What Public Works employees say about taking homeless people’s stuff

What Public Works employees say about taking homeless people’s stuff

Suddenly, the Public Works department and how it treats homeless people are on everyone’s lips.

With Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru arrested by the FBI for public corruption at the end of January, folks are coming forward left and right with their gripes about the much-ballyhooed Mr. Clean.

But while the FBI’s focus has been on improprieties involving city contracts and contractors, Nuru’s biggest impact in this town has been on those with the least voice.

Does Public Works trash homeless people’s belongings — often family photos or other irreplaceable pharma? Yes.

Does the street where Mayor London Breed is about to host a press conference get power washed to create, as Mission Local revealed, and as columnist Heather Knight dubbed it this week, an “alternate reality” for the cameras? Definitely yes.

And has Mayor Breed rung-up Nuru to clear the homeless tent encampments of her choice? Obviously yes.

All this was known in a general way.

But now, as the kids say, we’ve got the receipts.

New records show the culture Nuru cultivated at Public Works, and that may persist long after he’s gone if we don’t call for it to change.

Public Works supervisors often convene to discuss just how they’ll do their jobs, and like anybody that convenes, discusses, and deliberates, they create meeting minutes. Mr. Chris Arvin, my ever-favorite provider of transit-related stickers, pins, and other train-related doo-dads, crafted a public records request to gather those very minutes.

And what they reveal, in Public Works employees’ own words, are attitudes that may not befit those addressing our homeless crisis.

Time after time, Mayor London Breed has asserted that The City is compassionate, that we offer care, that care is often refused.

When protesters showed up at a San Francisco Chronicle event to shout “stop the sweeps!” in July last year, to Mayor Breed on stage with Chronicle editor Audrey Cooper, Breed replied, “We don’t do sweeps in San Francisco.”

Well, here’s Public Works in its own words, when we’re not looking:

“City is still in crisis mode – We need to get ahead of tents in the City….If you or your staff see a tent, get them moved or at the very least, taken down…Don’t rely on (the Police Department)…We need to ramp up efforts to clear…Rains will be over soon, more tents, like weeds, will start popping up all over the place,” wrote a Public Works supervisor, recording the discussion of a January 29, 2019 meeting of the department’s supervisors.

Like weeds.

And again, we see Public Works responding, not to a health dilemma of dirty streets, as is claimed, but to the needs of people with money, with concern to how they’ll spend that money.

In one snippet of meetings minutes, this time on Christmas Eve, 2019, a department supervisor wrote that clearing tent encampments near the upcoming “PCMA Conference” at Moscone Center needed special attention.

“The conference is especially important to future business in San Francisco because the attendees are themselves convention managers; they make the decisions regarding locations for future convention bookings…we are anxious to show San Francisco in the best light possible…Need to make sure Jessie and Stevenson (between 5th and 6th) stay clean and clear…Notify HSOC for assistance,” the supervisor wrote.

HSOC is the Healthy Streets Operations Center, a joint effort between police, Public Works, and homeless outreach teams, ostensibly to help those who are homeless.

Does that tell you that we’re worried about health and services?

It sure as hell didn’t read that way to me.

Certainly, cleaning our streets with Public Works must be a tough job. Reading their meeting minutes gives a glimpse at that too: they worry about clearing out rats from their yards with traps, they note how they have to prepare for the Santa Con Pub Crawl (which supervisors noted is “all day, citywide.” You can almost hear the groaning), and two workers were even stuck by needles while cleaning tent encampments last March.

This isn’t about workers, this is about the culture from the top.

That’s easily seen in the pressure supervisors convey — again, in their own words, in meeting minutes — from politicians pushing them to deal with one homeless encampment complaint after another.

“New Mayoral Election will be in November…Things will not be slowing down for [Street Environmental Services],” the supervisors noted in January 2019. In March they noted, “The mayor’s race will be heating up … Painful political climate and things will not be comfortable for us till November.”

And Nuru himself pushed this idea.

“If the Director or the mayor have a request, please treat it as the highest priority and respond to it as quick and safe as you can,” Nuru told his supervisors in April, according to those meeting minutes.

Highest priority. Over even our 311 calls?

Unsurprisingly, The Mayor’s Office played defense on this claim.

