By Brian Edwards

On December 4, at about 6:30 a.m., homeless advocates and allies from the Coalition on Homelessness, Faithful Fools, Tenderloin People’s Congress, the First Unitarian-Universalist Church and other community groups and service providers convened at the corner of Willow and Polk streets. They were there to witness and document the City’s planned encampment sweep of Willow Street between Franklin and Larkin streets, and they invited two attorneys and some reporters from the Chronicle and Examiner to join them. Folks from the Harm Reduction Therapy Center, who facilitate a weekly pop-up community event on Willow, joined at 7 a.m., bringing breakfast sandwiches and juice to unhoused Willow residents. 

The City arrived a few minutes before 8 a.m. with garbage trucks and disposal crews from the Department of Public Works, followed by San Francisco Police Department officers from the Healthy Streets Operations Center (HSOC), and finally a few members of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing’s Homeless Outreach Team. HOT only had one Navigation Center placement and a handful of seven-day shelter beds to offer the nearly 50 folks calling Willow Street their home that morning, and by 11 a.m., HOT had left after placing someone in the available Navigation Center bed. By noon, the two blocks of Willow Street between Franklin and Polk had been cleared by police and Public Works of about 10 tents and 20 unhoused residents. Barricades were brought in and placed on the sidewalks by Public Works to prevent re-encampment. 

Advocates and journalists remained with about 35 unhoused folks who were living on Willow between Larkin and Polk, and engaged in an almost comical standoff with Public Works and police, who were clearly waiting for the observers to leave before continuing to displace homeless residents. The trucks finally left Willow around 6 p.m. without clearing the last remaining block, and the advocates went home about an hour later. Police and Public Works returned early the next morning to clear the remaining block of tents and residents and erect more barricades.

San Francisco likes to say it leads with services when responding to homelessness, but in reality, available services are scarce, and often, as in the case of seven-day shelter beds, the services offered unhoused San Franciscans aren’t very helpful. In order to accept such a placement, one would have to give up most of their possessions, including tents and survival gear, and be churned back to the streets after seven days. In the six weeks of engagement leading up to the December resolution date, the Homelessness Department managed to place two people in a Navigation Center and four people in seven-day traditional shelter beds. The City calls these planned sweeps “resolutions,” but with no housing solutions and almost no adequate shelter to offer affected residents, it’s unclear what exactly is being resolved. Dozens of people were displaced from Willow Street, and a tight-knit community was destroyed.

On Saturday, December 7, mere minutes before a rainstorm that caused major flooding in downtown San Francisco, police officers from the Northern Station led Public Works trucks and a disposal crew on a 9 a.m. sweep to remove homeless residents from Olive Street. No outreach from HOT, no services or offers of adequate alternative shelter — just an arbitrary sweep on one of the wettest days of the year. One woman, who refused to move, had her tent confiscated by police, and was threatened with arrest.

Under Mayor London Breed, the City’s response to homelessness has often been led by police and Public Works — guns and garbage trucks. There are currently over 70 police officers tasked with responding to homelessness, usually by enforcing laws that criminalize living and existing in public space, and only 40 members of the Homeless Outreach Team. That’s bonkers. What’s even more bonkers is that all three sweep operations I witnessed in November and December occurred in the rain. San Francisco is in the middle of a housing and public health crisis, with a shelter waitlist of around 1,000 people on any given night, and yet its response to homelessness  — rain or shine — has been overwhelmingly led by law enforcement, with focuses on displacement and criminalization. 

Police also claim to “lead with services,” but police officers aren’t social workers, and enforcement of sit/lie and illegal lodging laws isn’t social work. According to police HSOC Commander Daryl Fong, all police officers have had access to 30-day Navigation Center beds since November 12, to replace the frankly useless seven-day beds officers had been offering unhoused folks before that date. But HSOC officers I spoke to who were accompanying Public Works sweep crews on Willow Street on the night of November 25 and the morning of December 4 all claimed to be unaware of those beds, and said they were no longer able to offer Navigation placements to anyone. According to police HSOC Captain Steven Mannina, HSOC officers were informed of the 30-day beds at a December 4 HSOC meeting, three weeks after Fong told the Local Homeless Coordinating Board that his officers had begun to offer them. The homeless outreach officer from Northern Station who was leading the December 7 sweep on Olive also claimed to be unaware of the new 30-day beds, which Fong claimed all police can access through HSOC.

Sweeps aren’t services, and resolutions aren’t solutions. They’re a cruel, dumb, expensive and harmful game of Whac-A-Mole, shuffling people around and making it harder for people like HOT, Department of Public Health, and health care and harm reduction workers to find them and have the kind of productive engagements that can save lives and ease suffering. Sweeps destroy community, and the resulting scattering and isolation can increase the risk of overdose or sexual assault for many of those who have been displaced. Sweeps often result in property loss, including life-saving medication and Narcan. Thanks to articles in both the Chronicle and the Examiner documenting the sweep of Willow, many folks now know that Mayor Breed’s oft-repeated claim of “leading with services” is a lie, and that “resolutions” are a farce. Now is the time to go to our elected officials and decision-makers and demand an immediate end to the cruel and inhumane practice of encampment sweeps, and demand housing and adequate alternative shelter solutions instead.