Camping is illegal on San Francisco's streets and sidewalks, but that didn't stop the space under the Highway 101 overpass at 13th Street from becoming a de-facto campground for homeless people seeking shelter from El Niño this past winter. A relatively new addition to the city's homeless problem — sometime over the past four to five years, charitable organizations started making a habit of handing out tents to the homeless — tents are now the focus of the latest proposal to crack down on homeless behavior.
Under a voter initiative concocted by Marina District Supervisor Mark Farrell and Castro District Supervisor Scott Wiener, the city would be able to clear a homeless encampment within 24 hours as long as the residents were offered “housing or shelter.” If any tents remained 24 hours after a written warning, a “city officer or employee” — most likely a police officer — could clear the tents with force. Called the “Promotion of Safe and Open Sidewalks,” the proposal is slated to go before voters in November.
This is not the first time in recent years a proposition cracking down on homeless behavior has made it onto a ballot. In 2010, voters approved the “Civil Sidewalks” initiative, which allows police to ticket anyone sitting or lying on a sidewalk — one of the several dozen quality-of-life laws police are summoned to enforce more than 50,000 times a year, at an annual cost of $18.5 million.
To homeless advocates, this is just one more anti-homeless law — and, coming onto the ballot in a presidential election year when homelessness is a big issue, a transparently cynical move. “This is dog-whistle politics,” says Bevan Dufty, the city's former homeless czar. “This is politicians saying, 'You have a right to be angry at homeless people, and the only solution is to have more police on the street.' “
But it may be more cynical than even that. The text says tents can be cleared only if the residents are offered housing or shelter. What's left unsaid is what housing or shelter the city is allowed to offer.
Currently, there's none. There are several thousand people on the streets every night, and only about 1,300 shelter beds in the city, Dufty says. Of those, no more than 60 or so are vacant each night.
Before Department of Public Works crews cleared the tent city underneath the freeway, the homeless people therein were given the option of moving everything to a temporary shelter at Pier 80, which is scheduled to close July 1.
If there are no shelter beds available, the anti-tent law will be rendered unenforceable. However, if it passes with a simple majority, it will have succeeded in drawing out voters to the polls who are fed up with homeless people.
Its sponsors deny it, but to Dufty and other opponents, the tent ban is an obvious ploy: a well-timed wedge issue, just like 2010's sit-lie.
If Wiener edges out fellow Supervisor Jane Kim in the race for state Senate after Kim's narrow victory in the June primary, she may be able to blame the homeless too.