Past efforts to clean up homeless encampments in various parts of San Francisco have not had a lasting impact — the occupants merely return after a short time and set up their belongings and communities again. These pop-up communities are not only unsavory elements of any big city, but also dangerous and unhealthy places for people to live.
It’s hardly a surprise to residents — and even visitors — that San Francisco has a large population of homeless people. The City should be credited with its innovative approaches to helping them; Project Homeless Connect has served as a template for other municipalities on how to bring various services to transients. But there is at times a disconnect between the cleanup of the homeless encampments and offering of services.
However, something different happened early last week.
On Monday, a bevy of city and state workers, including San Francisco outreach personnel, rolled into a homeless encampment with a new approach. The encampment at Fifth and King streets, likely the largest in The City, has been the target of cleanup efforts since last August. Even though some people would take the offer of city services, the majority moved aside for cleaning and moved right back in.
As part of the new tack, Caltrans — which is responsible for the land — is permanently blocking access to the site, and The City is doing a whole lot more than just offering services in hopes that the occupants will realize what is available.
There were some 30 folks living at the encampment at the time of the Monday cleanup. And though some packed up their belongings and moved on to other places in The City, 25 of the site’s occupants have accepted the intensive case management services being offered by San Francisco, according to city homeless policy chief Bevan Dufty, who also was at the site Monday while it was cleared out.
These 25 people were first brought to the City of Refuge church so they could begin the process of getting off the street for good. It was the first time The City moved a large encampment to what it called a triage center. The people could stay at the church for about three days while case managers helped them connect with mental health, substance abuse and employment services, among others.
“Everyone who has been staying at City of Refuge has been linked to housing, which is amazing,” Dufty said later in the week.
This specialized effort shows a true commitment on The City’s part to help its most vulnerable. Like any problem, ignoring homelessness will not make it go away. San Francisco’s new approach shows a much-needed respect for a population that is too often treated as nothing more than a headache and nuisance.
While many say San Francisco’s large homeless population is bad for The City’s image, what’s worse is acting like these people are second-class citizens.
The City now needs to analyze the actions it took to see if this is an effort that can be repeated. Complaining about homeless people on the street is one thing, and so is shooing them from one area to another. But neither idea solves the problem.
Although there is no single solution, The City’s approach this time seems like it could be part of the larger fix.