A protest led by homeless individuals and their advocates targeted the Department of Public Works operations yard in Potrero Hill on Saturday, where personal property confiscated during street sweeps and encampment resolutions are supposed to be safeguarded for 90 days.
But, the protesters alleged that Public Works often violates its own “bag and tag” policies around properly logging the items, and that many never make it to the yard. They also voiced concerns about long wait times at the yard and a lack of oversight over the process that deter many homeless individuals from reclaiming their belongings.
“What we have been seeing out on the streets is mass confiscation and destruction of property, [improper] bagging and tagging and damaged property,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition Homelessness. “People are always reporting that their stuff gets taken by Public Works workers and resold. We speak with workers who don’t even know the policies.”
Each month, an estimated 4,000 complaints related to homelessness — such as tents on public sidewalks — are made to The City’ 311 service center, triggering a response by Public Works and sometimes also by homeless outreach workers and police.
Public Works director Mohammed Nuru told the San Francisco Examiner on Thursday that the department honors its policies and has a thorough process for storing and returning the property confiscated during encampment clearings and deemed valuable enough to keep safe for 90 days.
Property confiscated within the past month — which during a recent tour of the yard included tents, a wheelchair, a generator, dozens of bicycles and suitcases, among other things — is kept inside of a storage structure covered with a tarp. Items confiscated in the two months prior are stored away in two large shipping containers.
After 90 days, items that have not been claimed are either donated or discarded.
Pointing to a retrieval rate of 28 percent, Nuru said that more often than not, homeless people do not come back for their property.
“The percentage of people who don’t come to pick up their stuff is pretty high. It’s in the 60 to 70 percent. It’s increased from previous years,” said Nuru. “Some of the stuff here is not stuff that people want.”
Citing data from a 2018-2019 “bag tag” report, Nuru said that a total of 617 items were logged, the owners only showed up at the remote operations yard to retrieve them in 76 instances. According to Nuru, a total of 175 items were returned to their property owners.
In the event that a property owner shows up to the yard and their belongings cannot be located, the individual can file a claim with the City Attorney’s office, said Nuru.
According to Public Works’ deputy director of operations, Larry Stringer, two such claims have been filed by homeless individuals since the beginning of the year.
But Public Works’ data is disputed by advocates for the homeless, who say that oftentimes property confiscated during encampment clearings doesn’t make it back to the yard.
“If you look at those logs, they have all kinds of things reported as stolen, they are barely filled out, it’s a half- ass thing. If you look at numbers in terms of the property logged in, it’s only one or two [items] a day,” said Friedenbach, pointing out that homeless encampment clearings and street sweeps occur on a daily basis throughout The City.
These concerns are raised in the multimedia project “Stolen Belonging,” an online documentary series produced by homeless San Francsicans and activists from the Coalition on Homelessness that focuses on City sweeps.
Responding to allegations that homeless individuals’ property stored at the yard is sometimes lost or stolen by Public Works employees, Nuru said that break-ins do occur, but that theft is committed by individuals not affiliated with Public Works.
“It’s mostly street people,” said Nuru. “Last night, four people jumped the fence into the yard.”
Those who have trekked to the Public Works yard in an attempt to retrieve their belongings said that the procedure is not always transparent and that it can take hours for Public Works employees to respond to them.
With the help of advocates, San Francisco natives Melodie and Michael on Saturday filled out claims forms for property that was taken from them during a May 1 clearing of the area where they had settled for three weeks, underneath the tangle of freeway ramps at Cesar Chavez and Potrero streets.
“They kicked us out from one side and told us to move to the other behind the fence and it will be alright,” said Michael, adding that the couple’s belongings — which included electronics, clothes, a generator and a stove — were seized despite reassurances from Public Works employees.
“I’ve tried keeping the walkway clean, I sweep, make it presentable, make room for bikes and all that,” said Michael, adding that he once waited “all day” at the operations yard for assistance in retrieving his belongings. “We are their last priority.”
“Some people don’t come back for their stuff because we don’t know that Public Works keeps it. Some of us, we figure they just throw it away. They tell us to come back on a certain day. We come back on that day and they are like, ‘we can’t find it right now,’” said Melodie. “It makes me feel like they are just bullshitting us.”