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What motivates SF to clear encampments? Connections, the tourist gaze—and bad press

San Francisco’s Department of Public Works removed this homeless encampment on the Geary Boulevard median in Japantown in early April 2022 before the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. | Courtesy photo

As San Francisco’s Japantown neighborhood prepared to welcome tens of thousands of visitors for the annual Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival in April, a local business association was very concerned about appearances.

Homeless people had set up camp on Geary Boulevard, leaving debris scattered on the street’s median. 

“We have numerous attendees from out of town visiting the festival and it would be an unsightly representation of our historic community and city,” Rich Hashimoto, director of the Japantown Merchants Association, wrote in a March 31 email to Carla Short, the acting director of San Francisco’s Department of Public Works. “Would it be possible to remove the encampments prior to the event?”

Five days later, the tents and trash were gone, creating a more pristine image of the city for the festival-goers.

It was hardly the first time that San Francisco had broken up an encampment—on several occasions, Mayor London Breed has ordered camps cleared, both publicly and in private. But the emails between Hashimoto and Short, which were revealed through a public records request and initially published on Twitter by a user known as “HDizz,” offer a new window into how the city decides whether to remove an encampment—and whose opinions are considered along the way.

The Japantown case appears to show Public Works taking action at the behest of a business association in order to promote tourism. And it seems to stand in stark contrast to other cases, when the city has not acted quickly to address community concerns. Around the same time, a local school struggled for over a week to get the city to do something about an encampment right next door that it feared posed a danger to students—nothing was done, until media attention magnified the issue. 

Advocates for the homeless say the Japantown example is actually quite common. The city’s approach to homelessness remains “very complaint-driven and tends to be very inequitable in terms of the distribution of resources,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, adding that San Francisco appears to prioritize removing encampments in gentrified areas with higher property value. 

Public Works, for its part, denied that the Geary camp was removed at the merchant association’s request and said that safety was the motivating factor. A spokesperson for the agency, Rachel Gordon, denied that Public Works placed a priority on clearing the camp because of the imminent influx of out-of-town guests. Gordon also said that while businesses, organizations and members of the public can make service requests, Public Works does not take direction from them.

Jeff Cretan, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office, said the city had already been working to remove the encampment in the wake of relocating a “gravely ill” woman living there. “Complex efforts like this don’t just happen over one day because of one phone call,” he said.

“Great timing” 

A few hours after Hashimoto sent his initial email to Short, she responded.

“Great timing! I also just looked at Geary this morning and alerted staff to the tents,” she wrote. “I have just been communicating with my colleague from HSOC [Healthy Streets and Operations Center], and gave him the dates for the festival. We will do our best to keep that area clear!”

Hashimoto replied, thanking Short for her help and saying it had been a while since they had last talked, then suggesting they get together for lunch or a meeting in the future.

On Aug. 20, three days after the end of the Cherry Blossom Festival, he sent another email to Short, the director of the Healthy Streets, and two employees of the Japantown Community Benefit District.

“Just want to inform you that two more encampments have popped up on the Geary [Boulevard] median at Buchanan [Street] and one tent at the southeast corner of the Webster Street pedestrian bridge,” he wrote.

A few hours later, the Healthy Streets director wrote to Short that his center would be there at 1 p.m. that day.

A cherry blossom tree blooms during the 48th annual Cherry Blossom Festival in Japantown in San Francisco on Saturday, April 11, 2015. The celebration draws tens of thousands of tourists each year. | Paul Chinn/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Hashimoto said that, as with his previous email, this one was also about public safety—particularly the danger that someone could be hit by a car or that one of the unhoused people’s shopping carts could roll into the road and cause a crash.

“​​We only inform [Public Works] of an encampment we feel is unsafe to the public and [the unhoused] themselves,” Hashimoto wrote. “Sometimes they show up and sometimes they don’t. It is up to them on how to handle it.”

Controversial tactic

San Francisco has regularly relied on sweeps to clear encampments, but these efforts to remove the tents that dot San Francisco’s sidewalks, medians and highway underpasses have been—and remain—controversial.

In February 2020, city officials announced that they would stop relying on complaints from local residents to respond to homeless encampments.

Several months later, a series of text messages from Mayor Breed was published on the website MuckRock and publicized on Twitter by “HDizz.” They showed Breed ordering law enforcement to clear encampments she saw while traveling around San Francisco.

The revelation was particularly shocking because Breed had long claimed that homeless sweeps did not take place in the city.

In May 2022, Breed again made waves when she ordered an encampment on the Embarcadero cleared over Twitter because of a comment from a pseudonymous user. Just 72 hours later, police and Public Works employees confiscated and disposed of the homeless people’s belongings, which they said were abandoned.

That may have violated the Supreme Court’s 2018 Martin v. Boise decision, which forbids the enforcement of anti-camping ordinances unless there are shelter beds available.

Visitors stroll on Post Street for the 48th annual Cherry Blossom Festival at Japantown in San Francisco on Saturday, April 11, 2015. | Paul Chinn/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Friedenbach of the Coalition on Homelessness believes that moving an encampment is not always illegitimate, but she describes the sweeps as “destabilizing” and “incredibly inhumane.” Additionally, she says that the city only offers shelter to a small portion of the people in the encampment, which is illegal.

In an email to The Standard, the mayor’s spokesperson, Cretan, said that Healthy Streets “follows the Boise ruling, which requires them to offer shelter when asking anyone to move a tent off a public space.” 

Who Has Access?

But Short’s decision to move quickly to clear the Japantown encampment after receiving Hashimoto’s email also raises questions about who has the ear of the Department of Public Works.

Not long before Hashimoto sent his email, St. Anthony’s Immaculate Conception Catholic School in Bernal Heights had been struggling to get the city to move an encampment right next door.

According to principal Barbara Moodie, there were “scary” dogs off leash in the camp who barked at students and a man who urinated in the school parking lot as parents were dropping off their kids. 

But despite multiple calls to the city’s 311 customer service hotline and the police and Moodie sending an email to District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen, there was no response. After the school spent more than a week trying to get the city’s attention, a parent finally reached out to a contact at NBC Bay Area and the television channel aired a report on the encampment on May 30. The next day, the tents were removed and the area cleaned up.

“It was uncanny how quickly the city got into action once that was aired,” Moodie said.