By TJ Johnston
Who would have thought talking about the weather could be so intense?
San Francisco officials and community members weren’t just interested in small talk, though. The Board of Supervisors Public Safety Committee held a three hour-plus hearing on March 7 about the cold and wet weather policy for homeless people.
But while the hearing was about the bad weather protocols, it didn’t take long for it to become a forum on the City’s heavy-handed practice of sweeping homeless encampments — especially during the recent heavy rainstorms.
San Francisco instituted its extreme weather protocols in the 1980s at the onset of late 20th-century mass homelessness. But it wasn’t until late January that Supervisor Matt Haney called for a hearing on the protocols. A collective of homeless advocates — including the Bay Area Landless People’s Alliance, Poor Magazine and the San Francisco chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America — called out the City’s laggardly response to what’s now a four-decade crisis during a pre-hearing rally outside City Hall.
“That it took four months of heavy rains to schedule a hearing is bad enough,” the collective said in a statement. “But in fact, the City of San Francisco’s first inclement weather protocol was established in October of 1982. The City isn’t just four months late; it’s 37 years late.”
This past February alone, San Francisco saw some rainfall 17 out of 28 days. According to USClimateData.com, the winter months average 10 or 11 rainy days per month.
The bad weather policy kicking in usually depends on temperature forecasts or the amount and/or duration of expected rainfall. When that happens, the emergency shelter system temporarily expands its capacity.
How many more beds become available? Between 25 and 75, and the beds are actually mats. Over 4,300 San Franciscans are unsheltered, according to the point-in-time homeless count in 2017, the latest year figures are available.
Also, a further shelter expansion at various pop-up sites not normally used as shelter is triggered once 70 of the extra 75 mats are filled while severe weather conditions last.
FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE
Haney requested a report back from five City agencies — including the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, Department of Public Works and the Police Department — and essentially asked them “how does that work?”
The homelessness department’s thresholds for accessing shelter during cold or rainy weather was criticized. So, was the City’s communication of when space becomes available.
Sam Lew, policy director of the Coalition on Homelessness, which publishes Street Sheet, told the panel of her problem when she recently contacted the 311 telephone system to aid a homeless person who was drenched.
“I myself called 311 during the shelter expansions, and 311 did not have the information on where to go for pop-up shelters,” she said. “The information is not accessibly available to a housed person, so it’s even harder for our unhoused neighbors.”
Such information is apparently available by 311, social media and texts from AlertSF, according to the homelessness department. But the Coalition says that could be expanded.
Bolstering communications during inclement weather was one of the Coalition’s several recommendations, particularly to neighborhood groups and all City agencies, including the Muni transit system and the public library (see sidebar). It also suggested a resetting the protocol trigger to 50 degrees or a 50 percent chance of rain, as well as funding shelter staff-hours to keep them open 24/7.
But notably resonant with the audience was the Coalition’s call for legislating a ban on tent sweeps and property confiscations. Several people in the board chamber flashed yellow paper signs reading “stop the sweeps.”
Media outlets, including Street Sheet, have reported of destruction of tents and seizure of personal property, including items of sentimental value, during the storms. Such stories were entered into the hearing’s record — some from video interviews, others in the public comment period.
Cheryl Shanks, a formerly homeless woman who is now active with the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation and Hospitality House, recalled being at her lowest one wet day in 2017 when Public Works employees refused to let her keep her few remaining possessions.
“All I could carry was precious to me,” she told the panel. “It was rainy and I asked them to please give me time to go through my heirlooms. I was told ‘no.’ Only then, in my time of homelessness did I want to die and contemplate suicide.”
WHERE ARE THE SERVICES?
The police department has been pushing a narrative of facilitating homeless outreach as part of the inter-agency Healthy Streets Operation Center. Though the department claims partnering with staff at other city departments such as Homelessness and Public Works, cops have been the public face of its operations. Critics have blasted the center for not connecting street dwellers to adequate services. Instead, it has been issuing misdemeanor citations and confiscating their property — ostensibly for evidence, though there’s no record of active prosecutions.
Lt. David Lazar, the center’s commander, has previously defended the practices of his unit in public hearings. He pointed out that it has 15 dedicated beds in the low-threshold navigation centers available for seven days, and that ticketing is only a last resort under the center’s policy. When Haney pressed him on the center’s procedure, Lazar reiterated the policy under SFPD Bulletin 18-137.
“If there’s no shelter available, our policy is that you cannot issue a citation and you cannot confiscate a tent as evidence,” he said. “You have to work to the best of your ability as an officer to connect that person with a navigation center or a shelter,”
But still, the price of admission to these weeklong placements apparently has been homeless people’s survival gear. Homelessness department director Jeff Kositsky said that available storage space factors into navigation center placement, and they “do their best.” It was one of several times in the hearing that “stop lying” signs were flashed in the chamber.
STANDIN’ IN THE RAIN
Videos with statements of people who had property taken away — and of sweeps in progress — refuted the City’s claims of following its own rules of posted prior notice and “bag and tag” policy. As his stuff was taken away by Public Works with a phalanx of police officers standing by, a Mission District street resident bemoaned his numerous confiscations and fruitless efforts at retrieving his work and survival gear.
“They expect me to stay out in the freezing cold and take my tarp away,” the unidentified man said. He added that he lost about $60,000 worth of Snap-on tools, had seven tents “taken as evidence” and was only notified of the sweep one hour earlier.
“I’ve been down to the DPW yard so many times,” he said. “I’ve never gotten a thing back.”
A police officer in the video claimed that sufficient notice was given, despite the apparent absence of posted notices and refused to comment further.
Additional footage played in public comment, detailing other forms of abuse. Amber Fina told of how she was sprayed during an early morning powerwashing when she was camping outside the library. A woman who identified herself only as “Patricia” said that Public Works staff mocked her in her attempts to stop them from taking her medication away.
Since 2013, Chris Herring, a Ph. D. candidate in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, has been following the City’s approach to homelessness. In a Medium post published before the hearing, he said that offers of services preceding and during sweeps appear half-hearted.
In his research, Herring noted that the City rarely stores encampment dwellers’ property, much less return it to its owners. Also, he said that helping hand from the City is backhanded.
“In this situation, the offer of shelter is not a genuine offer of services, but a weapon to dispossess the city’s poorest who have already lost everything else,” he said.
Accounts from the Coalition and local media say that enforcement of the tent ban has been heavy especially during recent downpours. Yet, amid the sea of yellow signs urging officials to stop lying, Lt. Lazar was candid when Haney asked him if the bad weather deterred his unit from engaging in sweeps.
“We keep our policy consistent regardless of the weather,” he said.