Behind the Curtain of San Francisco’s Sweep Operations

by Lukas Illa

Every weekday morning, somewhere in San Francisco, well-coordinated teams of City workers destroy people’s homes. Unhoused residents beneath freeway overpasses, tucked in Tenderloin side alleys, and living in recreational vehicles in the Bayview know the horror of this near-daily operation, where they have mere minutes to collect their belongings and escape the City teams intent on seizing as much of their property as they can.

The Healthy Streets Operation Center, or HSOC, is the City of San Francisco’s multi-department apparatus that is charged with “encampment resolutions,” or sweeps. HSOC teams are made up of employees from at least seven City departments, including Fire, Police, Emergency Management, Public Works, Public Health, Municipal Transportation Agency, and Homelessness and Supportive Housing.

But these departments do not assign an equal number of employees; at many sweeps, there are up to eight police officers, but no Department of Public Health workers to be found.

This is where the root of the problem arises: HSOC’s emphasis is on the criminalization of homelessness rather than its solution. The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) deploys a handful of its Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) employees to go to each sweep, where the HOT workers sometimes ask residents if they want “services,” without elaborating which ones are available.

But with sweeps beginning at 8 a.m., HOT can only offer so much, as shelter allocations aren’t made available until 11 a.m.. This leaves residents who have been offered shelter stuck in limbo when it’s found that no available beds exist for them that morning.

Most strikingly, though, is that HSOC workers do not follow the City’s policies around “bagging and tagging” the property of the residents they sweep. San Francisco Public Works’ policy dictates that workers must store belongings requested by residents that are not soiled, perishable or health risks.

Too many homeless people have watched in horror as HSOC workers take their medication, mobility aids, survival gear, valuables, heirlooms, IDs and cell phones and toss them in the back of a garbage crusher. 

Since the Coalition on Homelessness brought a lawsuit against the City in 2022, HSOC has been ordered by a judge to follow a preliminary injunction.  The City shifted gears and now conducts encampment resolutions under a health emergency exemption in order to clean and sanitize the space where homeless people reside. But the guise of sanitation falls away when HSOC teams follow residents for blocks outside the designated sweep zones, confiscating their property and falsely claiming that residents can take only a predetermined amount of items with them.

For vehicularly housed San Franciscans, an HSOC operation could cost them their entire home. When residents are not home, HSOC teams coordinate the towing of RVs, pushing single adults and families into homelessness.

HSOC does not follow the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness’s guidelines for best practices in resolving encampments, such as accommodating special needs and disabilities, addressing encampments humanely, and conducting comprehensive housing-focused outreach.

Houseless neighbors deserve dignity and respect from City workers. HSOC has unfortunately failed in that mission; with an over-emphasis on criminalization, effective outreach to residents has fallen away.

Without a behavioral health-centered and by-unhoused person name approach to encampment resolutions, HSOC will continue to push people from block to block, destroying people’s homes and livelihoods along the way.