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Politics & Policy

San Francisco homeless encampments: Tensions boil over on one of city’s busiest streets

A tent with city hall in the background.
An encampment lines a sidewalk adjacent to Van Ness Avenue several blocks from City Hall in San Francisco on Sept. 26, 2023. | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

Residents and business owners in San Francisco say they’re disturbed by a trend in which they perceive the city cleaning the streets for events that draw outsize media attention, but not on a regular basis at the request of tax-paying citizens. 

After Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff praised the city for its efforts in cleaning the streets during the annual Dreamforce tech conference, several business owners told The Standard they were frustrated that the same efforts seemingly aren’t exerted for them. 

The Moscone Center was filled with thousands of people who attended Dreamforce in San Francisco on Sept. 12, 2023. Marc Benioff said that if San Francisco does not address its drug and homeless problem, it might be the last time the event takes place in the city. | Source: Justin Katigbak/The Standard

Residents across the city say they’ve often been forced to take cleaning efforts into their own hands, and the frustrations are perhaps no more visible than on one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares, Van Ness Avenue. 

The bustling transit corridor has become the latest scene of controversy in the city’s drug, mental health and homelessness crises as people decry seemingly worsening street conditions that they say have had a devastating impact on business. Those frustrations have spurred the proliferation of 1,000-pound steel garden planters installed to deter people from living on the sidewalks. 

Ike Hwang, the owner of Ike’s Kitchen, told The Standard that the city’s inability to respond to filth and criminal activity has deterred customers, prompting him to consider taking legal action or leaving the city entirely.

Cars drive by a tent staked in front of 725 Van Ness Ave. in San Francisco on Aug. 8, 2023. The building recently went for sale after the building owner sued the city over the large homeless encampments outside. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

Hwang described people routinely defecating on the sidewalk and sometimes coming into his restaurant yelling and throwing items during lunchtime. He questioned why the city could address such issues for Dreamforce, but not at the request of local business owners. 

“The city can handle it, but only for the big, rich tech guys,” Hwang said.

In the South of Market neighborhood, SoMa West Community Benefit District director Matt Allen told The Standard he noticed an increase in cleaning operations during Dreamforce. He said it was the first time he saw Department of Public Works crews cleaning the sidewalk in certain parts of the neighborhood.  

“There’s these celebrations for these cleanup efforts, but it eventually all comes back,” said Adam Mesnick, owner of the sandwich shop Deli Board near Sixth and Folsom streets. “The city has an expertise in herding.”

In a statement, the Department of Public Works said the department does deploy additional staff for large events, but those efforts don’t draw attention away from its regular operations. 

“To suggest that staffing these events creates a stark either-or situation creates a false narrative,” Public Works spokesperson Rachel Gordon said in a statement. “While some crew members may be briefly redeployed, the street cleaning work we perform … continues regardless.” 

Ike Hwang, owner of Ike’s Kitchen at 800 Van Ness Ave., has faced growing issues of vandalism as drug sales and homelessness have migrated to his block. | Kevin Truong/The Standard | Source: Kevin Truong/The Standard

Waning Patience and Desperate Times

For years, neighbors on Van Ness Avenue lamented the seemingly never-ending construction of a rapid bus lane along the street. The project, which was originally thought up in 1981, started construction in 2016 and finished in January.

But elation over the project’s completion was short-lived, neighbors said, because homeless encampments soon spread on the blocks. Since then, neighbors have decried fires, drug activity and other nuisances they say have gotten worse in recent months. 

“Van Ness should be pristine after the years we had to wait,” said longtime Van Ness resident Challiss Mosher.

Meanwhile, homeless people living on Van Ness say they've encountered hostility from neighbors. Several said they sought refuge on the street because of its wide sidewalks, which give pedestrians space to pass. But those walkways are rapidly shrinking due to the spread of garden planters.

