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Is San Francisco Really ‘Hiding’ Its Homeless on Division Street for the Super Bowl?

Swirling stories and videos of tent encampments going up—and allegedly being razed—provoke a lot of questions. Here's what we know.


A tent encampment on Division Street on Friday afternoon.


Ever since Mayor Lee clumsily decreed that the homeless “will have to leave” the Embarcadero during the Super Bowl, the idea that some kind of widespread crackdown was imminent has been floating ominously in the air. Those who understood the politics and logistics of the homeless issue in San Francisco were dubious that a draconian sweep was in the works. But the narrative of the city herding its most vulnerable population into an out-of-the-way corner so that corporate fat cats would not have their logo-laden fun zone disturbed was irresistible. And the fact that the Super Bowl’s arrival more or less coincided with a dramatic increase in tents on Division Street made it even more irresistible. So it wasn't surprising that last week the website Fusion published a damning story asserting that “the police have been actively pushing and corralling the city’s homeless into a four-block radius on Division."  

For the city to force the homeless into a corral on Division Street would have been bad enough. But on Thursday morning a video surfaced on Facebook of a Department of Public Works “Clean Patrol” truck purportedly clearing tents from Division, creating the impression that city officials were removing the homeless from the largest encampment in San Francisco. 

In response, an outraged graphic designer named Shaun Osburn launched a GoFundMe campaign to help homeless people replace their supposedly snatched tents.  As of this writing, donations are approaching $15,000.  

Is this outrage justified? To try to find out, San Francisco went down to Division Street on Thursday to check out the situation. Over the course of three hours, we interviewed eight people, all in the block between Harrison and Bryant in front of Best Buy and on the opposite side of the street. We also spoke with homeless advocates and city officials. Here, we offer this FAQ of everything we know about the situation.

Are more people living on Division Street than usual?

Yes. We counted about 100 tents (and a few tiny wooden structures that looked like doghouses) on the long stretch of Division between South Van Ness and the roundabout at 8th and Townsend. This didn't include all of the side streets, or the area around San Bruno Avenue. The Chronicle's Kevin Fagan recently estimated that 250 people were living in this general area. This is a definite and obvious increase from a few months ago. Kelley Cutler, a social worker and a human rights organizer for the Coalition on Homelessness, confirms that the number of people camping on Division Street has increased in recent months. 

Are they being displaced by the Super Bowl? 

Some are, but probably not the majority.

“We have seen an increase in people reporting that they’re being cited and ticketed in the last few months,” Cutler says. But focusing only on Super Bowl-related displacement misses the larger picture, she explains: “The tents have been growing in the last couple of years because there are fewer places for people to be out of sight.” For several years, the city has been fencing off out-of-the-way places homeless people go, such as beneath freeway overpasses. And the massive conversion of formerly industrial or uninhabited areas like South of Market, Dogpatch, and the area north of Potrero Hill into residential neighborhoods has also reduced their options. 

None of the eight people we interviewed said they had been forced to move to Division Street by the police, although one said she had been forced to leave a nearby location. Several said they didn't know if the police were pushing people there. According to Cutler, the Coalition on Homelessness organizer, one group was moved to Division Street from Civic Center, though she’s not sure by whom. 

Sam Dodge, director of the mayor’s Housing Opportunity, Partnerships, and Engagement office, explicitly denies that the city is forcing people to go to Division Street. “There’s not a concerted push to move people to Division Street,” he says. “There are lots of reasons people would move to Division—to seek shelter from a storm, to be in a place where they’re not interfering with neighbors.” 

As for the Super Bowl City site, which is what Lee was referring to in his now-notorious quote, Dodge told KQED's Forum on Friday that there were 10 to 20 people sleeping in that area, and a few dozen others who hung out there, and that his office brought 24 people from the area who were going to be displaced to the city's year-old Navigation Center near 16th and Mission Streets. Since getting into the Navigation Center is like winning the lottery, it may be that the homeless who were living on the Super Bowl City site have lucked out—at least relatively speaking.

So why are homeless people turning up on Division Street?

Lots of reasons—but primarily because other options are unappealing or unavailable.

Six of the eight people we met on Thursday were recent arrivals, all within the last month and a half. A young twentysomething couple, Stax and Muneca, arrived about six weeks ago. They had lived in Golden Gate Park, the Tenderloin, and at Ocean Beach. People come to Division “because they see other people doing it,” says Muneca. “And there’s less rain here.” Three more recent arrivals had come from the neighborhood: Sandra and Rebecca had stayed near the Sports Authority, and Susan Cunningham had been camping behind Best Buy before moving into a friend's bus. 

Two factors tend to drive the movements of homeless people: the Department of Public Works’ cleanings (the removal of needles, excrement, and trash) and police crackdowns, much of the latter in response to complaints. More recently, the Haight’s zero-tolerance approach to homeless people has sent the neighborhood’s homeless into other areas. When you have a shelter wait list that’s consistently hundreds of names long (today, it’s at 807), there is no logical place to tell people to go—and many homeless people do not want to sleep in shelters anyway. The overwhelming majority of the homeless would happily accept actual housing, most of which is in SRO hotels, and particularly would welcome supportive housing (i.e., with social services), but not nearly enough is available. 

