Johnnie stood on Division Street Wednesday morning, solemnly stuffing his belongings into a fit-to-bursting flower-print suitcase.
“They don’t have a place for us,” Johnnie said.
The City had sent him packing from his home, a four-walled stretch of nylon on the sidewalk outside Best Buy, on Harrison Street. Police officers offered shelters to him and others there, but said they were only allowed a seven-day stay and weren’t allowed to bring more than a small bag of belongings. After that, they were on their own.
Johnnie, who was once a construction worker, has lived on the streets for fourteen years. Wednesday morning he wore a leather jacket and sported a a short, white beard that clashed with his wild, sandy colored hair. He spoke calmly as he rejected Mayor Mark Farrell’s claims that people should not live in tents.
“If we were inside,” he said, “we wouldn’t need a tent.”
Johnnie wasn’t alone. The entire Mission District has been swept clean of encampments again — but not without strife.
San Francisco Public Works crews and San Francisco Police Department officers met at 4:30 a.m. Wednesday to plan the action, and shortly after cleared streets of tents and their residents throughout the Mission, in areas including Division Street, 16th Street, Folsom Street, Valencia Street and Treat Street. People living on the street saw their tents and belongings confiscated. or broken down.
Farrell called for the clean-up action in a press conference Monday, when he proclaimed that Proposition Q, the tent-ban law he authored and voters approved in 2016, would be implemented in “a more aggressive way.”
“Tent encampments are unsafe for the people living in them,” he said Wednesday in a statement on the sweeps. “They are unsafe for the neighbors living near them. Our tent cleanups are dealing with a population of individuals who have repeatedly resisted assistance efforts. When it comes to homelessness, we want to be compassionate and not enabling. Allowing tents on sidewalks is an unsafe and unsanitary answer, and a clear example of enablement.”
The exact number of tents removed and people affected is hard to come by, as the numbers constantly fluctuate, said Randy Quezada, spokesperson for the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. At one time in the last year the number of Mission District tents was 280, but that later dropped to a low of 40. Since then, the number has “ticked up,” Quezada said. The department also had not yet had time as of Wednesday morning to tally how many people living on the street were connected with services.
Suffice to say, many people were affected.
Prop. Q calls for homeless residents to be given resources when their tents are cleared.
However, San Francisco’s shelters are full already — there were 1,047 people on the waitlist for a shelter bed in San Francisco as of Monday morning. To circumvent this problem, mats were laid on floors at existing shelters like Next Door, on Polk Street, as is done during a winter storm, when those without homes pack themselves tightly inside to avoid perils like hypothermia. Those temporary beds were advertised on leaflets passed out to homeless people throughout the Mission.
The flyer read “Seven (7)-day shelter opportunity,” and advertised “50 mats” available on a first come, first served basis, with light meals provided. People were only allowed to bring a small bundle of belongings, and were required to leave their tents behind. Many people living on the street told the San Francisco Examiner this often leads to their scant belongings being stolen, or confiscated and destroyed by Public Works.
Coalition on Homelessness Human Rights Organizer Kelley Cutler called the temporary stay “a joke.”
The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing said three navigation centers, special homeless shelters that allow longer stays, have less restrictive rules and provide more services, are in the planning stages right now. However they are not online yet, and critics have lambasted those shelters as “navigating to nowhere,” with few housing options to guide people to.
While Farrell has described those in tent encampments as “service resistant,” when asked a hypothetical question about that claim — if every homeless person in San Francisco sought service at once, could The City help them? — Quezada declined to answer.
“It’s not a yes or no thing,” he said, defending the department. “It’s hard to get at. It’s not a linear process for every person.”
Still, some residents heralded the city’s actions.
Patrick Tidmore lives nearby Division Street, and was walking his two dogs past the encampment resolutions. He’s lived there 20 years, and said he feels unsafe in the area. He said theft has run rampant since the tent presence in the neighborhood swelled. “I was called white motherfucker” while walking his dogs, he said. The area, he said, is “very different than what it used to be. It came to be absolute crap.”
Even Johnnie, who was forced to move earlier, welcomed the help to some degree. The street “needs to be cleaned,” he said.
At Division Street just past 6 a.m., people living in tents packed what belongings they could. Police officers handed out coffee as Public Works crews bagged people’s belongings and threw them into large white trucks. Some crews hosed down the streets.
One Public Works truck held a menagerie of street life: Shopping carts, rugs, mattress springs, blankets, and more.
“I’ve had them take my whole life twice,” Nano, a man living on Division Street near a Costco, said of Public Works crews.
Nano, an artist who sported a steampunk-style top hat replete with gold-painted gears, said his last tent was confiscated by Public Works while he was away from it.
“You lose your bed. Your clothing. Your bowl. Your spoon. I lost all my photographs I’ve had since I was a child,” he said.
Those photos depicted his great-grandfather and other family in their home of Spain, and are irreplaceable, he said. He took the San Francisco Examiner on a tour of his home, a six-foot-tall metal structure on wheels draped with blankets. He had a fold-up chair inside, and a rack behind that chair with milk cartons and other food he calls his “refrigerator.” He has a small portable projector for his cell phone which he uses to watch movies on a pull down screen on one side of his “tent.” Art books with recent sketches piled on one side of his home.
But as Nano chatted with the Examiner, Public Works crews moved closer and closer to his structure. Division Street had been cleared of most tents already, and Nano’s was among the last still standing. He was one of the few to be able to move his “tent,” as it rested on wheels. But he lost the community of felow tent-dwellers, who he said watched out for each other and sounded the alarm against thievery and attack, a daily threat when you live on a sidewalk.
“We’re human,” he said, shortly before he departed. “We should be able to have a safe place to rest our heads.”
Minutes later, Nano lost even that.