one of the Navigation Centers, many had mixed reviews of the experience. They complained of unsafe and unsanitary conditions, being robbed, and not being able to stay long enough. 

Sabrina Rodriguez, a Mission native, said she was in a Navigation Center with her boyfriend, but that it had not gone well. “They expect you to do everything in 30 days, which is impossible to do … they kick you out after 30 days. It’s kind of devastating. So now we’re just back on the streets.”

Marlon Muniz Cruz on 23rd and Valencia Streets. Photo by Aleka Kroitzsh.

Mission native Sisson said he had never managed to get into a Navigation Center. “If the HOT team [Homeless Outreach Team] takes you in, you get a bed for a month, but I can’t seem to get in or see the HOT team come by. The police never seem to have time.”

Many repeated the complaints about shelters that have long circulated among homeless residents: bed bugs, a lack of safety and dirty bathrooms. All are reasons they avoid them. 

In the last two years, they have also avoided setting up larger encampments. Those camps eventually drew the city’s attention and were frequently the sites of visits from the Department of Public Works and police.

Nowadays, said Sabrina Rodriguez, who has been homeless for four to five years, “We avoid being in big groups because it attracts a lot of attention from the cops and problems like that. So we just stay alone.” 

“Being with a group of people can be a problem,” she said. “If you’re by yourself with your significant other, it’s fine. You try to make the most of what you got.”

“You kind of got to stay positive.”  

How can you help the homeless? A Bay Area guide.