Pennsylvania Street Gardens Struggle with Urban Ails

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Pennsylvania Garden is located at 249 Pennsylvania Avenue, underneath a John F. Foran Freeway off-ramp near 18th street. Pennsylvania Railroad Garden is on the east side of the 100 block of Pennsylvania Avenue.  Collectively known as the “Pennsylvania Street Gardens” (PSG), the plots suffer from maladies that plague many San Francisco’s parks: pedestrians and dog-walkers use them as lavatories; citizens dispose trash and other unwanted items. Situated out-of-the-way, PSG is an attractive place for homeless individuals to setup camp, sometimes remaining for weeks. 

Overseen by the nonprofit San Francisco Park Alliance, PSG has been tended by volunteers for the past decade, who attempt to create a green oasis that can be enjoyed by all in spite of these obstacles.

According to PSG volunteer coordinator and Potrero Hill resident Annie Shaw, “There’s a communication gap between everyone involved; we’re told to call the police if we see illegal activity, but officers respond quite slowly, and by the time they show up the activity has ceased. With nothing to report they leave, so the problems continue. DPW doesn’t clean up occupied encampments, and getting encampments emptied relies on the police: vicious circle. Lastly, neighbors are reluctant to call when they see illegal activity, so encampments grow unabated as the residents grow their camps, and fires, theft, drug use, human waste, used needles and so on get worse and worse.”

“Our normal procedure would be to request assistance from the City’s Homeless Outreach Team, which is overseen by our partner agency, the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing,” countered San Francisco Department of Public Works media representative Rachel Gordon. 

“Fires have occurred at Pennsylvania Garden as recently as October,” related Shaw.  “In the biggest cleanup operation at that time, it [was] clear about four to five fires were started in the back area at once, leading to terrace structures and several large plants being destroyed. This was a result of a large encampment that took hold, and only after I reached out to the top of the ladder at DPW and SFPD did they evict the encampment. Volunteers cleaned the aftermath.”

“Over the last couple years our tool sheds have been broken into and all tools were stolen multiple times,” said Shaw.  “Police reports were filed, but no further police activity resulted. Other garden structures, like our new dog poop stations, have been damaged, graffiti-ed and stolen. Plants have been destroyed and stolen. Trash, excrement and used needles have been left at the garden every single week. It is ALL cleaned by volunteers.”

Unpaid workers are often diverted from tending to plants to repairing damage and cleaning up, sometimes at risk to themselves. Shaw accidently pricked herself with a used needle during one cleanup.  “I went through six months of testing for various diseases and a lot of stress. Luckily, I’m OK, but it was an unpleasant experience,” she said.

“Is it fundamentally wrong to try to have areas of simple beauty for the community when homeless human beings don’t have a place to live?” Shaw asked. “Should the gardens be given over to encampments until the City has a real solution, or can the City help homeless people while we create spaces for wildlife and community at the same time?” 

PSG – as well as Tunnel Top Park at the corner of 25th and Pennsylvania, Connecticut Friendship Garden, and other commons – was developed by community members, eventually adopted by San Francisco Parks Alliance.  The Parks Alliance collaborates with the San Francisco Public Works Department to maintain community-managed open spaces on publicly-owned properties

“These sites are often 100 percent volunteer driven,” explained Charlie McKone of SF Parks Alliance.  “So, maintenance depends on volunteer hours and neighborhood involvement, not City services. These sites are unique in that they are community driven and managed, and regardless of who is responsible for maintaining any given space, the power of community stewardship and sense of shared ownership over a park/public space goes a long way.” 

Shaw held a community forum in the gardens last fall attended by representatives from San Francisco Public Works, the California Department of Transportation, SFPD, California Highway Patrol, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, and the San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing  SF Public Works responded by installing a trash can at the Pennsylvania Railroad Garden, a large hole in the fence at Pennsylvania Garden was repaired by the California Department of Transportation, and the SF Aids Foundation Needle Pickup Crew has attended to dropped needles through their Syringe Access Services program.

PSG installed new benches and dog waste cans with bags, which volunteers regularly empty. Last summer “No Trespassing” signs provided by SFPD were installed to discourage homeless encampments, along with notices asking people not to use the park as a restroom or allow their pets to.  Installation of lights is being considered to increase safety for park visitors and discourage illegal activity, but the problems created by homeless occupying the gardens persist.

“Without proper mental health care and drug treatment programs, the homeless problem is here to stay,” said Shaw. “I believe we can have a beautiful city and compassionate care for homeless people. Remember, it’s not illegal to be homeless. Unless you raise your voice though, you can expect homelessness to continue affecting everyone.”

Late last year, Shaw and other PSG volunteers celebrated the garden’s 10-year anniversary.  “Hundreds of people use the gardens weekly to walk their dogs and enjoy the plants,” Shaw said.  “We desperately need our neighbors to come to volunteer days…on the first Saturday of every month from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m., and this winter we have a big replanting effort planned; we need people to help us do this work. We provide all the tools, gloves and drinks to keep everyone going, and our little group are devoted, wonderful people who need help! We are open to corporate volunteer days and can accommodate lots of people wanting to give back to the community via their company’s volunteering policy. And if you walk your dog there and use the cans and bags, you really should come to a volunteer day”