City solution to Clinton Park anti-homeless measures: ‘larger boulders’

Public Works Director: ‘The problem is they were not big enough’

Trump has his wall, San Francisco has its boulders.

Those infamous anti-homeless boulders on Clinton Park have rolled away for now, reportedly at the request of residents. But they could be back soon, bigger than ever.

And as if this whole effort to punish those sleeping on our sidewalks were not already rife with Sisyphean imagery, soon San Francisco writ large may be channeling that Greek mythos: The City has just given its tacit approval for neighbors to heave their own boulders onto sidewalks citywide.

That means boulders — everywhere — as far as the eye can see.

In an interview on Clinton Park Monday afternoon Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru said a “more permanent” solution was being discussed with neighbors. And the answer may simply be: heavier, larger rocks.

“The problem is they were not big enough,” Nuru said. A permanent solution “could involve larger boulders or a landscape plan.”

Nuru commended the neighbors for banding together to fund the “solution.”

When I asked him point-blank if other neighborhoods could emulate this effort, Nuru said, “We welcome designs and solutions to these problems.”

The press conference and the final removal of these particular boulders shortly before noon on Monday followed a days-long saga, in which San Francisco and the country followed the travails of one block off Market Street that seemed to symbolize everything San Francisco isn’t doing right to address homelessness.

In fairness to these besieged neighbors, an encampment had grown along Clinton Park, off Dolores, where some of its denizens were reportedly dealing drugs, or at the very least, injecting themselves with various drugs. That’s tough to live near.

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman has expressed sympathy and support for the neighbors, saying Monday that while the issue was more to do with drugs and crime in the area than the homeless encampment per se, “I think it’s a lot to ask a street like Clinton Park to take an encampment.”

But it’s tough to live on the streets, too.

While those homeless campers weren’t around Monday, NBC Bay Area spoke to one Daniel Bartosiewicz, who camped along Clinton Park for two months. He said the aggrieved neighbors never reached out to him beforehand, although one reportedly spoke with him after the NBC interview aired.

“They would have saved a lot of money and a lot of trouble if they just said something to us,” he said. “Use your compassion and love and understanding. We’re humans.”

Instead of compassion from The City, they got rocks.

Neighbors, who according to Nuru tried to reach out to police and homeless outreach officials numerous times, were stonewalled. Finally, in a seeming act of desperation, they pooled together their money via GoFundMe and bought rocks half the height of public trash cans, meant to block folks from erecting tents.

The whole fracas was first reported by Hoodline last week, and eventually rippled out as far as CNN (a testament to the power of local news, by the by.)

Over the weekend, protesters gathered to drink Rolling Rock (no, really) and engaged in a cat and mouse game, rolling rocks into the street that Public Works crews would haul right back on to the sidewalk. They also made some attempts to engage neighbors in dialogue while they were there.

“Mayor London Breed should step up here and say that what DPW is doing by prioritizing resources to one particular neighborhood to develop anti-homeless architecture is wrong. She should encourage dialogue between neighbors and accelerate development of housing and services for all people living outside,” Taylor Ahlgren, a transit advocate who took part, said Monday.

The mayor’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Mandelman said he thought solutions such as the boulders should be considered on a “case-by-case” basis.

“The boulders were a lot,” he acknowledged, but noted they have been used elsewhere in The City. “I don’t think these things should just be popping up, but people put up sidewalk gardens all the time. They put stuff out to make their sidewalks more inviting, more attractive… My office and The City are happy to work with neighbors if they have challenges outside their doorstep.”

(Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez/S.F. Examiner)

(Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez/S.F. Examiner)

Ricky Anderson, who works at a nearby Whole Foods, frequently takes smoke breaks along Clinton Park, and was sitting sagely on a boulder when we spoke Monday.

He said people living in tents there were a nuisance.

“They bother you. They’re shooting up. They smell like piss,” Anderson said.

When the boulders were installed, he said it brought a sense of peace to the street.

Audrey Soule, a retired teacher who lives at the end of the block, was not one of the neighbors who paid for the boulders, she told me. But, she doesn’t feel like the neighbors should be vilified. She’s seen the smeared excrement along her neighbors’ homes, a clear sign something should be done.

“Sometimes,” she said, she grows angry at the raucous camp and “I try to shoo them away,” whereas on another day, “I took out a bucket of hot, soapy water for a woman to wash her feet.”

But that’s the rub, dear readers. Neighbors pooled their money, strengthened their community bonds, and joined together — all to find ways to push others out. What if they took Soule’s second approach, and made that same effort to help those same people?

As it happens, as I stood there awaiting the removal of those boulders, Monday, I came across a man doing exactly that.

Greg Aherne is a third-generation San Francisco native and a graduate of Saint Ignatius Preparatory High School. Perhaps he was channeling that Catholic teaching today, as he was rolling through Clinton Park on his bike with large black sacks strapped to it — filled to the brim with supplies for the homeless.

Hygiene kits. Water. Peanut butter sandwiches. All that, and a willingness to look his homelessness neighbors in the eyes, and talk.

“I don’t like homelessness,” he told me. As a San Franciscan who lives in The Excelsior, he feels the frustration of housed neighbors. He knows the helplessness of watching The City grapple fruitlessly with this ever-growing problem.

But, he said, “the rocks send the wrong message. It shows how desperate we are.”

There has to be a better answer, he said.

This of course is not to put the onus entirely on the neighbors. While I personally find their solution lacking, they’re just regular people, faced with an insurmountable problem. Our city leaders should have taken this opportunity to marshall them to do something better with that energy, and money, and time.

Instead, Supervisor Mandelman is hailing their “creative” solution, and Mayor Breed has remained stone silent during this whole interlude.

But what would leadership look like?

What if we all took a cue from the Clinton Park neighbors, I wonder, banded together, and funded a solution that helped our houseless neighbors?

Perhaps we feel that particular boulder is too heavy to push up one of our notoriously steep hills.

But it’s a better solution than this. Anything is.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email him at

Story updated 4 p.m. Sept. 30, 2019

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