Reaching Out to the Homeless Before Clearing Their Camps - November 30, 2016 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

Reaching Out to the Homeless Before Clearing Their Camps

(Mike Koozmin)

More than 1 percent of the American homeless population now lives in San Francisco. That’s according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s recent Annual Homeless Report, which found the size of the homeless population in the United States to be just under 550,000 people. The same report put San Francisco’s homeless population at 6,996 people, which means that 1.27 percent of the nation’s homeless are living right here.

That staggering statistic may be new, but the homeless problem is entirely familiar to anyone who’s spent any time in the city. That’s why the San Francisco ballot in November’s election had four propositions relating directly or indirectly to homelessness. The most controversial of these was Proposition Q, whose passage has banned tents on public sidewalks.

The city’s Department of Public Works has been sweeping tent encampments since before that measure passed by a slim majority, notably the ongoing clearing of a large encampment near the PG&E facility at 19th and Folsom streets.

In addition, recent tent sweeps are not all a result of the passage of Prop. Q, and they would likely be taking place even if that measure had failed. The largest recent sweeps are coordinated by San Francisco’s new Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. The department has said that it is not stepping up street sweeps in the wake of Prop. Q, but prioritizing certain large encampments it says pose a significant threat to public safety.

Jeff Kositsky, the department’s new director, says the goal is the removal of “large encampments that are highly disruptive, unsafe, and unhealthy.”

Advocates for the homeless have noticed more aggressive efforts to clear large encampments in recent months.

“They’re being stronger now,” says Amy Farah Weiss, a homelessness activist and the founder of the St. Francis Homelessness Challenge. “If they cleared an area, they’re going to keep targeting that area for the next two months, working with the local businesses and neighbors so that people don’t re-encamp.”

The clearing of the encampments is also getting strong support from a surprising source — Supervisor David Campos, one of the most liberal members of the Board of Supervisors and a longtime advocate for San Franciscans living below the poverty line.

“Encampments are not a solution to homelessness,” Campos wrote in a recent letter to constituents. “They are unhealthy for homeless people, and they are unhealthy for residents and businesses around them.”

Campos also vowed in a September press release to “remove all Mission encampments within the next four months.” He has less than two months to go to deliver on that promise.

Sweeps of many of the Mission’s larger encampments are also occurring, bringing back unpleasant memories of the highly divisive tent city sweeps during the leadup to the Super Bowl earlier this year. But the Department of Homelessness is conducting these sweeps in a much different fashion, and with more focus on outreach.

The department is calling it “encampment resolution,” which sounds Orwellian but strives for a far more humane set of best practices than the approach taken before the Super Bowl, which amounted to providing little or no notice before confiscating the tents.

When you see a tent encampment being cleared, you’ll notice the confiscation of tents is handled by the Department of Public Works. What you don’t see is that the Department of Homelessness has been doing several weeks of outreach work with the homeless individuals affected by the clearing. Most importantly, Kositsky says they will not clear an encampment without first offering shelter and intensive case management for General Assistance and other public services.

“We cannot come in and just move people,” Kositsky said at a community meeting in September. “It’s inhumane, ineffective, and against the law.”

The Department of Homelessness was only created in June of this year, and Kositsky took over as director in August. Since then, the department has developed a fairly involved procedure for removing a tent or clearing an encampment. This procedure, which Kositsky says is “still a work in progress,” reflects the social work background and training of many who hold top positions at the department.

The department defines an “encampment” as two or more tents, and keeps a database of all known encampments in the city. The database was compiled by the Department of Public Works, and as of Nov. 1, there were nearly 100 encampments listed in it.

The database also ranks these encampments with a five-tiered system based on the threat they potentially pose to public safety. The categories are “Safe,” “Somewhat Safe,” “Neutral,” “Not Safe,” and “Dangerous/Violent.”

Most homeless encampments tend to have an informal leader or an “unofficial mayor.” The Department of Homelessness identifies these informal leaders, sets up a community meeting with them and the others at the encampment, and offers plans in writing of the date at which the encampment will be dismantled by the Department of Public Works.

But the Department of Homelessness also performs assessments of the people camped there and identifies their needs. It hands out hygiene kits, lets campers know where showers and shelter beds are available, and performs tuberculosis testing so the campers are eligible for public shelters. They also walk people through the process of enrolling for food stamps or General Assistance benefits.

In some cases, the encampment is given a portable toilet. In other cases, campers are enrolled in psychiatric or substance abuse treatment programs (though the enrollment process takes around four weeks).

But not all tent sweeps being conducted right now are using this method of intensive outreach, and the Department of Homelessness still leaves the removal of individual tent encampments to the Homeless Outreach Teams, the Department of Public Works, and the police department.

SF Weekly spoke to David Choy, a lone camper on Shotwell Street who had recently relocated his tent to another block after a sweep.

“They said I could move anywhere but there or the PG&E plant,” Choy says. “They did offer to call the shelter. I’ve been there before. Sometimes you prefer the streets. There’s a lot of nuts in there.”

Of the 38 encampments rated as “Not Safe” or “Dangerous,” nearly a third are in the Mission. That’s why the Mission has seen a large number of encampments being cleared in recent months.

“I think it’s important to understand why homeless people come to the Mission,” Campos says. “Not only has there been an enormous increase in homelessness citywide, but with the enormous amount of development in the Bayview area, homeless people have been forced out of the abandoned buildings where they seek shelter.”

“Many of these people have come to the Mission, which is warm, flat, transit-accessible, and has many nonresidential areas,” he says.

According to Campos’ office, prominent encampment sites in the Mission are also set to be cleared soon. But clearing more encampments necessitates more shelter beds and supportive housing, and San Francisco still has fewer beds and less supportive housing than would be necessary to house its homeless population.

That’s been a problem for decades, prompting advocates for the homeless to propose unique new solutions along the lines of the “tiny house” movement.

“For $600, we can create mobile SRO’s, these transitional sleep and storage structures,” Farah Weiss says, whose St. Francis Homelessness Challenge has been funding a Mission Bay transitional housing community called Box City. “These transitional interim shelters are working in the same kind of experience that people are currently having on the street. But it’s taking it a huge step upwards, providing the right kind of sanitation and health support services, making sure that everybody has a secure place to go to sleep at night and storing their belongings during the day, so they can get on that path to transition while we wait for this housing and shelter to be built.”

In addition to banning tents on sidewalks by passing Prop. Q, San Francisco voters also rejected Prop. K, which would have levied an additional 75-cent sales tax to fund efforts to serve the homeless and to invest in transportation. That would have created an additional $155 million per year, though Mayor Ed Lee has asked city departments to find spending reductions elsewhere so those programs can still be funded.

Joe Kukura covers local news for SF Weekly. Follow him on Twitter at @exercisingdrunk.