A group of people living on a parking lot under a San Francisco freeway, some of whom had been there for years, were pushed out of the area by state law enforcement on Monday.
The California Highway Patrol on Monday cleared out the encampment on Merlin Street, on a lot owned by the California Department of Transportation adjacent to Harrison Street in the South of Market neighborhood.
Some of those living on the lot had paid rent to use the parking spots under a previous operator, until that person went out of business and the lot reverted to Caltrans, advocates said.
“I can’t afford a [house]… but I have a place,” 67-year-old resident Greg Smith said of the arrangement in a statement from the Coalition on Homelessness. “I’ve rented here for about five years until they declared bankruptcy and gave the place up.”
Caltrans made the decision to remove those living on the lot in February. Since April, The City’s Healthy Streets Operation Center, which responds to street encampments, has been providing services like food, water, bathrooms, and COVID-19 vaccines to those living there. Jeff Kositsky, who heads the team, said 50 to 60 people have passed through the lot in that time but estimated that 15 to 20 people regularly lived there.
Of the 13 still there to be forced out on Monday, three went to a city-sanctioned camping site, one went to a shelter-in-place hotel and three were already housed elsewhere, according to Kositsky.
“It was a dynamic situation,” Kositsky said. “We worked really hard to make sure everyone’s needs were met, both the state’s needs and unhoused individuals. It’s a hard needle to thread. I think it worked out okay today.”
The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing said city workers engaged with residents there to prepare them for the sweep.
“The Merlin Street lot is state property and therefore under the jurisdiction of California High Patrol and Caltrans,” spokeswoman Deborah Houck said.
The encampment has received attention in part for the handful living there who have paid for their spots, like Smith. Advocates argued that they are tenants who should have eviction protection, particularly under California’s eviction moratorium that ends June 30.
But overnight sleeping in parking lots, no matter if space is rented, is prohibited in The City, Kositsky said.
Caltrans said that a fire had burned down the fence of an adjacent business in the past and argued that the encampment poses a fire risk to U.S. Highway 101.
“Consistent with CDC guidance to prevent community spread of COVID-19, Caltrans is proceeding with encampment cleanups if there is an immediate safety concern or threat to critical infrastructure,” Caltrans said in a statement on Monday. “We continue to work with the city and service providers to move people into safer situations as available.”
Though everyone HSOC encountered was offered placement for shelter, it’s unclear where those who declined will go. Some didn’t want to take up residence in crowded shelters like MSC South one block south of the site, and resources are limited.
“People don’t feel safe with that,” Kelley Cutler, a human rights organizer with the Coalition on Homelessness, said of the shelter offers. “Some folks moved in because there’s nowhere else to go. Folks are just looking for somewhere they’re not being targeted.”
“The more that they’re opening up, the more that they’re going to be ramping up sweeps,” Cutler added.
Smith lost a box truck parked at the site that was not operational but was able to keep his van — for now — while he temporarily stays in a hotel room set up by The City, Cutler added. He doesn’t know how long he will be allowed to stay.