Early last week, the Coalition on Homelessness learned of the planned sweep of a homeless camp near the Cal Train station at 4th and King.
Tucked beneath an overpass on the 280 Freeway just east of the Sixth Street ramps, the residents of this community of around 40 people have lived peacefully alongside their housed neighbors for years. The camp consisted of approximately 15 tents, several mobile structures, and a few cars and other vehicles. The encampment was located near Cal Train’s northern terminus and the inbound terminus of the N-Judah line only two blocks from AT&T Park; tens of thousands of visitors and commuters have passed by or over daily without giving it much thought. That’s exactly how the folks living there wanted it.
Not only was this community at the hub of several major auto and rail routes, it was also intersected by three law enforcement jurisdictions. The area under the overpass – right of way owned by Caltrans (the California Transportation Department) – is subject to the jurisdiction of the California Highway Patrol. The adjacent sidewalk and bike path are in the San Francisco Police Department’s sand box. And finally, across the fence to the south, the rail yard owned by Cal Train – not to be confused with Caltrans – while entirely within the City and County of San Francisco – falls under the jurisdiction of the San Mateo County Sheriff, the only agency that did not participate in the sweep.
During the week prior to the raid, outreach workers from the COH visited with residents on multiple occasions; first, to ensure that the community was aware of and prepared for the planned police action and second, to determine what support or assistance, if any, they would have the Coalition provide should it actually take place.
During these visits, COH workers were able to witness, in a limited way, how this community functioned. Their observations will probably surprise some people.
The camp was clean and relatively free of rubbish. The trash was collected and placed away from the living areas for disposal. The bathrooms across the street were kept neat and clean. Residents of this small community were proud to note that people who parked their cars close to the camp felt more secure than those who parked farther away. The camp was so peaceful that several people, likely on their way to work, walked through the center of it with no apparent concern for their safety.
There were several residents who work nine to five jobs, leaving early each morning. There were American flags displayed around the camp. Art work and potted plants adorned the entrances to most of the tents. Residents maintained a community garden under the part of the overpass that allowed the most sunlight to reach the ground. Clean laundry hung drying on a chain link fence.
This was a community. It was a community of artists. There were two brothers who were writers. It was a community of families. Children lived there with their parents, leaving the camp each day to attend school. Some residents used wheelchairs, most of the people living there had some disability. It was home to displaced people as well as to the owners of at least three healthy and well fed dogs. It was a community that cared for and looked after its members.
Of the people our outreach teams spoke with half were aware of the upcoming sweep. Several had been through sweeps at this site before and stated that “Caltrans personnel only had them move their belonging so that they could clean up debris from under the overpass.” However, they felt that what might happen is that Caltrans using the CHP will move people from under the overpass onto the sidewalk and then the SFPD will move them back, “or to who knows where.”
At the time of the first outreach – early morning on August 22nd – COH workers were told by residents that there was no notice posted, and that the residents of this community were verbally informed of the sweep by members of the Homeless Outreach Team on two occasions but were given conflicting dates. On a subsequent visit – August 26th – outreach workers did find a notice to vacate posted.
On the morning of the 28th, four COH members arrived at the encampment to videotape and observe the sweep. Also on the scene to observe was a representative of the Mayor’s office of HOPE. Despite being in Seattle for the day, HOPE’s director, Bevan Dufty, corresponded with his assistant throughout the morning concerning the sweep and how it was being conducted Also present were folks from a prominent religious organization, serving coffee, pastries, and bagels to camp residents.
It was clear from the condition of the residents belongings that they had spent the previous day or so preparing for their imminent ouster. There was considerably more garbage throughout the area than on previous visits. What had been a neat and clean, dead end section of old King Street was now lined with discarded items that were either no longer needed by their owners or were too cumbersome to move.
Around 8:30AM, two CHP officers arrived and began walking through the area. This was apparently their regular patrol. They knew the residents and the residents’ dogs by name. As events began to unfold, it became clear that CHP, at least these two officers, were less than enthusiastic about the morning’s plans.
Forty five minutes later the troops began arriving in the form of a dozen SFPD officers, a dump truck, and a cleaning crew consisting of Caltrans and Department of Public Works employees led by none other than Bevan Dufty’s predecessor, Dariush Kayhon, Gavin Newsom’s Homeless Czar. The irony of the former Homeless Czar overseeing the removal of a homeless camp could almost be amusing if it just wasn’t so sad.
Actions such as this one are often carried out to give the impression that politicians and chiefs of police are doing something about homelessness. They pretend, and attempt to convince the public, that the purpose is to benefit the people being displaced by connecting them with available services they would otherwise not choose to access. This is problematic for a number of reasons. First, it’s usually a lie. The reason these sweeps are made are primarily to sanitize an area of people around whom the general public – housed people – are not comfortable. Second, unless a person has committed a real crime, or is a danger to themselves or others, programs, no matter how well intentioned, should be a matter of individual choice. No person should be forced out of their home in order to coerce their participation in a program they do not wish to be involved with. Finally, sweeps such as this, along with various laws designed to criminalize homeless people simply for being poor and homeless, do absolutely nothing to address the root cause of homelessness: the desperate lack of affordable housing.
As the sweep progressed, tension among the residents ran high; a natural and understandable reaction to being forcibly removed from the only home they have. In a couple of cases tempers flared and outbursts were made toward other residents and toward officers. To their credit, neither CHP nor SFPD officers were quick to react. They seemed to comprehend the gravity of the situation and allowed the victims of the sweep to vent without turning their emotionally charged responses into an excuse to escalate a potentially volatile situation.
The sweep that occurred this day, though it was clearly a misguided assault on a community whose members wanted nothing more than to be left alone with a place to sleep and with people they could trust, was less devastating than it could have been. There were no incidents that resulted in citation or arrest. At the end of the day, few were offered accommodations, just 8 SRO rooms at the Civic Center Hotel. The residents were respectful to the police and for the most part, the police returned the courtesy.
In the end, the process was conducted in a mostly professional manner by the majority of law enforcement and sanitation personnel involved. I say mostly, because there was one incident that proved a notable exception to the otherwise professional conduct. Near the end of the sweep, a woman who was a resident of the camp was changing clothes beneath the freeway overpass. As she did so, she was surrounded by leering Caltrans workers and SFPD officers; an offensive and highly inappropriate end to an unpleasant event that was otherwise executed with decorum and sensitivity.