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‘Gut-wrenching’ videos of SF bike route populated by homeless spur debate

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People move through a homeless encampment lining the sides of the Cesar Chavez Bike Bridge, often referred to as the “Hairball,” near San Francisco’s Potretro Hill neighborhood Friday, June 30, 2017. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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Videos described as “gut-wrenching” and “sad” of homeless camps along a popular San Francisco bike bridge are drawing debate across social media Friday — and calls for change.

And, the San Francisco Examiner has learned, change is indeed coming.


(Video courtesy Chris Waddling)

New funding in San Francisco’s budget has earmarked funding to improve the nearby freeways, including the Cesar Chavez Bike Bridge, according to Supervisor Hillary Ronen’s office.

The route along the Cesar Chavez bridge, commonly referred to as the “Hairball,” is oft-used by commuters from the Portola and Bayview going toward Civic Center. It’s useful for Caltrain riders who live in the Mission and Bernal Heights.

One such video of the route shared by bicyclist Chris Waddling shows him cycling across the bike bridge, which connects to Bayshore Boulevard and winds under U.S. Highway 101 and other roads.

For the entire video, the camera captures him slowly pedaling by numerous tents under the Hairball, as people congregate near their belongings in the narrow bike path. Shopping carts, recycling bins and more sit in the path.

The number of people living in tents is near constant through the video. Waddling described it as “impressively depressing,” when he sent it to the San Francisco Examiner.

Kelley Cutler, a staffer with the Coalition on Homelessness, called the videos “gut-wrenching” and “sad.”

Department of Public Works employees clear trash and debris from the area of former homeless encampments along the Cesar Chavez Bike Bridge, often referred to as the “Hairball,” near San Francisco’s Potretro Hill neighborhood Friday, June 30, 2017. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Nate Allbee, an aide to Ronen, told the Examiner that $200,000 has been set aside in San Francisco’s newest budget — which may be approved in two weeks — to study short- and long-term improvements to the Alemany Maze (the Alemany Interchange) and the “Hairball,” two sets of intertwining freeways that Allbee said separates the community.

The Hairball bike bridge, he said, is “the perfect storm of horrible urban design [and] desperate people in need. We know that it’s only a matter of time before someone is struck.”

Similar videos were recently shown on social media site Nextdoor, which allows users to communicate with their immediate neighbors, and were later featured on the hyperlocal news site Bernalwood.

Todd Lappin, Bernalwood’s founder, wrote on the website that a neighbor named Angela from Bernal Heights sent an email to officials like District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen, District 10 Supervisor Malia Cohen, Public Works and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

“The bike path along Cesar Chavez St. under the 101 freeway (both eastbound and westbound) is nearly unpassable [sic] for bikes due to the tents, tarps, junk, garbage, and animals that have taken it over.”

“This is a dangerous situation for bicyclists, people, and pets that are there,” she continued.

In the coming months, Allbee said, Ronen will push to see the bike bridge made safer, with some changes including painted bike lanes, strengthened fences to the areas surrounding Caltrans property and trying to divert bike traffic.

A man tries to maneuver his bike past a homeless encampment lining the sides of the Cesar Chavez Bike Bridge, often referred to as the “Hairball,” near San Francisco’s Potretro Hill neighborhood Friday, June 30, 2017. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

In the long term, the earmarked funding will go to the San Francisco County Transportation Authority and the Planning Department to plan larger solutions to fix the structure of the interchanges themselves, Allbee said.

Rachel Gordon, a Public Works spokesperson, said staff were regularly at the site to clean the encampments and offer services “to make that path as accessible as possible.”

Much of the jurisdiction under the freeways belongs to Caltrans, the state transportation agency. Cutler, from the Coalition on Homelessness, said most people in the area without homes camp in the areas surrounding the bike path, she said.

“See all the fences going by as you’re watching it? Everyone [in tents] has been displaced from the areas behind the fences” in encampment sweeps, she said as she watched Waddling’s video, which pushes them onto the bike path.

Sam Dodge, deputy director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said new rules may soon be coming to prohibit camping on the bike path, because people living there are in danger of being struck by bikes.

“We start from there,” he said, “and we can find answers that don’t mean criminalization, but it might mean holding up a community standard about safety in the area.”

Gordon said negotiations between the overlapping agencies, from Public Works and Caltrans to the San Francisco Police Department and California Highway Patrol, are ongoing, but a solution for all may come soon.

“I hope it will be far sooner than a year,” she said.

San Francisco’s homeless shelter waitlist was 1,038 people long as of Friday.

Caltrans did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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