San Francisco’s broken promise to resolve homeless encampments

‘There is an idea that The City is leading with services, and they are not’

More than three years and a pandemic after San Francisco created a new organization to coordinate The City’s response to homelessness, critics say the promise of the program remains largely unfulfilled.

Admittedly, by some measures, it’s been successful. The number of tents recorded citywide dropped by 65% between April 2020 and April 2021, according to data from Mayor London Breed’s Office.

Tents may be cleared, but that doesn’t mean the people who live in them end up housed.

When an encampment is removed, residents are given a choice: move or accept shelter.

Some try a variety of city services for a short stint, while others choose to stay on the streets. The reality, though, is that many San Francisco residents who experience homelessness find themselves in a revolving door between outreach programs and life on the streets.

When the Healthy Streets Operations Center was founded in 2018, it was billed as the best way to remedy some of these challenges.

Police officers are part of the teams dispatched to sites accompanied by medical professionals, outreach workers and street cleaning crews. Together, they’re supposed to provide a streamlined response to tent sites, connect residents with services, provide better care to the most vulnerable and ultimately move tents from the street to create clean passage.

‘Resolved’ but not housed

When HSOC clears an encampment, the situation is called “resolved.” What happens to many of the people living in those tents remains decidedly unresolved, though.

HSOC teams encountered 5,621 individuals living in tents during encampment sweeps between June 2020 and October 2021. Less than half of them moved from the site into a hotel, shelter or safe sleeping site, according to information provided by the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management.

Even those who accepted shelter often returned to the streets eventually.

Teams encountered 747 people from over the same period who were using tents despite having city-provided shelter, according to Emergency Management. These individuals were told to remove their structure and return to the housing alternative provided.

In another example, HSOC placed 650 clients in shelter beds in 2019, but 619 of those people returned to the streets afterward, according to documents obtained by The Examiner. Individuals experiencing homelessness told outreach workers they felt traumatized and distrustful of service providers.

Critics of HSOC say these results demonstrate that the initiative fails to address the root causes of extreme poverty and homelessness. Rather, they say it simply makes the homeless population — and the reality of their conditions — less visible to the public.

“The goal was always to remove tents and that’s always been the point, a concerted and interdepartmental effort to remove tents,” said Jennifer Friedenbach from the Coalition on Homelessness, a local advocacy group. “We have had a problem with the very concept. It should be about moving people out of homelessness regardless of if they have a tent or not.”

For those who don’t go to temporary shelter from an encampment, the situation can be dire.

According to Emergency Management, a staggering 2,318 people encountered by HSOC teams at encampments were “not ready to accept services,” a premise that’s been questioned by advocates and academics who have studied challenges around homelessness relief in other cities.

Staying on the street

Skeptics of this logic say reticence is common for many living on the streets — often for good reason.

Many individuals experiencing homelessness have had negative experiences in shelters, such as having their belongings stolen or are concerned they lack privacy. Many fear having to give up certain belongings or leave a longtime partner or they simply lack trust in the system after years of feeling they have been failed by it.

California Highway Patrol officers watched as Caltrans workers removed barricades from a homeless camp site in May in a parking lot underneath Interstate 80 that residents were told to vacate. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
A homeless man took down a tent during a sweep operation in May. Many homeless people continue to live on the streets after being forced to relocate. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

California Highway Patrol officers watched as Caltrans workers removed barricades from a homeless camp site in May in a parking lot underneath Interstate 80 that residents were told to vacate. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner) A homeless man took down a tent during a sweep operation in May. Many homeless people continue to live on the streets after being forced to relocate. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Sometimes, it’s just easier for them to stay on the streets. Research from the journal Qualitative Social Work calls this a “social-rational choice, in which individuals consider the costs and benefits of participating in particular services based on their previous experiences and personal situations.”

Critics of HSOC also allege that when a team is sent to an encampment, The City doesn’t always have enough available shelter beds to offer every resident. The Coalition’s recent report claims that the sweep will proceed with the removal of people anyway, and then classify the leftover individuals as denying services.

HSOC denies this assertion fiercely, saying that if there are no beds available, teams pause the operation until beds open.

The shuffle

Whatever the reason, nearly half of the people encountered by The City during encampment cleanups over a 16-month period were not connected with services. They were asked to move. Life for these people becomes a tragic sidewalk shuffle, moving block-to-block to find respite between sweeps.

“There is an idea that The City is leading with services, and they are not,” Friendenbach said. “They are leading with cleaning.”

Tent sites are often made inhospitable to future residents once The City does its work. HSOC calls these “re-encampment prevention” efforts.

Last year, the east side of Octavia Street in Hayes Valley was the site of a large tent cluster. Over a couple days in July, those tents were cleared and temporary guardrails put in place. Near Safeway on Market and Church streets, posted signs on a small concrete island remind people that camping is prohibited.

“For unhoused community members, this only continues the cycle of being shuffled around by The City and having their belongings trashed or destroyed,” the Coalition on Homelessness report states.

The City acknowledges that the tandem goals of creating clean, safe streets while providing dignified, humane exits from poverty for the people who call them home is a difficult task.

“We all want the same thing: to help people escape the crisis that they are experiencing on the streets while making sure our public spaces are safe and accessible,” said Emergency Management in a statement. “San Francisco understands there are opportunities for improvement, as well as disagreements on how to approach these challenges.”

All this raises the obvious question: does it have to be this way?

The right way

Many say no. Advocates point to the clearing of a large encampment at Fifth and King streets in 2012 as proof of an alternative path to keeping public spaces clean while also providing safety and dignity to encampment residents.

The City spent weeks engaging with residents, securing a church where the site’s residents could relocate temporarily, renting a storage container for belongings and crafting a path out into supportive housing.

Bevan Dufty, then the homeless czar, called the endeavor a “master class” in what to do — and what not to do — in order to put a dent in The City’s struggle to better serve its homeless population.

“I learned basic and fundamental things about what wasn’t working in the shelter system,” he said. “A male and female couple aren’t going to want to separate to different shelters, and the veteran that inherited two pit bulls from a friend who overdosed and died isn’t going to give up his dogs to take a shelter bed.”

Dufty later spearheaded the first Navigation Center at 16th and Mission streets, a model he said was a direct outcropping of this experience. These facilities offer extensive wraparound services and few barriers to entry.

Still, that’s yet to prove to be a panacea, especially during the pandemic when congregate shelters were forced to operate at reduced capacity.

The hotel option

Shelter-in-place hotels, largely reimbursed by the federal government through the end of this year, were supposed to bear some of that load and provide another housing option.

For a while, they did so with great success, housing about 3,700 residents during the pandemic, according to Emergency Management. That number has shrunk to 1,271 people as The City has started to wind down the shelter-in-place program.

“While the SIPs have been an excellent emergency option, we must continue to focus on long-term solutions such as problem solving and permanent supportive housing,” the San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing said in a statement.

The department maintains the decision to close the temporary hotels is an investment in the long game. Breed has committed to adding 6,000 shelter and permanent supportive housing placements over two years.

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