Still No Consistent Government Response to Homeless Camps

in by

The City and County estimates that there are roughly 100 encampments – two or more people living without a structured home, typically in tents – and 700 campers at any one time in San Francisco.  However, based on a survey of state and local government officials, including with the California Department of Transportation, Caltrain, and the Mayor’s Office of Housing Opportunity, Partnership & Engagement, there doesn’t appear to be a consistent approach to addressing makeshift camps.

Encampments are removed principally at the discretion of the agency on whose land they are located, often in response to pressure from nearby property owners.  While public officials indicated that campers are supposed to be given notice of their impending eviction, offered shelter, with their belongings safely, if temporarily, stored, these practices aren’t systematically followed by state or local agencies.

Recently, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, and the WilmerHale law firm sent a letter to the City demanding that it “…put an immediate moratorium on the practice of confiscating and destroying homeless individuals’ belongings, to allow time for the City to develop and implement a new policy that conforms with well-established law.” 

The demand was prompted by several high-profile encampment sweeps, particularly one that occurred last February on Division Street.  According to the letter, “it was only after the sweep was conducted that DPH issued an “Abatement Order to Vacate” when the encampment on Division Street was removed.”  A View reporter observing the recent removal of an encampment under the Cesar Chavez overpass received an ambivalent response from a Caltrans representative about whether notice had been given prior to that ejection.

City officials and homeless advocates agree that there’s a long waiting list for shelter beds.  And, according to information provided by the City to District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener, just two new permanent housing projects for the homeless have been created over the past year: The Baldwin Hotel, with 186 units, and The Henry Hotel, with 121 spots.  The City is searching for another 200 units to master lease. 

The Dogwatch Neighborhood Association (DNA) is working with the City on a plan to open a Navigation Center at the end of 25th Street, which would add modest shelter capacity over its expected three year lifespan.  Key elements could include improved security covering the five blocks surrounding the facility, a midnight to 6 a.m. “lockdown,” ongoing Dogpatch resident involvement in center oversight, and promotion of work assignments for center occupants, focusing on street greening and maintenance, including needle cleanup, coordinated with the Green Benefit District. Leading up to the opening of the Navigation Center this fall, encampments will be removed from the area – particularly along Tennessee between 22nd and 23rd, Iowa between 22nd and 23rd, and the Islais Creek tent city – by the San Francisco Police Department, Department of Public Works, and Homeless Outreach Team. Plan elements will be discussed at a DNA meeting on August 9, 7 p.m., at 654 Minnesota Street.

In response to continued chaos associated with homeless camps and government’s response to them, three legislative efforts have been launched to create a systematic encampment policy.  District 11 Supervisor John Avalos’ proposed homeless encampment policy, which is being reviewed by the City Attorney, is based on an Indianapolis ordinance.  It’d require, among other things, that sidewalks be free from obstructions and comply with the American Disabilities Act, cleaning of areas where homeless people are sleeping occur outside the hours between 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., and that a camp of more than 30 people in a 150-foot radius trigger a City responsibility to provide adequate bathroom and garbage services.

“John’s goal isn’t to legalize tents,” said legislative aide, Jeremy Pollock. “It’s to make sure we have a responsible, humane, and constitutional way for addressing encampments, and to minimize their impacts on neighborhoods while the City works on relocation.”  Despite repeated attempts to get an update on the status of the proposed legislation the View received no response from the Supervisor or his office.

In June, District 2 Supervisor Mark Farrell submitted to the San Francisco Department of Elections, with support from Wiener, District 4 Supervisor Katy Tang, and District 10 Supervisor Malia Cohen, his “Housing Not Tents” initiative, which will appear on the November ballot.  The measure aims to move homeless individuals out of encampments and into housing. “It is not compassionate to allow human beings to live in tents on our streets; it is both dangerous and unhealthy,” said Farrell. “The answer to homelessness is housing, not tents. The City of Saint Francis needs to do everything in our power to get the homeless into housing and out of these encampments.”

Housing Not Tents requires 24-hour noticing, and mandates that shelter or housing be offered to individuals residing in an encampment before they’re removed or that they accept Homeward Bound, a City service that provides paid transportation to a destination outside San Francisco that’s connected to housing.  Under the measure, it’d become a crime for individuals to stay in their tents after they’ve been noticed, punishable with fines.

District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin proposes a 72-hour eviction notice, and to require the City identify alternatives, such as shelter, exit housing or permanent affordable housing, before removing a camp. These exits would be guaranteed within 24 hours, and a plan for campers to transition to long-term housing would have to be developed within 30 days.