San Francisco Public Works employees are The City’s front line for clean streets, but that also means they’re shoulder to shoulder with the homeless people who live there.
These street cleanings sometimes rise to the level of what homeless advocates call a “sweep,” when tents and other property of homeless people are discarded en masse, often in trash compactors.
Sometimes, those items are taken when owners are not nearby during everyday cleanings.
But not everything taken from an encampment is destroyed. At Public Works’ maintenance yard on Cesar Chavez Street, some items identified as “valuables” are held in the hopes that one day they’ll be claimed.
Policies around these claims are the subject of the Examiner’s On Guard column Wednesday, for the SF Homeless Project. But we also wanted to detail what we found at the maintenance yard, courtesy of a tour from Rachel Gordon, the spokesperson for Public Works.
The maintenance yard itself is far flung in the southeast corner of San Francisco, divided from most homeless encampments by a freeway, or a long walk. It’s accessible by Muni lines like the 10-Townsend, 19-Polk and 9-San Bruno.
Gordon lead On Guard through the maintenance yard. We walked by vehicles stored for Public Works and SFMTA, among other agencies.
Eventually we reached a nondescript “shack” with chain link fence walls, topped with a curved tin roof. At about 20 feet wide and 30 feet deep, it was smaller than expected. The room held 30 days worth of items in a space about the size of Muni bus.
Save for a small wooden desk, an accompanying chair and a heater, everything here once belonged to someone living on the streets.
A beat-up moped lay by one side of the shack, which had clearly seen better days. Two bicycles, one orange and another pink, sat next to each other by the desk.
Bags were everywhere. Trash bags, clear plastic bags, and even one old tent. Each group of items was “tagged” with identifying info of where and when it was found.
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.
A shiny metallic suitcase was plastered with a glittering Hello Kitty sticker. A shopping cart held onions of varying colors. A baseball cap read “USA” in red, white and blue letters. Inside a bike helmet was a Johnson & Johnson bottle of baby oil.
Some items were more exotic – like an electrical generator, sitting inside a cardboard box with a lightning bolt symbol across it. And I wondered what’s in that cardboard package bound for Antioch.
Near the back of the shack sat three simple, black wheelchairs. A tag on one read, “No. 041 – 25 Essex. 1 wheelchair, 05/21/16. SFPD #52, male was taken to hospital. Lots of blood.”
More rare were items which speak to a person’s life, like the art supplies kept in a small plastic box. What sketches did someone plan with the pencils, markers, and small artist’s knife?
John Reilly is special programs manager at Public Works, a title he’s held for two months. The shack is under his purview. He said the number of people trying to claim items “varies.”
“We could get 10 calls a day, we could get two calls a day,” Reilly said.
When the items are in the shack for 30 days, they’re moved to long-term storage, and most are eventually destroyed.
Read more about the legal tussle over homeless people’s stuff, including a perspective from a man who lives on Division Street named Neil Taylor, in today’s On Guard column.