A phalanx of police cars with flashing lights rolled into the burgeoning tent encampment near the Asian Art Museum and Civic Center Plaza late Tuesday and remained into the wee hours Wednesday. Multiple residents here — 120 people or more are inhabiting perhaps 70 tents — say they were told to stay within their tents or risk arrest. 

Lights from at least five police cars, residents say, remained flashing until 5 a.m. this morning. 

Homeless individuals here also say police have threatened them by mentioning a “curfew.” 

There is no curfew in effect in San Francisco or the other five counties under the regional shelter-in-place order enacted on March 17 and extended through the end of the month. There never has been.  

The tents are packed along the sidewalk on the southern side of the museum flap to flap, with little distancing. Many residents were still sleeping within on a wet Wednesday morning.

A pair of men staying in a tent pitched near the front of the museum said police last night told them the “curfew” was at 10 p.m. This came as news to them, but they abided by it. 

“After the curfew, they made us stay inside,” said a man who gave his name as James. When asked why he chose to stay in his tent, he replied the police would “give you a citation or jail or something.” 

Video from late evening on April 28

Messages were left with the police and Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing regarding the action taken here, the impetus for it, and at whose behest it was undertaken. An email from police spokesman Sgt. Michael Andraychak replied “SFPD officers from Tenderloin Station were on-site as part of our efforts to maintain high visibility, reduce crime and remind the public about sheltering in place and social distancing requirements.

Multiple residents here explained how that unfolded for them. 

“Last night, three or four officers showed up and said that unless you have a tent you have to get out,” said Sarah Snider, a tent-dweller here. “If you had a tent, you could stay. But you had to be inside the tent.” 

Forcing homeless people to stay inside their tents did not happen prior to this most recent engagement, said Snider, 32. She’s been staying here for two weeks, and has tried to find other places to live, without success. “They say they have shelters and hotels, but they’re not taking people.”  

Two police cars remained here at shortly before noon. None of the officers present knew anything about any curfew. 

Sarah Snider, a resident of the large encampment near the Asian Art Museum, said that police on April 28 said everyone was restricted to within their tents — and those without tents must leave. Photo by Lydia Chavez.

The Asian Art Museum and neighboring Civic Center Plaza fall under the purview of District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney. 

“What you see around Civic Center and the Tenderloin is the failure to have a plan,” he said. The city, he said, needs to enable both its housed and unhoused residents in this district to be able to physically distance themselves on the public right-of-ways. A tolerance of misery and overt criminal behavior in the Tenderloin even before the pandemic continues, he said — and is now a COVID-19 transmission risk. 

“I’m as left-wing as anyone, but, yes, some people need to be arrested if they’re coming in and preying on people at this time,” he said of drug-dealers — particularly commuter drug-dealers. “It’s a public health risk and it’s just not cool. And our ability to respond to overdoses has been limited.” 

On April 14, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved emergency legislation mandating the city obtain 8,250 hotel rooms and begin proactively placing vulnerable homeless residents within them. Mayor London Breed stated, all along, she had no intention of enacting this legislation — and, because the mayor is not bound to spend the money underlying individual ordinances, she was not required to

Haney is an unabashed advocate of moving the homeless into hotels. Absent that option, however, he advocates for providing sanitation and services to tent sites — sites that are removed from the public right-of-way, in areas where people can physically distance themselves. 

None of these things, he says, are happening now. Without services and oversight and the ability to physically distance, Haney continued, he worries crowded encampments may be more dangerous than allowing people to live, scattered, on the streets. 

A pair of police cruisers remained on-site at the Asian Art Museum encampment into late morning on April 29. Photo by Lydia Chavez.

“It sounds like they may be doing enforcement but not services — and that doesn’t make any sense,” Haney said. “If we’re going to set up permanent encampments, the services have to be robust and the rules on-site have to be clear to people. This feels like a bait and switch: We let people set up and then did enforcement without any warning.” 

Joe Wilson, the executive director of Hospitality House, called enforcements like the one at the Asian Art Museum “the actions of a police state.” 

“This seems like a continuation of the unclear directions regarding the offer of alternative accommodations vs. forcing people to fend for themselves without the necessary support or supplies,” he continued.

“We’re still in the same place where folks are not being offered alternatives but are being harassed and, frankly, kind of terrified into submission without any improvements in the health conditions everyone says they want.”  

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