UPDATED: With Tent City, SF's Strategy Is to Bluff Homeless Away; Seems to Be Working

UPDATE: Was it something we said? Early Tuesday morning, after this post was written, Department of Public Works crews cleared out the remaining tent city denizens under an SFPD escort. We'll update this post if any tents remain.
Original post follows.

In mid-January, Supervisor Scott Wiener wrote a letter to San Francisco police, public health, and homeless officials in which he pointed out a well-known city law — camping on city sidewalks is illegal — and pointed out what everyone in town knew: this particular city law was not being enforced, and could perhaps it be, please?

Nowhere has this lawlessness been more noticeable than in Tent City, the then-growing collection of homeless people in tents underneath the freeway overpass at 13th and Division Streets that started during the El Nino storms and grew to national attention during Super Bowl 50. 

Homeless advocates shrieked that Wiener was proposing a police solution to a public health problem. But police did nothing. In fact, very little was done until last week, when, following a cavalcade of articles in the Chronicle demanding the tents be cleared out, it appeared the city was gearing up to clear the tents out: a public health hazard was declared, a 72-hour notice to clear out was imposed and some homeless folks began migrating somewhere else.

That 72-hour notice expired Friday; a second notice expired Sunday, with “scores” of homeless still around, as the Chronicle reported. And as of Monday, some tents were still there. It appears San Francisco is dealing with this homeless camp — the biggest in memory since “Camp Agnos” in front of City Hall in the early 1990s — with a gambler's trick.

And the bluff is working. Sort of.

[jump] On Monday, Department of Public Health spokeswoman Rachael Kagan acknowledged to SF Weekly that both 72-hour deadlines had passed scores of hours ago, but that it was not DPH's job to follow up DPH's notices with any kind of enforcement.

That dirty work is up to the police department and to the Department of Public Works. SFPD last week was adamant that it made no arrests of homeless folks — the lone bust appeared to have been done by California Highway Patrol — which in turn means the buck is passed to the DPW.

And DPW spokeswoman Rachel Gordon would say only the DPW is “still working to get people to go into shelter.”

“Our crews were out there this morning,” she said Monday. “We've been doing regular cleaning down there.”

And indeed, the sidewalks are more clear and cleaner than they were even a week ago. But the tents are still there. So are the tarpaulins, and some semi-permanent structures with electricity. On Sunday, the hum of gas-powered generators competed with the whoosh of traffic to provide the soundtrack for Rainbow Grocery shoppers passing through Tent City on their way to the bulk aisle.

It appears Mayor Ed Lee and his administration know that clearing out the camp with force would not be a good look. They also know that the citizenry is fed with with tent city and that it cannot stay. Thus, the city tried to bluff tent city away — and it appears to have partially worked. 

But the problem with a bluff is that it only works once — and once you're called on it, it won't work again. If the city really wants the tents gone, it may need to proffer a solution better than the new, semi-temporary shelter at Pier 80 (which some advocates say is full). The next time, it may need to call in the cops.

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