Homeless encampment in South of Market neighborhood in San Francisco. Authorities have been sweeping areas where homeless people live throughout the city. Photo by Lynn Friedman/Flickr

A Perfect Storm for San Francisco’s Homeless Camps: El Niño, Super Bowl 50 and Sweeps

story by TJ Johnston

Five years of severe drought have made for atypically dry winters in Northern California. But San Francisco’s staggered response to El Niño-generated rainstorms — and the sudden eviction of tent dwellers on and near Division Street — have left the city’s unsheltered residents looking for cover.

The return of the coastal warm-weather pattern for the first time since 1998 — and last month’s Super Bowl 50 celebration — has placed the city’s methods of relocating homeless people under scrutiny.

On March 1, the City’s Department of Public Works (DPW) cleared out the remaining tents on Division Street where as many as 300 people lived, one week after the Department of Public Health (DPH) declared the site a health hazard and gave camp residents 72 hours to leave. As the crews hosed down the streets, they also put up barricades where the tents stood.

But when DPH issued the abatement order on February 23, crews from DPW and the California Department of Transportation that same day had already begun dismantling some tents and disposing of homeless people’s property without tagging the items. A photo on Instagram showed a disabled resident’s walker thrown into the back of a Caltrans truck and crushed.

The final clearance was six months in the making, beginning last August when Mayor Ed Lee announced that people living in encampments must leave before the festivities around Super Bowl 50 began the following January. “We’ll give you an alternative,” he said. “We are always going to be supportive. But you’re going to have to leave the street. Not just because it’s illegal, but because it’s dangerous.”

Lee announced the opening of temporary shelters on Piers 29 and 80 in January during a time of downpours. Pier 29 is located near Fisherman’s Wharf — as well as the Super Bowl City that displaced homeless people from the Embarcadero and the Financial District. Pier 80 is near the end of César Chávez Street in the Bayview. The Human Services Agency (HSA), which is tasked with the City’s homeless shelter services, estimated that each could hold 100 people apiece.

The city sold the rainy-day shelters to the public as ports in a storm where homeless people could keep dry on a nightly basis through March 31. HSA has since extended operation of the Pier 80 shelter to July 1.

In the meantime, other temporary rainy-day shelters, or pop-ups, have been set up at St. Anthony Foundation, the Gene Friend and Mission Recreation Centers, the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center, and even the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. The Multi-Service Center (MSC) South, Next Door, and Lark Inn shelters also expanded their capacity on a short-term basis. The pop-ups complemented the winter shelter program where churches in the city opened their doors to homeless people. Until the program ended on March 6, up to 100 mats were laid out to single males and 30 for females.

HSA announced on a March 9 update that the pop-up shelters had 225 mats available and that the winter shelter expansion would continue through April 2. But with an estimated street count of just over 3,500 people according to City figures from last year, filling all temporary mats available would barely make a dent in the unsheltered population.

This winter, homeless people living in tents along an almost one-mile stretch of Division Street beneath U.S. Highway 101 started reporting an increase in police encounters in the days leading up to the Super Bowl. Some of Division Street’s newer residents had just moved from the Embarcadero area, saying police had kicked them out to make room for Super Bowl City.

At a January 28 press conference outside an Office Max, POOR Magazine announced its research of increased DPW seizures of Division Street inhabitants’ property in the past year. In the middle of the presser, the NBC Bay Area affiliate shot footage of DPW a crew’s attempt to throw tents away.

While outcry rang from neighborhood merchants and homeless advocates alike, the city prepared the Pier 80 shelter at the southeastern corner of the city. The shelter — which was the site of the Oracle America’s Cup yacht racing team in 2013 — opened on February 5.

Inside Pier 80, before sheltering homeless folk. Photo by Alan Grinberg/Flickr

But the first thing shelter seekers saw when walking toward the gate at Pier 80 was an eight-foot tall fence with razor wire and a sign reading “Danger No Trespassing.” A two-minute walk to the facility, which resembled an airport hangar, added to the inconvenience.

A shortage of amenities including storage space, and the three-mile distance from downtown, limited the capacity to 20 people who were referred by the SF Homeless Outreach Team (SFHOT). Its capacity has incrementally grown— and repeatedly been filled — since the shelter opened. As of this writing, the shelter accommodates 180 people.

Eventually, the shelter started accepting MSC South’s overflow. In a February 19 news release, HSA said that Pier 80 was taking up to 100 people and accepting referrals from SFHOT, DPW, and the Police Department, as well as from the drop-in centers at MSC South and the United Council of Human Services. MSC South was reported to provide shuttle vans to and from Pier 80.

But homeless people who were contacted by the Coalition on Homelessness, publisher of the Street Sheet, have greeted the temporary shelter’s opening with a wintry reception.

During outreaches to Division Street, tent residents who went to Pier 80 on the first day told the Coalition that the atmosphere was far from inviting: It was described as a “mini-prison” with San Francisco Sheriff’s deputies staffing the facility, according to Kelley Cutler, a human rights organizer at the Coalition.

“People would like to go there if there wasn’t a curfew, if they didn’t have to be on lockdown, and if they knew their stuff would be safe,” she posted on Facebook. “People would also like the opportunity to go to the Navigation Center, but feel like they have to have special connections in order to get in.”

Sam Dodge, director of the Mayor’s Housing, Opportunities, Partnership and Engagement (HOPE) office, denied reports of penal-colony settings at Pier 80. “They’re not off-duty cops or anything like that,” he commented on a Facebook post. When the Coalition visited a couple of weeks later, MSC South employees were staffing the site.

In contrast with Pier 80, the Navigation Center on Mission and 16th Streets, which have been operating since last year, has been touted as a model for low-threshold transitional lodging. In front of the Center’s entrance, Supervisor David Campos announced on March 8 that he would introduce an ordinance requiring the City to open six similar centers in the coming year.

As the final sweeps on Division transpired on March 1, DPW reported that there were 14 Navigation Center bed vacancies from the previous night. The Coalition immediately learned that those beds had already been filled.

Despite people’s requests for shelter, services, and exits from homelessness, local media had also been promoting a narrative of “service resistance.” San Francisco Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius noted that new arrivals to Pier 80’s opening left after they found out showers and bathrooms weren’t working. That did not deter Nevius from writing that homeless people refused to use the new shelters.

Cutler refutes the notion that homeless people wouldn’t be interested. “Homeless people are not service-resistant,” she said. “The city is actually resistant to establishing services that actually work for people.”

An earlier version of this story appeared in the Street Sheet, March 15, 2016 edition.

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