Which means the city’s homeless are essentially trapped in a never-ending, mostly unofficial round of musical chairs where, in a cruel twist, there are no actual chairs. “Even without the Super Bowl, the big question is, Where should people go?” asks Cutler. “That’s the conundrum.”

Are the Department of Public Works or the police really forcing homeless people to move their tents on Division?

This is perhaps the murkiest question. Something is going on, but what it is or what its logic is is hard to determine. On Thursday, for instance, a video of a DPW “Clean Patrol” truck rolling along San Bruno Avenue surfaced on Facebook, with a caption reading, “They're removing all the tents on San Bruno Avenue right now.” 

DPW denies that it is clearing people off the street. DPW’s job is cleaning, not the removal of homeless people, says spokesperson Mindy Linetzky. “What our folks have been doing is cleaning up needles and feces and urine around the tents,” she says. “In some cases people have to move the tents so we can clean, and they move back. Our job is not moving tents around.”

The fact remains, though, that someone is moving them, at least some of the time. The week before last, a block of tents at South Van Ness and Division moved a block down, to Division between Howard and Folsom, says Cutler. “Do you think everyone on that block decided, ‘Oh, we’re just going to move?’” she says. “That’s not reality.” On Friday, Cutler says, the same block—Division between Howard and Folsom—was clear. The people staying there had moved to a nearby alley and the block behind Rainbow Grocery.

Several homeless people we spoke with also said that the DPW or the police had recently, and at different times, cleared two different areas—one on the west end of Division, near South Van Ness, and the other east of Bryant Street—and forced the inhabitants to relocate in the more central area around Folsom and Harrison Streets. They weren't sure of the reason.

For its part, the police department denies that it systematically displaces people. “The police don’t ask people to move unless they are on private property or someone’s made a request,” says Sergeant Mike Andraychak, who works in media relations. “People have accused us of doing sweeps to move the homeless, and we don’t do that.” 

It’s at least theoretically possible that all of the tent movements are fueled by complaints. Anecdotally, Cutler’s experience backs that up. “Lately, in the past year or so, a lot [of the movements] are in response to complaints,” she says. “There isn’t a set routine.” 

Homeless people themselves say that police intervention is the most frequent reason they move. A survey of 351 current and formerly homeless people, conducted by the coalition in December 2014, suggested that the police force accounts for 84 percent of displacements.

Yet according to the homeless people we interviewed, the police are not a monolithic force bent on crackdown. Several suggested that the officers on the beat know the community and don’t hassle people who keep their area neat and stay out of trouble. “The DPW and the police around here are great if you keep it clean,” says Susan Cunningham. The police gave her a camouflage backpack, too. “I’m a single woman out here,” she says. “The police have been terrific. They’ve helped me. They just don’t want the riffraff and all the filth.”

Whatever is going on, it's clear that the homeless are not being driven out of the neighborhood altogether. The tents may move, but they’re shuffling back and forth, not being razed. The reason for all the shuffling, hypothesizes Cutler, “is for folks to be somewhat out of sight.” She sees a clear trend of sending homeless people away from visible spots like freeway onramps—which is why she thinks people were moved from South Van Ness and Division, where there’s a 101 onramp. 

What about Pier 80?

As we reported recently, the city has been working on a plan to shelter homeless people on Piers 29 and 80, in an enormous heated event tent. Among the people we met on Division, there’s been some confusion about the pier plan. There was a rumor flying that the entire Division Street encampment would be moved there—and it was only a rumor, says Dodge (“I don’t even know how we would do that,” he adds). Michael, 58, who does occasional work for a catering company, told us that a cop had told him that very day to go to Pier 80. He went, but it wasn’t open. “We’re working to open it as soon as possible,” says Dodge. 

Is anyone trying to help them?  

Outreach workers come by regularly, but more are needed. During our three-hour visit, a worker from the Navigation Center came by one tent, as did a four-person Harm Reduction Team from Glide, which handed out clean needles, tourniquets, tape, gauze pads and other sanitary devices. (Rose, a heroin addict, said that most of the homeless people living on Division use speed, with a smaller number of junkies. Several people interviewed had visible tracks on their arms and/or admitted to using speed.) Several people said the wished they city's Homeless Outreach Team came by more often and gave out better information about services.

Where do they go to the bathroom?

Several homeless people said businesses like Best Buy have allowed them to use their bathrooms, but are increasingly changing that policy. Some social services agencies in the area also have available toilets. Michael had rigged up a kind of portable latrine with a plastic garbage bag in a trash can, which he would then seal and place in a garbage can. He said a policeman congratulated him on it and told him it was an ideal solution. One woman said people sometime pee in a cup and toss it in the bushes. 

The upshot

The picture that emerges, like most things having to do with the homeless, is complicated and somewhat murky. Homeless people are not always reliable sources of information, rumors and misinformation are rife, and the small sample size of people we met obviously means no definite conclusions can be drawn.  

Still, far as we can tell, the city is not actively herding the homeless to Division Street. Nor are they being rousted out of there, or their tents being confiscated or destroyed. While some individual police officers are undoubtedly citing and rousting out some homeless people in different neighborhoods, and while the number of homeless who have been rousted out may have increased during the Super Bowl runup, there is no evidence that these actions are part of a concerted campaign. 


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Photo: Katherine Petrin