Homeless Community Swept away again to clear the way for a $300K fence – Your Tax Dollars at Work (AGAIN)
At the crack of dawn, trucks equipped with machinery and loaded with workers rolled beside the small enclave of homeless residents tucked underneath the 280 freeway, King St. entrance ramp. Driving the trucks were workers from Caltrans and the San Francisco Department of Public Works (DPW) with one goal in mind: expel the people living there, trash any refuse that may remain behind, and erect a sturdy $300,000 fence to prevent anyone else from gaining shelter there. The encampment had existed for years but on this morning the residents were forced to gather what they could and say goodbye to what they had called home for quite some time.
The Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) had been notifying the residents of the impending raid and fence construction for nearly a month beforehand, leading many to begin preparing for their exit in advance. Some, however, were riled by the early morning disturbance and had to begin packing everything they owned then and there. This was, unfortunately, not a new experience for the residents—the camp had been raided regularly for the last several months, resulting in a loss of much property and leading very few people into services. One resident reported “empty promises” from the HOT Team and other city agencies in the past, saying that when he went to their office as advised by an outreach worker during a raid they told him that they couldn’t help him and he was then advised to seek a shelter bed at a resource center—a process that takes hours and is usually begun before sunrise. Another resident described the city services as “a waste of time,” one in where he is forced into a runaround and ultimately ending in failure and still without housing. David, a veteran, had been sleeping there for over 2 months. His experience at the local Veteran’s Affairs office also led him nowhere, with a worker saying his experience is “nothing special” and that he needs to go through the usual, laborious process as every other person without a safe, stable home.
Jason Albertson, a social worker with the HOT Team, had a differing opinion of the raid, citing it as a “better model for campsite takedowns.” He explained that such “intense” collaboration between city departments to ensure the well-being and continuing services for the encampment residents is rare, with usually very little follow up or continuation of services for the rousted residents. Bevan Dufty, the Director of the Mayor’s office of Housing Opportunities, Partnerships, and Engagement (HOPE), agreed with Albertson’s opinion, stating that this raid should set a precedent as a different model, one where temporary shelter, case management, treatment, and housing could be acquired if the resident is willing to work with the program. He even eyed other potential areas to raid in the city, hoping for a similar community process and collaboration
In a way, Albertson and Dufty are right about this raid’s distinction: this time around, a collaborative effort between the Department of Public Health and the Mayor’s office managed to secure 19 single room occupancy (SRO) hotel rooms for the camp’s residents. These rooms can remain occupied as long as necessary for the residents to secure permanent housing as long as they remain enrolled in the HOT Teams program. In the meantime, the residents were placed in a shelter at a local church where they were given meals, restrooms, and storage for the belonging they could manage to pack.
But the end doesn’t justify the means. Although temporary housing and the services offered may help some get off the streets and into permanent housing, the constant displacement and marginalization of those experiencing the raids is the wrong way to get them into services. The raids are often times traumatizing, resulting in the loss of many people’s personal property, and cause further instability for the residents. Furthermore, the residents will need to participate in demanding programs and potentially live at some of the more atrocious SRO hotels in the City, many filled with pests and in dilapidated condition.
What is clear about this model is that it has weakened one of the City’s most reoccurring arguments: that many homeless people are resistant to services because they do not want help. The program these residents are to take part in has many less barriers, with couples being allowed to stay together, later curfews at their temporary shelter, accommodations for animals, and holistic services, leading many to take the City up on it’s offer and participate in the program. Far too often, shelters and housing programs meant to “help” homeless people, come attached to stringent rules and regulations limiting the individuals’ autonomy and ability to live a normal life. Without such challenging barriers and goals, these people felt comfortable entering a program designed to work with – not against them.
Programs that respect people’s choices and lifestyles are crucial to getting people housed. Criminalizing and punishing certain behaviors have for years kept many in homelessness. With a harm reduction approach that doesn’t dictate to people how to live but concentrates instead on keeping them housed and stabilized are invaluable for the most vulnerable of the City’s residents.
What was clear is that many residents were still upset by the raid, even after their offers of temporary housing. Safe shelters or even campsites, as one resident proposed, are better solutions and the “most sensible thing” the City could do, rather than displacing them every two weeks or so for the past several years. Another resident asked that they just be left alone saying how unfair it was that they are targeted because “poor folks built” a lot of the City surrounding them and needed a space to shelter themselves. One former encampment resident who moved into housing several years ago was helping his friends pack their stuff. “It’s sad,” he said, as he watched Caltrans workers haul belongings left under the freeway into a dump truck.
Around 2:00pm, the last remaining campsite residents were departing and the Caltrans crew moved in to drill into the freshly bulldozed earth and erect the steel fence. By this time, most people had left for the church in SOMA and waited eagerly to see what their fate would be. Before this, though, one last resident was refusing to break down his tent. Brian Georgie and his red nose pit bull, Mia, had been there for years and they had seen many raids, lost plenty of belongings, and had plenty fruitless offers for services before. This time, the HOT Team was still unsure whether or not they could help Brian, as there were not a sufficient number of rooms and their decision was hinged on their history when Brian most recently left his HOT Team bed to bury his sister outside of the City, only to return and be told that the room he had previously occupied now belonged to another client, leading him back to the encampment. In many ways, this raid was no different for Brian. He was woken up by the police, lost his belongings, and was unsure of where to sleep that night. Although one thing was strikingly different this time around: Brian pulled out his California ID to show the listed date of birth saying solemnly “all this happened on my birthday.”