At least 75 people gathered on Polk Street on June 10 to watch a new neon sign flick on. The lighting capped off a ceremony that celebrated Project Open Hand, a longstanding nonprofit dedicated to feeding the elderly and hungry. But hours before the spectacle occurred, dozens of unhoused people were ordered out of the vicinity.
A two-day homeless encampment “sweep” undertaken by police and the city’s Homeless Outreach Team cleared at least 28 tents on nearby Willow Street. Emails obtained through a public records request, originally posted on Twitter and verified by Mission Local, state this clearance was in anticipation of the event — and, specifically, due to the scheduled attendance of Mayor London Breed and Supervisor Matt Haney.
“Hey Ronnie, just met with Peter and he assured me that 40+ tents will be cleared and that the area is intended to be clean this afternoon,” Ian Schneider, a Department of Public Works employee, wrote on the morning of June 10.
Homeless advocates criticized this, and further complained about how, despite the deliberate clearing, inadequate shelter services were offered. City officials expected more than 40 tents on Willow Street needed removal, but were offering “at least 18 HSH shelter beds + whatever safe sleep is available” — a fraction of what would be required to accommodate everyone removed.
“It’s insulting if the city is coming through when there aren’t the resources to back it up,” said Kelley Cutler, a Coalition on Homelessness advocate who personally documented the clearings.
A meeting document also confirmed “extra” police were summoned to patrol the scene and keep the public out until after the event.
Apparently, this to-do was for the mayor. Ronald Rodriguez, an employee with the Department of Public Works, sent an email to his colleague Schneider, asking if he knew the “history of encampments, drugs, and debris in the area.” He continued, “should Public Works be aware so the area is cleared?”
Once Schneider assured it would be, Rodriguez followed up again. “When I staff the mayor I am always there earlier to check things out If [sic] I see anything, encampments, debris, etc. The mayor will be there from 7:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. Thank you, Ronnie.”
Coalition on Homelessness advocate Carlos Wadkins, who was at the June 10 clearing, said these “sweeps” are a tactic the city uses to decrease the “visibility” of the homeless without sufficiently addressing their needs. He pointed to the lopsided proposal of 18 beds for a 40-plus tent encampment.
“That’s an explicitly fucked-up example, where the city knows it will be a big event and a photo opp [sic] for the Mayor and Haney, so they clear the tents to make it look good for the event.” Wadkins said. “It’s transparent and disgusting, and not uniquely so.”
The mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Mission Local requested comment from the Department of Public Works employees and the Healthy Streets Operations Center, linking the emails published between Rodriguez and Schneider. The Covid Command Center responded in an email: “Willow is one of the areas visited regularly. The visits which occurred from June 9 to June 11 were not associated with events occurring in the area.”
They said 28 tents and five structures were observed the first day, and reduced to nine tents and one structure. The next day, it fell to eight tents and no structures.
At least six police officers and a Homeless Outreach Team worker appeared at Willow on the mornings of June 9 and 10, when the Project Open Hand lighting was to begin. In one video recorded by Cutler, five cops approached a single tent.
“It’s such overkill,” Cutler told Mission Local, adding that the police weren’t violent. Some unhoused individuals accepted services. But many simply picked up and moved over to Olive Street on the next alley over, Cutler said.
Covid Command said that “teams” visit Willow regularly; in June, 45 people were offered shelter; 19 accepted, two were housed. In 2021 “teams” visited 17 times and found 302 people who were offered shelter. Ninety-four people accepted, 21 were housed, and the remainder declined.
In a text message to Mission Local, Haney said he wasn’t aware that the street was slated to be cleared in advance.
“I’ve asked my staff to follow up about the support and services that were offered to the people who were in Willow. I believe strongly and have fought hard for more placements and services for people living on the streets and an approach that is not led by law enforcement,” Haney said.
A spokesman for Project Open Hand said it didn’t request the sweep, but ordered permits for the lighting events. “All procedures were followed to ensure safety for all the guests including the Mayor, and Supervisor Haney. It was a special occasion and celebration for us.”
Sweeps aren’t new. Moving unhoused people at any time is considered “traumatic,” Wadkins said, but stressed that in doing so when shelter-in-place hotels are no longer available to residents, and shelters still aren’t accepting pre-covid numbers for safety reasons, the June 10 sweep was in especially poor taste.
Cutler agreed, and said that, in recent days, when she speaks with the Healthy Streets Operations Center, many times only one shelter bed is available for the day. “Instead of what we’re hearing from the city and the mayor of this narrative that people are ‘service resistant,’” Cutler said. “It’s a myth, and it’s also insulting.”
When there are not adequate services, Cutler argued, people move back “because they didn’t get people connected to their resources. Today, Willow Street looks exactly the same.”