Ken Garcia: Homeless in Golden Gate Park: An old story that never ends

San Francisco’s progressive proselytes would have us believe that the many campers who call Golden Gate Park home do the site no harm — they’re just a benign presence among the flowers and the trees.

Reality presents a different picture. In a scant three days after homeless outreach teams and cleanup crews began fanning out along the eastern edge of the park, they collected more than seven tons of garbage as well as the usual assortment of tents, sleeping bags and furniture. To no one’s surprise, they’ve also uncovered sites full of hypodermic needles, other drug paraphernalia and the stuff one would expect to find in areas used as public toilets.

So far, they’ve only covered a tiny area of San Francisco’s fabled 1,017-acre park, but there’s little doubt they’ll find much more of the same as they march west. And I could probably lead the outreach teams to some of the favored spots, since not much has changed over time — just the numbers and the faces.

This was like old home week for me — walking around Golden Gate Park touring homeless encampments and talking to gardeners and park officials about the armies of the night. Nearly a decade ago, I spent four months chronicling the decline of one of the nation’s great urban parks, a place that had been fashioned into something of a tent city. Some follow-up columns caused Willie Brown to go into a ballistic, well-publicized denial — one he later retracted, apologized for and solemnly pledged to fix.

Some of that reform has come to fruition. But it’s hard to maintain political will in the face of steady budget cuts and misguided ideals. As Mayor Gavin Newsom discovered recently, the increase in the number of homeless encampments was fairly troubling — which is why a few weeks ago, city officials began handing out letters to the campers that they would need to leave, but that any number of city services awaited them.

This recent official foray to clean up the park has hardly been the “sweep” that alarmists are claiming. Workers from the San Francisco Homeless Outreach Team — the group that has been at the forefront of the wildly successful Homeless Connect project — have been going out in advance of the cleanup crews to tell the homeless campers that there are beds, medical services, drug treatment, detox programs and meals available if they want them. Recreation and Park officials say about 25 people have agreed to receive some services, while the others have decided to maintain their alternative lifestyles.

Yet, just as it was nine years ago, the so-called homeless advocates have been decrying the efforts as an attack on individual liberties. They don’t mention that it has been illegal to camp in the park for probably close to 40 years — little details like that really obscure the issue.

Only in the alternative universe of San Francisco can people criticize a plan to help homeless people get off the streets and into beds and shelters. But Newsom told me he is resolute in his desire to ignore the skewed politics and do the right thing.

“I think it’s outrageous — what kind of compassion is there in letting people live in their own excrement, amid piles of hypodermic needles?’’ he said. “We have people saying we should get people into shelters, getting treatment and getting reunited with their own families. How can you argue that?’’

It’s also a bit dangerous. We’re not talking about a disparate group of benevolent societies setting up shop in the park. A lot of these people suffer from serious addictions, some have been very aggressive with police and gardeners, and if you counted the number of fires being set in The City’s largest forest each night, you might be wishing for an early rainy season.

But the sense of entitlement among some of the campers has not made them very happy about receiving outside visitors, which is why they often try to get retribution. Kelly Cornell, the park’s longtime urban forestry supervisor, told me that some of the campers have been destroying newly planted trees. In one section recently, he said more than 80 of 140 trees had been cut, broken in half or stolen outright.

“For all the thousands of work hours we put in, it’s very demoralizing,’’ park gardener Stephanie Roetken told me.

City officials estimate as many as 200 people may live in the park —which is why it will take about three months to work through it. But as the previous nine years will show, the real key is going to be vigilance.

Denial is not an option here, although I know firsthand that it sometimes makes for great copy.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at or call him at (415) 359-2663.