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What happens when SF takes homeless people’s ‘stuff’

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Neil Taylor, a homeless San Francisco resident, stands at the corner of Brannan and Division streets. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

On Guard column header Joe

Super Bowl 50 was supposed be Mayor Ed Lee’s touchdown.

The crass, corporate pièce de résistance in downtown San Francisco known as Super Bowl City would delight family members of all ages.


Yet the streets already hosted encampments of hundreds. Those living there were not exactly ready for the NFL limelight.

Gradually pushed out by local police, homeless people landed on Division Street.

In the following weeks, thousands of locals expressed their anger as Mayor Lee’s departments swept Division Street clean of its notorious tents. The ensuing backlash shined a national spotlight on the more than 6,000 souls in The City of St. Francis without homes.

Locally, few images were as iconic — or “viral” — of those sweeps as that of a walker being crushed in a trash compactor by Public Works.

Yes, a walker.

Captured by Kelley Cutler, of the Coalition on Homelessness, the photo highlighted a frightening reality: If The City could destroy an elderly homeless person’s only means of mobility, well, they could destroy damn well anything.

Neil Taylor owned the walker. An older gentleman, Neil lives in a tent often found on Division Street. With her intimate knowledge of the community, Cutler helped me find him.

It was a sunny day last Friday as I walked under Interstate 280 looking for Neil. From the old Dolby Laboratories across Division Street, a gold glint caught my eye.

Someone had scrawled on a nearby freeway pylon, “Neil, the cops came and took everyone’s stuff, sorry.”

Neil Taylor begins to set up his tent near Division and Brannan streets in San Francisco, Calif. Monday, June 27, 2016. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Neil Taylor begins to set up his tent near Division and Brannan streets in San Francisco, Calif. Monday, June 27, 2016. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Just on the other side of that pylon, Neil slept in his orange and grey tent.
Neil’s face is etched with the kind of wrinkles you only get from smiling, or worrying, entirely too much. His white, bushy beard recalls Russian czars, but he’s from the state of Georgia.

When he told me his last name is Taylor, I asked how he spells it.
“Well,” he growled, “I don’t make clothes!”

Neil’s last home was an apartment in Parkmerced, where he lived with his wife of 38 years.

“I couldn’t stand the place after I found my wife [dead] there,” he said. She died of liver cancer.

He then took to the streets. That was four years ago.

Neil is a U.S. Army veteran and former machine gunner who served in Vietnam. He loves to play piano and quickly rattled off his favorite works: Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor”; Chopin’s “Prelude in E minor”; Tchaikovsky’s “No. 1 in B-flat minor.”

Public Works has only “gotten me twice,” Neil said. They crushed his walker while he was at the San Francisco VA Medical Center seeking care for a skin rash. He hurriedly scratched a blistery red mass along his arms.

His Parkinson’s makes him prone to falls. Hence, the walker.

The trash compactor in the photo crushing Neil’s walker bears a Caltrans logo, because the freeway is their jurisdiction. But Cutler saw Public Works workers load the truck that day.

A walker belonging to Neil Taylor, a homeless San Francisco resident, was crushed in a trash compactor by Public Works during the Super Bowl City sweeps earlier this year. (Courtesy Kelley Cutler)

A walker belonging to Neil Taylor, a homeless San Francisco resident, was crushed in a trash compactor by Public Works during the Super Bowl City sweeps earlier this year. (Courtesy Kelley Cutler)

In response to the sweeps in late February, the American Civil Liberties Union and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area penned a damning letter alleging those sweeps unlawful. A lawsuit looms.

Now, On Guard has learned, the Mayor’s Office is ready to talk turkey.

“We actually just heard from the Mayor’s Office,” said Elisa Della-Piana, legal director of the lawyers’ committee, on Monday.

Lee’s office told On Guard, “This is under review.”

Public Works tossed most of Neil’s clothes, his cookware, his San Francisco Giants chair and his Parkinson’s medicine.

When crews clean encampments, they work with the people living there to see what they want thrown out, what they want to take with them or what they want stored, said Rachel Gordon, spokesperson for Public Works. The crews are also supposed to provide information on how to retrieve items following an encampment sweep.

Food, moldy or soiled bedding and clothes are tossed. But any valuables taken from unaccompanied encampments are stored at a Public Works facility on Cesar Chavez Street.

Public Works stored 19 items in March, 16 items in April, 28 in May, and 15 items by mid-June. That’s 78 items of value stored after countless daily sweeps across San Francisco since January — including the infamous Super Bowl sweeps.


The San Francisco Examiner has two ways for you to see the Public Works maintenance yard, and the “swept” homeless items, in virtual reality.
For those on mobile or a computer, check out our 360 degree Facebook photo here.
For those with a Google Cardboard device, download this 3D Google Cardboard photo to your phone and experience it for yourself.

“Note that it’s rare for a tent to be empty when our crews get there,” Gordon said. “We have reminded our crews of our bag-and-tag policy.”

But it’s not always trained crews who conduct the “sweeps.”

My brother, Jon Fitzgerald, conducted sweeps sometime around Super Bowl City without any training.

He’s no city employee — he was simply performing “community service” to work off a bevy of parking tickets.

“They just drove us out there and handed us shovels,” he told me.

Not long after the Super Bowl sweeps, the VA replaced Neil’s walker.

The one benefit of visiting the hospital was their piano, Neil said. While he waited for his walker, he practiced a concerto he’s writing.

