Amidst the noise and the clamor of San Francisco’s 7th Ave. right off Lincoln Way, just before 7th Ave. becomes Laguna Honda Blvd., lies a small public preserve known only to a select few, unless you happen to be homeless. This area is known as the Laguna Honda Reservoir. Faced with the uncertainty of a guaranteed shelter bed in one of San Francisco’s notorious shelter traps, many homeless people seek to carve out a temporary homestead by camping in one of San Francisco’s many parks. In the case which we will describe, what appears to be a park is actually a parcel of land owned and operated by the San Francisco Public Utility Commission (SFPUC).
Let’s begin with the story of John and Laurie, a homeless couple we met who just happen to have the misfortune of coming up against a few of San Francisco’s most powerful bureaucracies, the San Francisco Police Department, (SFPD), the Department of Public Works, (DPW), the San Francisco Water Department, (SFWD) and the San Francisco Public Utility Commission, (SFPUC).
On June, 3rd, 2003, after working with this couple and making numerous attempts to persuade the powers that be to allow the couple to remain on the property, we had the rare privilege of witnessing a spectacle of grand proportion. With cunning and stealth, in the wee hours of the morning, a flotilla of clandestine workers and operatives that included the SFPD, the director of communications for the SFPUC; Beverly Hennessey, and the Mobile Assistance Patrol. They were joined there by the Department of Public Works, with its crews of workers, trucks and a bobcat bulldozer. They arrived on short notice to evict this couple, who lived on the property for some five-odd years, with no pomp and ceremony. I’ll get back to their story later.
NEIGHBORS IN AN UPROAR
Of primary concern to housed residents of this Richmond neighborhood has been a rash of car boostings and home burglaries, which have been conveniently ascribed to the homeless residents of the area. Without any real evidence to prove such accusations, some have automatically assumed that someone homeless was responsible. But as you will see, the likelihood that any of the individuals we happened to have met on this property being responsible is highly remote. Also of utmost concern to residents of the area has been a plan by the PUC to use 500 goats to deplete vegetation on this same hillside, as part of fire abatement measures.
It seems the primary reason the PUC is so irascible around the issues concerning this property is rooted in the overwhelming outpouring of sentiment and a flood of e-mails to city offices by neighbors asking to have the goats and the homeless people removed.
The San Francisco water department took the first steps in removing homeless people from the site by notifying them on May 28 that they were trespassing on city property. Beverly Hennessey, Director of Communications for the SFPUC, confirmed, according to Carol Dimmick. Dimmick, a columnist for the Richmond Review — a local publication reflecting the views and concerns of residents in the Richmond District — writes that the PUC has a comprehensive plan it is following to restore the property and to protect the neighborhood. “I will personally go up there starting May 28th to present the homeless with written notification,” Hennessey said. Hennessey further stated that the PUC was working with the Mayor’s office and the Homeless Coalition to make city services available to those leaving the property. Since such services don’t exist, this was nothing more than a smokescreen, a blatant misrepresentation of the talks our office had conducted with Ms. Hennessey around this issue.
Capt. Dan Lawson, commanding officer at the SFPD’s Park Station, confirmed that he too had a comprehensive plan for homeless people: 1) they would be citing anyone refusing to leave the property; 2) they would be arresting chronic squatters, as he put it; 3) anyone without identification or carrying weapons would be arrested and; 4) he suggested the use of mounted patrols to police the hillside! This is just more of the same thing; shaping homeless people into criminals for being homeless!
JOHN AND LAURIE
“So what’s the big deal?” you say, “We don’t want people sleeping and camping in our Parks and ruining our precious vital resources. We have places for people to sleep and places for people to eat.” The sad truth is the record doesn’t bear that out. For the estimated 9,000 to 15,000 homeless people in this city there exists, on any given day, a mere 2,000 shelter beds… and in many cases this actually means a mat on the floor. One would be hard-pressed to conclude that San Francisco’s shelter system is wholly adequate to accommodate such large numbers of our homeless people who are seeking shelter on a nightly basis.
“So what then,” you say, “Can be the solution to this city-wide problem?” We suggest to you that until such time as the city of San Francisco displays a more earnest effort to solve our homeless dilemma, that maybe business as usual is not the answer and that something out of the ordinary is in order.
Let’s get back to our story. You see, John and Laurie, brave and resolute as they were, decided that, in as inconspicuous a manner as possible, they would take their chances and provide a more congenial environment for themselves, and take up residence on a quiet hillside at the Laguna Honda Reservoir site.
When we first met John and Laurie we were immediately impressed with how well spoken and friendly the two of them were. After our brief introductions they began to tell us a little bit about their story, how they had traveled to the Bay Area from southern California. Hitting upon some bad luck they found themselves without much money and an ever-growing fear of staying in one of San Francisco’s infamous shelters. John and Laurie have been married for fifteen years and the main reason they sought to avoid the shelter system is, married or not, the shelter system separates men from women in childless families. These two were determined to remain together. But after discovering what appeared to be an unattended park area, these two felt they had found the answer to their dilemma. On this private little hillside they were able to stay together.
