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New plan to ban encampments at ‘Hairball’ emerges as homeless and cyclists clash

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City officials are exploring ways to remove encampments from the “Hairball” to address the growing number of clashes there between cyclists and homeless people. (Mira Laing/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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Melodie lives in an RV she often parks near the “Hairball,” a knotted series of interconnecting freeways, pedestrian bridges and bikeways in San Francisco’s southeast.

Due to complications from a brain injury, Melodie, who asked her last name be withheld, said she’s been unable to keep a job. Her RV is her home.

Following new parking restrictions on two streets to create a new bike lane to the Hairball — on Jerrold and Barneveld avenues — passed by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors on Sept. 21, she fears finding parking for her home may become increasingly fraught. At City Hall following the vote, Melodie stood outside the boardroom and cried.

“Where am I supposed to park? Where am I supposed to go?” the 59-year-old told the San Francisco Examiner. “They don’t really have an answer for that.”

The new parking restrictions and bike lane are the first steps among dramatic changes by city officials coming to the Hairball, as bicyclists and people living on the streets increasingly clash.

RVs line a stretch of Barneveld Avenue, where parking restrictions were reportedly put in place to ensure nearby workers can access street parking. (Mira Laing/Special to S.F. Examiner)

UNTANGLING THE HAIRBALL

On Thursday morning, a line of tents perched on the pedestrian and bike bridge at Cesar Chavez Street, under U.S. Highway 101, near Potrero Hill. Cars roared off the freeway exit, inches away from the belongings and tents of dozens, which are also just a stone’s throw from where the SFMTA will install a bike lane on Jerrold Avenue.

The Hairball itself is a tangle of on- and off-ramps near Cesar Chavez Street, where Interstate Highway 280 and Highway 101 converge. The layered freeways give the area its name, but the roads are knotted underneath the freeways, too, as myriad bike and pedestrian bridges criss cross underneath the echoing freeways.

Those concrete bridges, which resemble overpasses, are the source of the conflict.

The Examiner watched as cyclists swerved in and out between the tents and the people who live in them. Those camping said they were pushed onto the path by California Highway Patrol — they normally camp in the areas surrounding the path, out of the way of two-wheeled commuters.

On Mondays and Thursdays, some said, they’re forced out of Caltrans property and move onto the cyclist path at the Hairball as the areas are cleaned.

“They make us pack up everything,” said Bernie Sollano, who lived by the bike path for at least six months. Sollano, who said he suffered a traumatic brain injury while serving in the Marines, said, “We usually don’t block the [bike] path, bro.”

Still, some conflicts are inevitable on the 4-foot-wide bike bridge.

Some cyclists resent the campers. The campers want to be left alone by the cyclists. An uneasy truce sees both parties give begrudging leeway, though hard feelings stew.

Soon, those camps may be gone.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen told the Examiner that, this week, Homeless Encampment Resolution Teams will begin connecting those campers with services at the Mission District homeless navigation center.

Ronen drives past the Hairball every day while taking her daughter to school. She and other city officials believe the encampment is too close to moving vehicles and cyclists, and that injuries or fatalities may soon follow.

“We’re going to do everything we can to block off and make it impossible to camp in the Hairball,” Ronen said. “We need to make dignified places for homeless people to be.”

Navigation centers are not permanent housing, however. After a 60-day stay, if no permanent solution to help house someone is found, they’re right back on the street. Only now, they won’t have the Hairball to come back to.

The homeless shelter waitlist was at 1,199 people as of Friday.

“The model is to find a path out of homelessness,” Ronen said, defending the process.

The Hairball rests on the border between Ronen’s District 9 and Supervisor Malia Cohen’s District 10. A plan led by Cohen to revamp the pedestrian and bike bridges throughout the Hairball will be included in city capital budget processes in the next two years, Ronen said.

The “Cesar Chavez East Community Design Plan,” circa 2012, recommends wider bike paths, better lighting and myriad changes to the Hairball overall.

That may be welcome news to Peggy Howse, owner and president of All Seas Wholesale, a fish distributor located on Jerrold Avenue.

“I can’t tell you how many penises and bums I’ve seen the past year,” she said as she sat in her office and cued up a surveillance camera, showing a nearby sidewalk some camp-dwellers use as a bathroom.

Howse alleged someone living in a nearby encampment stole one of her employees’ tires off his Toyota Tacoma truck. She walked down the street and found a man selling that same stolen tire for $60.

She said the parking restrictions on Jerrold Avenue may hurt her workers, who travel from as far as Antioch and already battle for parking with nearby RVs. Five of those RVs — some with battered wooden doors, others with broken windows — sat on Barneveld Avenue on Thursday.

But in an SFMTA board meeting on Sept. 21, staff said parking restrictions on nearby Barneveld Avenue were put in place to ensure nearby employees could fairly compete with RVs for parking.

A cyclist navigates the “Hairball,” a series of bike paths, pedestrian bridges and freeway on- and off-ramps near Cesar Chavez Street. (Mira Laing/Special to S.F. Examiner)

MENDING FENCES

Even as officials work on mending the physical structure of the Hairball, others are working on repairing the relationship between cyclists and people without homes.

“I’ve had more politeness coming through here than from the suits downtown,” said cyclist John Dufficy, a 49-year-old furniture maker.

He stood at the mouth of one bike bridge, bicycle in hand, as he spoke to the Examiner. Though he hasn’t butted heads with people living there, he said he’s seen people bike through “at top speed with no regard for the people.”

That sentiment has carried through online.

Some vitriol from local cyclists has emerged on social media and among the cycling community, concerning the Hairball and its tent-living residents. Cyclists also often vent frustration alleging they’re targets of theft for “chop-shops” run at homeless encampments.

The Coalition on Homelessness has said in public meetings that often people without homes engage in honest bicycle recycling.

Still, the conflict between cyclists and the homeless persists.

“I think you’ve seen the same videos and tweets I have,” said Brian Wiedenmeier, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, alluding to videos circulating earlier this year that cyclists produced showing difficulty navigating around tents in the Hairball.

But the coalition believes it should look out for all cyclists — including the poor and homeless, who often rely on bikes to get around. To help educate its members on homeless issues, the coalition is hosting a panel discussion on Oct. 11 at the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist.

“Our goal is for everyone to take a deep breath, listen and have a civil dialogue with people on this issue, and do the hard and difficult work of getting to solutions,” Wiedenmeier said.

And to ensure it’s not just a conversation about homeless people, but rather including homeless people, the bike coalition will spread flyers about the event at the Hairball itself. So everyone can talk solutions.

Together.

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