I asked him if Public Works confiscated his music notes, too.


He pointed both fingers right at his noggin, and said, “I have it all in here.”

He smiled, and I smiled right back. You see, The City — and Mayor Lee — may sweep away Neil’s tent, cookware, pills and even his walker.

But they’ll never take his music.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email him at joe@sfexaminer.com.

Click here or scroll down to comment

  • FuzzmanX

    You live on the street and come with you own pile of garbage. Let’s all worry about the one possession you can’t live without – Your cigarette lighter

  • JuiceWeasel

    Let’s keep a constant prayer in our hearts for SF’s homeless people and their belongings.

  • Paul Bearer

    Hey Mr. Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez, why don’t you and the useless SF Bored of Stupes offer up some of your spaces to store homeless people’s belongings?

  • Julie Zberg

    seriously? you write a bleeding heart story about one guy, when the majority of the rest of them are junkies who steal and prostitute themselves, shoot drugs and leave huge messes behind. they live in my neighborhood, and i wish someone would have the guts enough to round these festering sores up and just get rid of them. they are not “residents” as you describe. they are homeless. they don’t contribute to society and most as i’ve read about lately or have seen personally do not wish to do anything other than live on the streets. so sick of it. if you like, come grab them from around my house, take their used syringes, piles of man turds and garbage, and move all of it to your neck of the woods. then we will see how sorry you actually feel for them.

  • Jim Chitwood

    Are you kidding me? “If The City could destroy an elderly homeless person’s only means of mobility, well, they could destroy damn well anything.”

    Mr. Rodriguez needs to spend some time out on the streets with the homeless. There are hundreds that roll around in wheelchairs…few need them. The chair is a great prop to beef up their take from their illegal panhandling. That walker is more likely to have been owned by the Pope than by an “elderly homeless person”.

    Rather than write gibberish, why doesn’t Mr. Rodriguez walk around San Francisco, especially the Mission and SoMa areas and talk to the homeless. He needs to understand who they really are, and he’ll quickly give up on the notion that they are all victims of the police, the public works department or society.

  • tiabgood

    Did you even read the article? An elderly vet who was able to get his walker replaced. And just because some people are not handicapped, does not mean all of them are not handicapped.

  • viking116

    So Neil had a home and gave it up because he couldn’t stand the place after his elderly wife died of liver cancer (which she was known to have–her death can’t have been a surprise). Sorry for his loss and even more sorry for his choice. Housing is hard to come by in the City and even more so to replace years of rent-control. He was safer and warmer there and, had he chosen grief counselling, might have found living with her memory easier. Why does that mean the citizens of SF have to put up with clogged trash-filled streets?

  • tiabgood

    Had he had access to grief counseling? Or money for? Or even the understanding that grief counseling might help? Or a support system that could help him? There are many factors here that might be simple to you or me that is not simple for everyone.

  • walkrrrr

    Presumably his wife had medical care, and her care team should have referred him to some form of support services.

  • viking116

    he was a veteran.
    SF is chock-a-block with services
    but you don’t just give up your apartment and then take a stand over your curbside tent and walker

  • tiabgood

    “presumably” and as if hers had anything to do with him or were helpful or good. I am glad you trust healthcare in this city. I think you are giving it more credit that it deserves.

  • tiabgood

    Clearly you have no idea what it is like to have a break down. You are a lucky human.

  • tiabgood

    “choc-a-block” wow, you have a lot more trust in the system than I have seen as a reality. You are clearly a person who has never had to hunt of your health – as if you were you would know that this is not that easy.

  • Dajalea Masai

    Djalea I have rarely encountered such an enduringly compassionate, professionally written–and vitally important to our shamefully deteriorating public discourse–newspaper article! The front page picture of Mr. (“Well, I don’t make clothes”) TayIor, with the heartbreaking message scratched on the wall behind him; should shame all but the most heartless of the “wipe the streets clean of them” faction of the anti-homeless crowd.

    If your eloquence fails to bring at least one of San Francisco’s affluent fucks out of their selfish, gadget-addicted stupors, to assist this noble soul, nothing will. The last five sentences will remain with me–as all inspired writing has– for the remaining few years left to me.

    At 66, my five years of homelessness in San Francisco and Hawaii, I feel in my bones, have reduced those years significantly. The uplift from your words, I feel in my heart, have unquestionably repaired some of that damage done. Many of my homeless compatriots have, no doubt been changed by your those words in similar ways.

    Many thanks, Joe. I employ no hyperbole in applauding your article as not only a wonderful literary, but also a fuckin’ unique spiritual experience! Don’t ever stop screaming truth to power in your wonderfully inimitable way.

    In the Light,
    Djalea Masai

  • Martin

    More Rodriguez crap! The first thing you do when you take refuse from the homeless is burn, toss, obliterate, fumigate and get rid of it.

  • walkrrrr

    You are ASS-uming that his wife had nothing but Medicare via SFHP, and that they are crappy?

    You may or may not be right about any of that.

  • John

    I am glad somebody is finally going to do something about the bums.

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    Of the over 7500 homeless people in San Francisco according to the 2015 census, 18% of them are have drug/alcohol problems, 82% don’t. You’re stereotyping an entire class of people who you know nothing about. You feel that your privilege makes you a better person than every one of them. You are not.

  • Robb

    How is taking and destroying his walker and his Parkinsons’ medication, not a crime?