ID tags identify Items recovered from homeless people in bins in a storage shed at the Department of Public Works operations yard in Potrero Hill. Homeless advocates have argued that city officials often fail to follow “bag and tag” policies when confiscating belongings. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Couple’s belongings swept away by police in enforcement action captured on video

San Francisco police officers working alongside Department of Public Works employees confiscated a homeless couple’s belongings without checking to see if they had owners on Saturday, in an apparent violation of city policy and the Police Department’s own protocol for processing “homeless property.”

In a video clip published on Twitter Saturday morning that has since been shared more than 1,000 times, two San Francisco police officers can be seen unceremoniously dragging a single tent from where it had stood for around two weeks, on a sidewalk on a nonresidential block of 14th Street near Woodward Street, into the street.

Clothing, shoes, several backpacks, a broom and other personal belongings remained scattered on the sidewalk as the officer and public works employees hauled several large suitcases onto the back of a Public Works truck, seemingly without searching the items for hazardous materials or “bagging and tagging” them to be stored at Public Works’ yard, as is Public Works’ policy.

According to Department Bulletin 18-089, police officers who routinely accompany Public Works crews responding to reports of tent encampments may immediately discard property that is deemed “abandoned.”

However, protocol directs officers to first evaluate whether the property has simply been left “unattended” by looking for signs of ownership, such as “an unattended tent that is filled with personal belongings, or items that are being stored in an orderly manner.” In that case, officers are directed to work with Public Works to properly process and store the property.

Within minutes after police arrived, one of the tent’s owners, a 38-year-old woman named Junior, appeared and can be seen on video attempting to notify the officers that the tent is not abandoned. After waking up around 10 a.m. on Saturday, Junior and her boyfriend, Poncho, reportedly stepped away from their encampment for 15 minutes to use a public restroom nearby.

“Is this legal? This person is sleeping here,” Mission District resident Taylor Ahlgren, who filmed the interaction, can be heard asking the officers in the video, as Junior is seen attempting to unzip the entrance to her tent.

“Sir, let me ask you where do you live? Want to give her your address so we can put her in front of your house? How about that?” one of the officers responded.

“She is welcome to stay in front of my house — but what you are doing right now is illegal,” Ahlgren responded.

The officers then argued that the confiscation was in fact legal, because the tent was abandoned. At the start of the video, one of the officers can be heard telling Ahlgren, “We are doing what the citizens of the city and county of San Francisco asked us to do.”

Asked about the bag and tag program by another bystander, one of the officers appears to be unaware of the program, while the other insisted that the tent was abandoned, despite Junior and Poncho standing feet away from it during the majority of the interaction.

“They just showed up. This encampment was left abandoned. They abandoned the encampment,” one of the officers insisted.

A spokesperson for the police department told the San Francisco Examiner on Monday that “It is SFPD policy that all officers have a working knowledge of Department General Orders and Bulletins,” including Bulletin 18-089.

According to Public Works’ “bag and tag” program, homeless individuals who have had their belongings confiscated have 90 days to retrieve them from the department’s yard at 2323 Cesar Chavez Ave., and are supposed to be provided with a receipt, or tag, by the Public Works crews that proves ownership. However, advocates have argued the department’s policies are often violated.

Public Works spokesperson Rachel Gordon told the Examiner that all Public Works crews who engage in sidewalk cleanups and encampment clearings should be aware of the bag and tag process. She said that Public Works has a “record of a bag and tag from that location Saturday morning.”

However, Junior and Poncho, who spoke with the Examiner on Monday, said that they were not given a tag for their items and were not told where and how to retrieve them by the Public Works Officials or the officers, as is evidenced in Ahlgren’s video recording. They were able to retrieve some belongings after a neighbor drove them to the public works facility by describing them verbally, but not all of them.

“As a matter of policy, Public Works should not be taking items that are still in use, unless they are clearly abandoned, in which case the department should leave a tag at teh location so that the owners could retrieve their property,” said Supervisor Hillary Ronen, whose district includes the Mission. “In this case, Public Works acknowledged that it had not adhered to its own policy and the department will be having a conversation with its street team to make sure the policy is closely followed.”

Proposition Q, approved by voters in 2016, prohibited the use of tents on public sidewalks but in exchange required The City to offer temporary shelter before removing tents.

For months, The City‘s adult shelter wait list has had more than 1,100 names on it.

Junior and Poncho said that they were not offered any type of shelter or resources during Saturday’s interaction with the officers, but would have gladly accepted them.

“What I’m going through is hard — of course I want housing,” said Junior, who immigrated from Burma some 20 years ago and became homeless last year after losing her job.

Ahlgren told the Examiner that he believes that if he had not been filming the interaction, the officers and Public Works crew would have confiscated the couple’s tent, leaving them without shelter.

“The plan with that truck was to throw everything out. There was no bagging and tagging,” said Ahlgren. “It seems like the appropriate thing to do would leave things in place if the person returns.”

Kelley Cutler, a human rights advocate with the Coalition on Homelessness, called Prop. Q a “political ploy” that “wasn’t about creating solutions or helping people,” said that police officers have a host of anti-homeless laws to choose from when shuffling homeless people from block to block in response to resident complaints about quality of life issues that often come with encampments.

“A lot of what they are using now is 647.e, “illegal lodging,” which is a misdemeanor — they can take the tent as evidence,” she said. “More so than the actual citation, people are receiving threats from cops — ‘give me your tent or go to jail.’ We have seen a huge uptick.”

Following Saturday’s sweep, Junior and Poncho moved onto Stevenson Street, a block away from their original encampment. But by Monday, Junior said that the couple had also been forced out of that location by Public Works crews.

The pair are once again camping near 14th and Woodward streets.

“It’s hard having to move every day, I carry everything on my back,” said Poncho, a Mission District native who also became homeless a year ago due to a “rough patch” in his life, adding that Saturday’s sweep “left me with nothing.”

lwaxmann@sfexaminer.com

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