The proliferation of “tent camps” on city streets periodically resurrects the image of “Camp Agnos,” a homeless encampment at San Francisco’s Civic Center 27 years ago.
“Camp Agnos” was different in origin. It emerged as the 1989 Loma Prieta homeless earthquake victims looked for a place to shelter and found nothing. Certainly, there were homeless around Civic Center buildings before that, dating back to Mayor Dianne Feinstein. But they began to appear en masse after the earthquake on Oct. 17, 1989, forced them out of their city-financed single room occupancy hotel system.
It was the same story with the residents of the Marina and other parts of The City. Frightened earthquake survivors set up “makeshift” tents to camp in city parks like Dolores Park, Duboce Park and Jefferson Square or found shelter in available public buildings. The difference was that within weeks, Marina victims could rehouse themselves with funds from savings, insurance and family members, as well as organizations like Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Few of these resources were available at the time of the 1906 earthquake, and thousands moved into tents in many city parks, including Golden Gate Park, and lived there for years.
In 1989, the homeless had nothing. FEMA declared the SRO hotels for the homeless were ineligible for disaster loans or rental assistance for those displaced from SROs. Even the Red Cross denied aid for housing, saying it wasn’t an agency that helped people homeless before a disaster.
So “Camp Agnos” became the last resort for the most unpopular victims of the Loma Prieta earthquake.
As mayor, I believed the homeless victims deserved the same treatment and benefits as every other victim — not police rousts forcing them to leave their few belongings behind for a dump truck and with no place to go. The presence of homeless earthquake victims in front of City Hall was a daily reminder to solve the problem while avoiding impacts in neighborhoods that otherwise would have felt an influx of 500 homeless people.
We all knew what was needed: modest housing like they had before the earthquake. With Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi’s help, we forced FEMA to reverse federal policy that denied disaster assistance for those previously living in hotel rooms. And a highly publicized confrontation with the Red Cross forced them to return millions of donated dollars to our city that we used for two multipurpose shelter centers.
In a record nine-months time, on July 6, 1990, the last known victims of Loma Prieta from Civic Center’s “Camp Agnos” were housed in two newly renovated multipurpose shelters designed for the homeless without using police in riot gear with batons to roust anyone.
However, in the eight months required to bring these former industrial buildings up to city code, 500 people with no alternatives remained in Civic Center. It became a media spectacle, while the original reason for its impromptu creation was ignored.
Pundits who knew better decried the “civic embarrassment;” politicians demanded police raids to clear the park.
From the Mayor’s Office in City Hall, I had an unobstructed view. It was a mess, but I allowed the homeless to stay there because we had no ready, civilized alternative for these most needy earthquake victims.
The choice of using police in riot gear with batons against defenseless victims of the worst disaster since 1906 would have been wrong.
My choice was to live for a short period of time with the daily witness of homelessness in our city’s civic plaza until facilities were readied for all of them. Then we used social workers and health workers to respectfully but firmly move them to a new address inside one of the new buildings. It spared our city and the world the images of police mercilessly rousting people with their few belongings trashed into dump trucks — an image that would have haunted our city for years to come.
Today, 27 years later, my decision to follow the values of the City of Saint Francis to treat the poor with firm compassion and respect served San Francisco well then and now.
Art Agnos served as mayor of San Francisco from 1988 to 1992.