“The Mayor calls many of her department heads to deal with the challenges she sees, whether that’s to address issues around encampments, to help people in crisis, to prevent drug dealing, or to clean up garbage and dumping in our neighborhoods,” Jeff Cretan, the mayor’s chief spokesperson, told me. “Every day we get requests from residents around these issues, and we work to respond to each and every one of those requests, including by sending the men and women of Public Works out to clean our streets.”

Those meeting notes show at least two of those requests by the mayor to clean corridors. One came in July of 2019, and reads “area of focus … Geary/Steiner overpass — encampments — called in by Mayor,” and another is a joint request with former Supervisor Vallie Brown in October last year, noting to “keep alleys clean and clear of encampments” in Hayes Valley.

This is, of course, after Mayor Breed said sweeps don’t happen.

What Public Works employees say about taking homeless people’s stuff

But while Cretan argues this is to help citizens, the meeting minutes reveal Public Works actually clears homeless encampments and power-wash areas where Breed is about to host a press conference. They even have a damn checklist for it. I repeat — a checklist.

They laid it all out in Microsoft Excel, like you or I would to compare possible road-trip destinations.

This spreadsheet has two names, the “Press Event Check List” and, perhaps more tellingly, the “Mayor Check List,” to wit, one supervisor named Kenny noted “Please use the mayor check list for press events.”

That checklist mandates Public Works start cleaning at the location of the press conference “FIRST,” to power-wash and deodorize it, to clear out debris and encampments (yes, dear reader, “encampments” has a checkbox), that city trash cans are emptied and graffiti free, trees are weeded, and graffiti cleared.

They even note to clear “routes in/ out” just in case a journalist or the mayor see any tents on their way into the press conference.

Is it any wonder Mayor Breed — and TV cameras — often don’t see the same problems we see? Public Works has a to-do list to ensure her eyes don’t have to soak in what ours do.

For people who are homeless who see their belongings confiscated by Public Works employees during tent sweeps, those things are supposed to be “bagged and tagged,” and easily retrievable at Public Works, from their “cage” of belongings.

Instead, meeting minutes reveal non-stop problems with that cage, which sees items stolen, sometimes by Public Works employees themselves, as my former SF Weekly colleague Nuala Sawyer revealed last year, with the help of the Stolen Belonging project from the Coalition on Homelessness.

“Remind staff to be mindful when disposing of homeless/abandoned items…Don’t just toss everything in the packer or flatrack…All about public image/perception,” Public Works supervisors noted after the SF Weekly (and San Francisco Examiner) news stories emerged on Public Works’ treatment of homeless people’s stuff.

But these newer records also reveal a raccoon (and its babies!) have been nesting in those belongings, and supervisors chastised each other for making homeless people wait upwards of two hours to retrieve their belongings.

Perhaps most surprising of all was a warning by a supervisor, to staff, to resist the temptation to take money from homeless people’s bags.

“Recently there have been backpacks with money in it left unattended for bag & tag (could be set up)…follow proper procedure,” Public Works Deputy Director of Operations Larry Stringer warned supervisors in June 25, 2019 meeting minutes.

Seeing that note in the meeting minutes, as written by a Public Works supervisor, prompted my head to spin.

Excuse me, why do we have to remind people not to steal?

Rachel Gordon, spokesperson at Public Works, said the director was merely reminding employees that there were allegations in various news reports of stealing homeless people’s belongings from Public Works property and selling them at local flea markets.

“We regularly remind our field staff of the bag and tag policy and the need to make sure it is adhered to,” she told me, in a statement. As for the rodents, “There have been incidents where the storage facility at the Operations Yard has been visited by raccoons, opossums, cats and skunks looking for food. To prevent this from happening, we have been removing any food items brought in as soon as possible and increasing power washing of the area. No animal droppings have been found in the last few weeks.”

Well, that’s reassuring.

Kelley Cutler, a human rights organizer with the Coalition on Homelessness, listened to me read off all of these various notes from meeting minutes with the occasional chuckle, and the occasional grunt of anger.

“As I’m listening to all the different comments, what I’m wondering is, or thinking about, is how when they’re reporting at HSOC meetings, they’re always saying that they lead with services,” Cutler said. HSOC, remember, is that multi-agency city homelessness effort.

“That definitely does not seem like the priority here,” Cutler added.

When — and I’m assuming this is a when — Nuru is replaced, my hope is that Breed finds a manager with more compassion for those whose belongings, and lives, The City sweeps away.

And that Breed herself understands— yes, we do sweep the homeless. And it’s time we put down the broom.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at joe@sfexaminer.com, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.

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