Approaching the valley leading to the hillside where this couple had laid down their stakes, we noticed multiple makeshift benches and flower gardens of varying shapes and sizes. Ascending the hillside we began to experience a sense of magic and a feeling that something special was going on here between these two. Not only had they pitched a small tent and elevated a bed approximately four feet off the ground inside it, but we saw utensils and dishes and tables and chairs, a barbecue pit and, somewhat to our bewilderment, an assortment of gardening supplies: rakes, hoes, shovels and pots for geminating and cultivating seeds.
They had turned this wilderness into a garden of delight, and we were soon to discover they had busied themselves renovating the property by planting gardens and constructing park benches all over the place. We felt a real kinship with these two, I too had once entertained thoughts of one day laying down my roots on a homestead and planting gardens and spending the rest of my days in my own Garden of Eden. We were all quite impressed with this couple’s accomplishments.
On this eventful day, however, our team of advocates wasn’t there to applaud this couple’s excellent caretakership but to assist them in any way we could, to ensure that none of their civil rights were violated, or any of their meager posessions confiscated and destroyed by the City and County of San Francisco.
It was truly heartrending to witness the unfolding spectacle as these two were uprooted from their little haven and ushered off to a 6th and Mission St. hotel that had been offered to them for one week by the City — the “services” mentioned
before by Miss Hennessey.
We asked John and Laurie how they managed to support themselves for the last five years they lived on this hillside. They told us about working on a nearby lot selling pumpkins and Christmas trees in season, and other sundry items throughout the year. They told how they managed to keep themselves fed and clothed but how they fell way short of having the income needed to afford permanent housing. We asked what they would do once their week’s stay at the hotel was over. The two of them simply shrugged their shoulders and said, “We don’t know.”
You cannot imagine the feelings of impotence we all felt at that moment, wanting so much to tell them there was an alternative for them. But there was none. This is the nature of the beast we deal with on a daily basis in our work with homeless people. A tremendous sadness fell on the camp at the realization of what about to unfold, as the DPW crew revved up their bobcat bulldozer, preparing to destroy John and Laurie’s homestead and cart away the last vestiges of their little dream. Bowed heads and a sense of shame at the manner in which our city treats its homeless people were the only expressions forthcoming.
Countless written attempts were made to contact the General Manager of the PUC, Patricia Martell, to discuss possible alternatives to moving the couple. After seeing first-hand how well the couple had cleaned up the site, and the many improvements they had made with their gardens, we sought to convince Martell to allow the couple to stay on the property and function as caretakers. We received no response to our correspondence with Ms. Martell, but some interest was voiced by Ms. Hennessey. Later, this ruse turned out to be nothing more than a smoking gun filled with the slugs of empty promises! While neighbors had reported sighting up to 60 homeless people living on the hillside, monitoring and outreach to the site by COH-SF’s Civil Rights Work Group revealed a total of only three individuals living there, and no mudwalled, thatched-roof structures were to found on the property… anywhere.
The PUC’s position on this whole matter is that the Laguna Honda site is a valuable watershed and a habitat for various endangered species, such as the California Garter Snake, and that the site is in compliance with the Federal Cats Program (whatever that is). Other groups such as the Nature Plant People also chimed in on this ridiculous point.
With all this talk about endangered species, we’d like to postulate to whomever has an ear and will listen, that we are dealing with quite another species in danger of becoming extinct, and that is our nation’s poor and homeless people! Perhaps we need such an Act to preserve the lives of homeless people. With the soaring death rate amongst this class of citizens, no one can challenge the necessity for such legislation. It seems these groups feel cats and garter snakes are far more important than human lives.
The PUC also invoked safety as a major concern, that neighbors had complained of fires being built on the hillside — but our investigation confirmed the fire sightings were nothing more than fire contained in a barbecue pit, and that the area was far too green to make it a fire hazard. The arguments simply hold little water when you look at the facts, they simply wanted the couple off the hillside and fabricated whatever excuses they could!
With regards to our earlier argument, sometimes employing the out of the ordinary as a solution to an issue as complex as homelessness, may indeed offer a more humane solution to that problem! Until such time as the City of San Francisco gets serious and starts offering real solutions to exit homelessness, and stops making homeless people criminal for being homeless, perhaps something out of the ordinary is in order!
Bring back John and Laurie, build them a shed to stay in, and let them do what they’ve already been doing for the last five years — maintain and caretake the property. Maybe this all sounds too idealistic for some to digest. But let’s look at the facts: the city won’t do what it takes to solve the problem, and the homeless keep getting pushed around from one neighborhood to another. It seems it’s high time we employ the unconventional and provide other alternatives to the status quo!