Clutching a broom in one hand and a trash bag in the other, Jose Garcia is well-aware that there are few places in San Francisco where he and his loved ones are welcome.
For the past six months, the 43-year-old man has been living out of a tent he shares with his girlfriend and cousin on Stevenson Street, a tucked-away, non-residential alleyway in the Mission.
But early on Wednesday morning, police and San Francisco Department of Public Works officials descended on Garcia’s encampment and ordered it dismantled. While a majority of the campers requested shelter placements, all remained on the street after the city officials pulled out.
Garcia said that enforcement on Stevenson Street has become routine, with city officials ordering the encampment cleared “every two to three days.”
“I’m tired of this,” said a 24-year-old Bayview Hunters Point native who gave his name as “Ceelo” and said that he has been camping out on Stevenson Street for the past eight months because it is “quieter than anywhere else.”
“I do want shelter, I’m tired of moving,” said Ceelo.
According to Garcia, at least seven of the nine campers requested Tuesday to be placed in one of The City’s navigation centers — low-barrier homeless shelters where clients can enter along with their pets, partners and belongings following a referral by outreach workers or police — but were told that only one bed was currently available.
Left with no viable alternatives, Garcia and other campers complied with the city officials’ orders to pack up, but admitted that they would most likely return to the site in the evening. By 11 a.m., Ceelo had set up his tent a block over.
“All of us want shelter, but they said there is only one bed available. We are going to move and then come back. The cops already know this. They just take pictures, send them to their supervisor, and then they are gone,” said Garcia. “We usually leave for a day and then come back.”
Garcia said he became homeless two years ago following a five-year stint in prison and a subsequent divorce. He said he’s tried to find work, but has struggled due to his criminal background.
Garcia and his family chose the alley because for the most part, it is quiet, safe and far from housed neighbors. More recently, Garcia said their encampment grew to about nine people after they were joined by another couple and several friends “who have nowhere to go, so we let them stay with us.”
“This is one of the cleanest alleys you can go to,” said Garcia. “This is home for us.”
A spokesperson for the Healthy Streets Operation Center — a recently created city program that coordinates various city agencies’ responses to complaints about homelessness — confirmed that the order to clear Stevenson Street came in response to “multiple” 311 complaints about trash and tents blocking the sidewalk in the area.
“They were trying to clean the street,” said HSOC spokesperson Andy Lynch. “If the encampment remains and there are things blocking the sidewalk and offers of shelter aren’t taken, HSOC can cite the individuals.”
Lynch pointed out that there were no arrests, citations or property confiscations as a result of Wednesday’s enforcement action.
San Francisco law dictates that an offer of shelter must be made before The City can legally confiscate a homeless individual’s tent. Lynch confirmed that the Stevenson Street campers were offered a single Navigation Center bed, as well as placement in The City’s one-night shelters and access to substance abuse services, which they declined.
As of Wednesday, The City’s wait list for one-night, adult shelter beds had over 1,194 names on it. It is unclear whether the Stevenson campers would be given priority over those already waiting in the queue.
Kelley Cutler, a human rights advocate with the Coalition on Homelssnesss, called Wednesday’s enforcement action a “sweep,” in which The City displaces homeless campers for brief periods of time to address quality of life concerns, often shuffling them from block to block, but fails to resolve their homelessness.
“They are giving offers that are not real offers. To give up your survival gear for one night in a shelter doesn’t make sense. Even the seven day beds for which the police are [making referrals to] the navigation centers don’t make sense. In seven days you can’t even get an identification card issued in that amount of time.”
“That’s a sweep. These aren’t real alternatives in connecting folks into services,” she added.
Prior to HSOC’s launch in January 2018, encampments were targeted over a period of several months by a dedicated Encampment Resolution Team, made up of homeless outreach and social workers, who worked with the homeless campers on securing housing and shelter placements and made referrals to navigation centers before an encampment could be dismantled.
Wednesday’s action was not that, said Lynch.
“The Encampment resolution team has been active in the Mission recently but not every situation or response calls for them,” said Lynch. “It wasn’t a full on encampment resolution. There was a blocked sidewalk, and they were trying to clean the street.”
Cutler said that because HSOC facilitates sweeps on a daily basis, “the demand cannot keep up with the supply,” and added that police-led enforcement is not a solution to responding to homelessness.
“The reality is The City’s coordinated response to homelessness is being led by SFPD and Public Works, and the focus is on 311 complaints and tents,” said Cutler. “We have a housing and a health crisis and they are responding with law enforcement. It doesn’t make any sense. The people don’t just disappear.”