The cold winter winds whipped under the freeway overpass at Dore Street and a piece of paper tied to a green tent with a rubber band flapped in the wind. In big bold lettering the message on the paper warns:  “RESOLUTION DAY: TUES. FEB. 27th, 2018”  “NOTICE TO VACATE.” The notice also notes that those who have not vacated may be subject to citation and/or arrest, and that the City will conduct a clean up of the area “including the removal of all individuals.”

About a month ago. this encampment tucked away under the freeway in an industrial area made it to the top of the City’s list to be “resolved.” City outreach workers have been getting folks into Navigation Centers, but more people have been showing up in need of shelter.  Getting a bed is dependent on beds becoming available, which happens mostly when other people are discharged back to the street.

On the morning of this resolution, a resident of the encampment was awoken by law enforcement at 7 a.m. and told she needed to pack up and vacate. She went to wake up and inform her neighbors of the eviction that was upon them. When she returned to where she had slept the night before she found that her tent and all of her belongings were gone. City workers had tossed her possessions on the back of a flatbed truck to be discarded, but fortunately she was able to pull her belongings off the truck before they were lost for good.

Before the “resolution,” another unhoused woman was working with City outreach workers to get into the Navigation Center. The morning of the “resolution,” she said she was waiting for the bed to become available, but that the Homeless Outreach Team worker was helping her, and she was hopeful.  Later that day, she called the Coalition on Homelessness office, distressed to report that Department of Public Works staff had thrown her wheelchair into the crusher truck and demolished it.

“I need my wheelchair to get around!” she said.

Art by Josh MacPhee of Just Seeds Image description: A large black box with letters that read “MARCH” is centered, with legs protruding from the top and bottom of it. Light background.

The Navigation Center is part of a complaint-based system, so when an encampment gets enough complaints from neighbors, the City will do a “resolution.” City outreach workers go out and work with folks to get them into shelter, connected to resources, treatment or a one-way bus ticket out of town. Once a location has been “resolved” this location is now off limits to encampment residents. This means that people can’t just sign up on a list to get a bed; instead, they have to be specifically referred by the outreach workers, meaning homeless folks sometimes try to set up camp at a location they know has plans to be “resolved.”  

There is a myth that people are “service resistant,” but the reality is that resources are extremely limited. The City has between 1,000 to 1,500 people waiting on the single adult shelter waitlist for a temporary bed, while the average wait for a family to get into shelter is 111 days.

In response to the lack of coordination between the various departments engaged in addressing encampments, the police department started a new command center and are calling it “”Healthy Streets Operation Center” or HSOC.  But will the new Command Center address homeless people’s needs? Laura Guzman, who was former director of the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center in San Francisco, is skeptical that it would, pointing out it shortcomings. She says that “no housing exits, access based on complaints rather than vulnerability, and shorter stays than even traditional shelters do not address our communities needs, but only hide visible homelessness. Most importantly, there is no community oversight.”

While on the national level there is movement away from using law enforcement to respond to street homelessness and encampments, San Francisco police have been playing a dominant role in responding to our housing crisis. On June 29, 2017, the City began their strategic effort of addressing encampments and placing the people living in encampments in the Mission district into Navigation Centers. They called this operation the “Mission District Homeless Outreach Program (MDHOP)”. The goal was for SFPD, the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH), City outreach workers (SFHOT), Department of Public Health (DPH) and the Department of Public Works (DPW) to meet every day at 8 a.m. five days a week to strategize what location to focus their attention on to clear encampments. No non-profit homeless service providers, advocates nor people experiencing homelessness were included in this effort.

Since June, the number of tents in the Mission decreased from 256 to about 60. Based on MDHOP’s results, Mayor Ed Lee made the decision to replicate that model in Central Market and the Civic Center, calling it “harm reduction” and having targeted mental health and drug addiction outreach, since tents aren’t as prevalent of an issue in these locations. They created a Unified Command System (UCS) —  a command system that’s based on a national model for staying organized during emergencies — for the City on homelessness. This command system is located at the Department of Emergency Management on Turk Street.  

In January 2018, the City created HSOC, a.k.a. The Command Center. This coordinated effort involves several City agencies: the Police, Public Works, Public Health and Homeless departments; the City Administrator, who oversees the city’s 311 system; as well as the City Controller, City Administrator and the Mayor’s Office of Housing. Notably absent are nonprofits, community advocates and, most critically, people who are themselves experiencing homelessness.

The Command Center is tasked with addressing the long-standing issue of dispatching appropriate responders to incidents related to homelessness. Up until now, there have been two paths used for reporting incidents — 311 and SFPD’s non-emergency line — but the two paths have not been in communication with each other. Now all the homeless-related calls will be routed to the command center, which will dispatch calls to the appropriate responder from that location.  

Dispatch protocol needs restructuring so that police aren’t first responders to someone in need of help from a social service provider.  It’s not the role of law enforcement to be tasked with these things, but they have been put in this role. We need to quit kidding ourselves into believing that we can arrest our way out of this housing crisis or that anything is resolved by telling people to “move along.”

There needs to be community involvement. There needs to be transparency.  Law enforcement and City agencies cannot just do whatever the hell they want. The issue is not “visible homelessness,” but that people are forced to sleep on the streets because our government has failed to provide the basic human right to housing.  ≠