Outreach diary — Fulton Mall Camp

Friday, May 8th

I went out to the encampment at what they call Fulton Mall today — the area on Fulton Street surrounded by the Asian Art Museum, the San Francisco Main Library and the Civic Center Plaza; As outreachers at the Coalition on Homelessness, we’ve been spending a lot of time there over the past week and a half. Today, things got lively! It has been extremely challenging getting straight answers, but I feel like we started getting some today. It’s so important for the City to be communicating with the folks involved – especially with the folks who are living in the encampment. We can be a big help for the City when it comes to communication. We all play different roles, and the role of the Coalition on Homelessness is to hold the City accountable, to make sure they are listening to people experiencing homelessness, service providers, academics, the community, to push them to be honest and do what’s right. We want to work together to create positive change. We try to help with communication, to help get folks answers, and to help folks advocate for what is needed. We also work to get the truth out to the public at large.

The narrative the City has put out about folks being from “somewhere else” is nonsense. The folks here have been living in the community for a long time. I know the folks in my community. In the past couple days I have seen seven different people who I worked with over 15 years ago when they were experiencing homelessness as a youth. One woman I’ve known since she was 12! To me it makes no difference where someone is from; when our fellow human being needs help we should help them. But these folks are San Franciscans.

It was good to see the Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) out there today providing information to folks in the encampment. HOT workers were listening to folks, too… listening to what was needed, such as water and sanitation stuff. It was cool to see that they opened a water source, brought in multiple toilets and addressed other concerns folks had. Funny how things can go so well when the City actually gives outreach workers access to resources and the means to problem solve.

At one point, HOT workers and other service providers were gone and I was talking with folks in the encampment. I noticed some workers were putting in a big fence in a location different than where City workers told folks they were going to be: it was basically surrounding the current encampment, not the space folks were to be moving into. It was like they were being caged in. Folks became very afraid and mad, and rightfully so! 

I tried to de-escalate the situation because things were getting heated quick. I saw three officers coming over to us because some of the guys were raising their voices. I met the cops half way and quickly informed them what was happening, and even the cops were surprised about the fence. It made no sense! Right away, I called Jeff Kositsky, the director of the Healthy Streets Operation Center, and he sent over HOT workers immediately. They did a great job and we were able to address the issue with the fence, and the encampment was back to being peaceful again.

This encampment is basically ground zero when it comes to large encampments in the City. There are about 90 to 100 tents on one short city block, and more people than tents. The location of this encampment is pretty interesting; it’s across from the big empty Civic Center Park and City Hall. I make sure to constantly point out the fact that it’s ridiculous that the City hasn’t utilized Rec and Park sites yet. This encampment wasn’t something the Coalition on Homelessness or others in the community organized. Folks were told to “move along” from other areas by law enforcement and told they could go here, which is why it grew dramatically, seemingly overnight. 

This is similar to what happened on Division Street during the Super Bowl sweeps four years ago, when a massive encampment was formed because people were swept from other areas of the city and concentrated there. Then Mayor Ed Lee called for a massive encampment sweep that displaced everyone sheltering there so the Super Bowl party could rage. 

Maybe COVID-19 will be the City’s opportunity to have a do-over of that fiasco. Maybe, instead of sweeps, the City can come together and rethink how to respond to the needs of people in our community who have no alternative than to sleep on the street. The City has an opportunity to be a leader for how to respond to street homelessness during a global pandemic. We have the opportunity to help folks instead of criminalizing their existence.

Our first choice will always be safe adequate affordable permanent housing, but during a global pandemic hotels are a great immediate alternative. For those with no choice other than to sleep on the street, the City needs to provide opportunities for them to be safe: safe from enforcement and ‘move along’ orders from block to block, safe by having access to basic amenities like restrooms, water and trash disposal, safe by having community support.

Yesterday there was a whole pack of cops and I figured it might be because Chief William Scott was making a visit. I walked over and I heard “Hi, Kelley” and got a wave from the chief who was standing in the middle of his entourage; we get along well. I gotta say, there are a lot of things we have different opinions about, but I really appreciate how he interacts with me. He seems to respect the role of the Coalition on Homelessness, and he respects our perspective even though we may not agree with each other.

I remember running into Chief Scott during the Farrell sweeps (Mark Farrell was the previous interim mayor, and he is the awful politician who did the Prop. Q tent ban ballot measure that was nothing but a political ploy). Chief Scott pulled up to me on the street and asked how things were going. I was pretty worked up so I enthusiastically explained to him that Farrell was throwing him and his officers under the bus by having them do these sweeps. I told him it’s a big political game and a facade where he is trying to hide homeless people and that the City is taking their tents, but has no alternative to offer. I told him that these sweeps are hurting people. I told him that it doesn’t work, that this nonsense requires his officers to have to shuffle poor people from block to block because people don’t just disappear. I told him that the mayor was being a bad Catholic by treating poor folks this way. I always had to add that last one in there because it makes me chuckle to say it. I told him there was a better way, and he’s always been interested in hearing more about alternatives. He knows we can’t arrest our way out of homelessness.

We talked about the benefits of the City providing spaces for people to sleep safely. Frankly, officers don’t want to be ordered to respond to calls about homelessness They don’t want to have to deal with responding to complaints about tents and having to tell people to ‘move along’ to nowhere. They know sweeps don’t help. I also mentioned that it would look really bad if they did sweeps during a global pandemic, and if that was to happen I would make sure to let the media know. Because that’s my job.

It has been extremely frustrating at times watching the City’s response to homelessness during this pandemic, but today was pretty cool. It was cool to see folks working together more. It was cool to see communication getting better and seeing the City providing more resources. We are keeping a close eye on what happens with this encampment (and around it), but we are hoping this keeps going in the right direction because it could be a very cool change away from the status quo of encampment sweeps.

My days are so up and down lately, like a roller coaster on fire, but today was an up day for me. I was totally in my element, back on outreach in an encampment, problem solving, talking to the media about what’s really going on, de-escalating a situation between the City and folks on the street. It’s like doing a puzzle and it’s really cool when the pieces start fitting together. I hope things continue in this direction. 

(See… I’m not completely cynical! Yet.)