Locked Out at Golden Gate: San Francisco Empties Another Encampment

About as quickly as it sprouted, a homeless encampment on Golden Gate Avenue dispersed last month. The San Francisco Police Department and multiple City agencies also tasked with moving unhoused people off outdoor areas were on hand.

For a few weeks, about 15 people had a place to lay their heads. They had slept on a vacant parcel that’s approximately 17,000 square feet—slightly larger than an NHL hockey rink—in San Francisco’s Cathedral Hill neighborhood.

That changed on July 12, when the police department, the Healthy Streets Operating Center (HSOC), and the California Highway Patrol ordered the dwellers to vacate the lot and locked the gateway.  

A photo obtained from a public records request shows a line of at least a half-dozen large tents spaced out between the lot’s parking spaces, behind a chain link fence and unencumbered by vehicles and pedestrian traffic. 

Where did the inhabitants go? To shelters, hotels, navigation centers, and even a tiny home settlement, among other places, according to emails between City officials.

But no one mentioned permanent housing. The closest thing referenced to housing was in an email from HSOC Director Sam Dodge to Department of Emergency Management official Francis Zamora: “We also placed two longtime homeless couples that had not been previously in the shelter despite years on the streets of San Francisco. They are eligible for housing and are now working on applications for housing.” 

About a week earlier, on July 4, a group called Homes Not Jails 2022 announced in a statement that 15 people were occupying the lot on 750 Golden Gate Ave., apparently with the authorization of a doctor at the University of California-San Francisco with connections to the lot’s owner. 

Street Sheet exchanged messages with a spokesperson who asked to be identified as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon—after a 19th-century anarchist—because he fears retaliation from police. He said that Star Park Corporation, which is overseen by CEO Liza Mehta, owns the lot. 

Proudhon added that a Homes Not Jails 2022 member who had been staying at the lot since January made an agreement to manage the area as a live-in caretaker and monitor it for thefts, fire and vandalism. That deal, he said, was over the phone with Neil Mehta, a professor of medicine at UCSF and the husband of Liza Mehta. 

Although the San Francisco Planning Department website lists Star Park Corporation as the owner, in emails City officials say that the lot belongs to the state. Calls to Star Park and Neil Mehta were not returned as of press time. 

Proudhon said that the caretaker and some 15 other occupants, including vehicle dwellers, claim tenant rights over the property, as the caretaker has been staying there for more than 30 days. An Xfinity bill mailed to 750 Golden Gate last March is sufficient proof that the caretaker and his subletters are legal occupants, Proudhon said, but the bill and other documents as proof of residence have been stolen.

In the weeks leading to the sweep, Proudhon said that housed neighbors had been complaining to the police, and estimated that campers had had at least 13 encounters with the police. 

“[They] try to bully us out of here with lies,” he said. 

Of course, San Francisco Police Department wasn’t the only agency that had the encampment on its radar: Emergency Management and its partnering departments in HSOC, including Homelessness and Supportive Housing, and Public Works; the offices of Mayor London Breed and state Sen. Scott Wiener; and the California Highway patrol were also discussing the camp in the days ahead of the sweep.    

Emails from HSOC, a collection of multiple City departments charged with the duty to respond to street encampments, show that it recommended swift action on the camp.

“I feel strongly like we should get in front of this and shut it down quickly,” HSOC director Sam Dodge wrote to Mary Ellen Carroll, director of the Department of Emergency Management, HSOC’s lead agency. 

A likely motivation for sweeping unhoused folk out is the opportunity to activate real estate. Jeff Sparks, district director of Wiener’s office, wrote to Breed’s office, reminding them that a housing project is to be built there “sometime in 2024/2025.” He also asked about closing off the lot and posting “no trespassing” signs in the area as soon as possible.  

“This property is slated to be developed into affordable housing, but until it happens, it’s apparently turned into a pretty unruly encampment,” Sparks wrote.

But the lot was already in a disordered state for over a year before people started moving in, Homes Not Jails 2022 noted in its statement. “It has been in disuse, disrepair, littered constantly with trash, and an occasional playpen for arsonists,” the collective said.

“We aim to, at least temporarily, use this unused lot as a starting point for us all individually, yet together, gaining permanent places to live/exist,” Homes Not Jails 2022.

In an unusual twist, some City officials also recommended turning the lot into a transitional housing site for unhoused San Franciscans—a similar purpose that drove Homes Not Jails 2022 to occupy the lot.

“It would be a great space for a safe sleep [site],” said Pat Hardiman of the Fire Department, referring to sanctioned encampments.

“Maybe we could do little cabins there,” said Carroll, director of Emergency Management.