What Constitutes a Neighbor: Homeless on the Hill

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Last month the City dismantled a homeless encampment located at the knot of streets that feed into Highway 101 and Cesar Chavez, scattering upwards of 100 individuals into shelters and nearby neighborhoods.  Prior to it being demolished, the View spent time talking with the homeless, the housed, park goers, and afterschool workers in and around the makeshift camp.  While public urination and unsafe behaviors are regular events in the area, so too is a peaceful coexistence that belies the rhetoric that’s often heard about the homeless issue.

The Hill is His Home

Larry (Dutch) lives in a tent that he pitches in isolated spots, away from populated encampments, mostly in the Mission or Potrero Hill.  The View encountered him near the Potrero del Sol/La Raza Skatepark, on Potrero Avenue, where he was camping.  Sometimes his girlfriend joins him; other times he’s alone.  Larry isn’t a “people person,” having lived almost half of his 64 years in prison. 

Born in Petaluma, Larry entered the California Youth Authority in 1969, when he was 17 years old.  Over the next 31 years he was incarcerated upwards of a half-dozen times, often for robberies to support a long-time heroin addiction.  He now takes Methadone, and is on a priority list for senior housing, which, since he’s a San Francisco resident who’s been homeless for more than a decade, he should secure by the end of the year. 

Larry’s preference for isolation was honed, in part, by the many years he spent in prisons’ “hole;” it’s a “part of me that the system created,” he said. He’s tried shelters, but can’t sleep with so many “untrustworthy” people around.  He regularly visits the Walden House’s Bridge program, where breakfast and lunch is served, along with treatment services for parolees.  He receives $70 a month in general assistance, claiming he’d get $200 if he was housed, or “inside”.

“I get up very early and the first thing I do is sweep up my area around the tent,” said Dutch.  Indeed, his camp was neat and orderly, with a large broom parked nearby.  Despite his efforts to remain shipshape, Dutch loses stuff all of the time, especially when he packs it up and leaves it for the day; the San Francisco Department of Public Works takes everything.  But, aside from that he doesn’t have problems with the police or other City agencies.

Dutch performs on his guitar at a Bay Area Rapid Transit station occasionally, making from $20 to $100 playing blues on his Fender.

A Partially Peaceful Coexistence

On a Sunday afternoon in April at Rolf Park, on Potrero Avenue and Cesar Chavez Street, families were playing softball; a drumming group was thrumming away in a far corner.  Across the street, at the Potrero del Sol/La Raza Skatepark, young adults were shooting hoops on the basketball court; skateboarders were practicing daring moves on the concrete bumpers.  And, away from all the action, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity was offering meals to anybody who wanted one, attracting a long line.  The nuns also provided haircuts, and packages of takeaway food.

A softball player, who lives nearby, said he’s hasn’t had any problems with the homeless, though he knows people who’ve called the police in response to the nearby encampments.  Homeless individuals make people uncomfortable, he said, especially families with small children.  But he worried that it “was a tough situation,” and was concerned for the safety of people camping near the “Hairball,” as vehicles often sped by fast, making it dangerous to cross the street.

According to another park visitor, who lives in the area, while it’d gotten worse recently, the homeless situation has been going on for twenty years.  He hadn’t had any particular problems. 

According to Jenny, who has lived adjacent to the park for many years, “…these are not homeless families, they are people who have spiraled down and are taking everybody else with them.”  While she doesn’t call the police in response to the encampments, she’s had to clean up after people who use her front yard as a bathroom.

The manager at Eristavi Family Winery, a boutique, ultra-premium cellar located at 1300 Potrero Avenue, directly across from the skate park, which opened earlier this year, has called the police a couple of times in response to individuals dangerously loitering in the middle of the avenue.  He worried about the homeless, but also is concerned about how their presence might impact his business, though “…generally they are harmless”. 

The owner of In & Out Auto Glass on Bayshore Boulevard has had to move people out from the side of his business. A church goer at Igleasia Roca De Salvacion, on 22nd Street, said that the homeless didn’t negatively impact the church and didn’t pose a problem. 

Doing the Impossible

According to Amy Farah Weiss, of the Saint Francis Homeless Challenge, a quote from Francis of Assisi guides her work:  “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”   She interprets these instructions as suggesting that society should provide for the basic needs of the homeless, regardless of why they’re in that condition, which includes a secure place to sleep and a bathroom. 

Weiss believes that it’s difficult to argue that everybody deserves a home in San Francisco when teachers, nurses, and construction workers are struggling to afford to live in the City.  But, she contends, it’s much less controversial to assert that everyone should have access to a bathroom and a place to sleep.

Weiss supports legislation proposed by District Nine Supervisor John Avalos, based on similar ordinances in Seattle and Indianapolis, which would create a policy for “a humane and strategic protocol to transition people from encampments,” including providing access to  bathrooms and garbage services.  Weiss argued that homeless individuals shouldn’t be moved unless a shelter bed or a housing unit is provided.  She noted that on any given day there are 700 people on the waitlist for 90-day shelters, with a five week wait, and hundreds of people on the streets who have given up on shelters due to delays in getting into them, or because they have a pet, a partner, or don’t want to be constrained by a curfew.

One Possible Tactic

For more than a year the City has operated a Navigation Center at 16th and Mission streets, under a strategy in which those who are homeless are recruited to spend several months before transitioning into permanent housing.  The approach is service-intensive and higher cost than typical shelters.  The individuals being cared for can bring significant others, pets and their belongings. 

Recently, the City proposed opening an additional center at Warm Water Cove, on 24th Street.  In response to opposition from Dogpatch residents, last month the Mayor’s Office proposed an alternative site located at the end of 25th street, near the Muni yard.  Both options are now being considered.