A block long collection of tents and rudimentary shelters made of boxes located near an Interstate 280 overpass and Caltrain tracks in Mission Bay, which served as home to upwards of 40 individuals, was dismantled by City officials last month. Staff from the San Francisco Police Department, Department of Public Works (DPW), and Homeless Outreach Team – including Jason Albertson, director of the City’s Encampment Resolution Team (ECT) – led efforts several days before camp removal to usher the occupants to available housing alternatives, such as Navigation Centers, and to store their belongings before torrential rains hit. Amy Farah-Weiss, with the St Francis Homeless Challenge, helped mediate discussions between “Box City” residents and municipal authorities.
Box City residents, along with Farah-Weiss, worked amicably with the ECT to reach an agreement to transfer most of the homeless to the Mission Street Navigation Center, where they’d be allowed to stay in one dormitory together. At the residents’ request, use of pup tents to provide privacy would be considered by the City. More permanent box homes would be stored.
However, while the box homes were stored, there was insufficient room for residents to be placed together at the Nav Center, as initially promised. Privacy tents remain under consideration. Under recently adopted City policy, Nav Center occupants won’t generally be allowed to stay more than thirty days; most will likely leave without finding permanent housing. Data regularly published by the View indicates that the municipal shelter system is overburdened; former campers housed at a Navigation Center are competing with others who want a bed.
“We are disappointed that City government missed an opportunity to build on the Saint Francis Homelessness Challenge’s organizing efforts and service provision to pilot a coordinated, humane, outcomes-driven, and cost-effective approach at Box City,” said Farah-Weiss. “We have been asking the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing for the past three months to coordinate with us on a pilot project at Box City that is aimed to support on-site sanitation, trash removal, hygiene, and mental health services through coordination with DPW and DPH, address all neighborhood complaints through the creation and enforcement of Good Neighbor agreements within the camp, support transition goals with on-site services, and create and enforce geographical boundaries to prevent an expansion of the number of residents. This is the only model that will significantly cut down on the safety and livability issues in our City’s 80 to 100 encampments, through an increase of accountability to and from encampment residents.”
The approach advocated by Farah-Weiss is being piloted in Seattle, where two sanctioned encampments were successful enough for Mayor Ed Murray to proposed at least three additional sites for the coming year. “There are areas in this city where it is unacceptable to have people camp,” the mayor said last fall. “We want to find a way to get people places they can camp, but at the same time we can’t have people in our parks or on our sidewalks, or on school property or areas where they are at risk.” The Seattle pilot includes increased garbage collection around homeless encampments, rapid syringe disposal and stepped-up law enforcement related to drug dealing and sexual assault.
San Francisco’s thirty days and out Nav Center policy suggests that the City has moved from a primary emphasis on housing people through these facilities to using them as a stop gap measure, likely resulting in former campers returning to sites that were only recently vacated. One couple, former Box City residents, indicated that their child had been removed from them due to their homelessness, though they’d already been to a Navigation Center without receiving housing, ending up at Box City, only to be returning to the Center.