Steel planters line the sidewalks as pedestrians pass by.
Two lines of garden planters installed near Van Ness and Eddy Streets. | Source: Courtesy Sebastian Luke

A woman living on the street named Angie Owens said she came to San Francisco for help with her finances after her husband lost all their money gambling. Once she arrived, she said, it became clear there weren’t as many services here as she had hoped. 

She said she’s been ousted from nearby alleyways along Willow Street and Larch Street, leaving her to pitch her tent along Van Ness. 

“People pass you all day long, and they look at you, but they don’t see what’s really going on,” Owens said. “You just go into this hole further and further until it’s too dark to climb back out.” 

The Department of Emergency Management said it deployed outreach teams to the area of Van Ness north of Market Street 23 times over the past six months. During those operations, the department said it encountered 240 homeless people, placing 83 into shelters while the rest reportedly refused their offers.

The debate over such operations has intensified in the past year after a local advocacy group called the Coalition on Homelessness sued the city for enforcing anti-camping laws without providing sufficient shelter beds. 

In December, U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna Ryu issued a preliminary injunction siding with the coalition and restricting the city from enforcing laws that prohibit people from sitting, lying down or lodging in public. 

Mayor London Breed and other local officials decried the ruling, alleging it hampered the city’s ability to make progress on the issue and asking for clarification that would more explicitly permit the enforcement of anti-camping laws against people who decline shelter. 

Homeless advocates and Breed’s political opponents argued the mayor used the injunction as an excuse for the deterioration of the city’s streets under her watch, contending the injunction still allowed the city to enforce other laws related to the public right of way and public drug use. 

Members of San Francisco Public Works sweep up items during a homeless encampment clearing. | Source: RJ Mickelson/The Standard

The coalition argued that the city’s enforcement actions had been detrimental to the well-being of people living on the streets, resulting in the destruction of medications, documentation and other essential items. 

Roughly 350 people were on a waiting list for shelter beds on Thursday as the city struggles to connect with applicants by the time a spot becomes available. 

The city’s arguments have focused on a portion of the homeless population that has already obtained shelter. Data from the Department of Emergency Management found that roughly 12% of people on the city’s streets were already housed or in shelter. The Standard has spoken with several homeless people who said they’ve kept their encampments despite having shelter because they need a place to store their belongings and hang out with friends. 

The coalition eventually agreed in court that the city could continue enforcement against people who decline offers of shelter. The police department issued new guidance for its officers on Wednesday. 

Many homeless people living along Van Ness Avenue said they’ve encountered hostility from nearby residents, with some saying they’ve been threatened and harassed by the neighbors. 

They expressed frustrations with the city’s shelter system and the seemingly indefinite wait for housing. Several said they were kicked out of the city’s homeless shelters, leaving them unsure of their options moving forward. 

Linda Vasquez, who said she was evicted from her Tenderloin apartment a few months ago, said she was dismissed from a tiny home shelter in September because she had a paintball gun and got into a dispute with another client. 

“Now I understand why some people don't accept the mini homes,” Vasquez said. “It’s the same shit that’s happening out here that’s happening in there. Why go?” 

A police vehicle sits parked along Van Ness Avenue next to an encampment several blocks from San Francisco City Hall on Sept. 26, 2023. | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

A Glimmer of Hope

The city’s outreach operations have shown an uptick in success of late, placing a record-high 963 people into shelters during the first six months of this year. The city credited an increase in permanent supportive housing for the increase in placements, but the number of encampments also increased over the same period. 

At an outreach operation on Oct. 4 near Van Ness and Eddy Street, at least a few of the people who had spent years on the city’s streets found a glimmer of hope. 

Jessica Davis, who said she was homeless for 17 years in San Francisco, was given a hotel room offer that seemingly alleviated years of distrust she had in the city government. 

Davis said five years ago, a member of the city’s Homeless Outreach Team offered her a ride to a medical appointment but then backtracked, leaving her alone on the streets while she was pregnant.

Child Protective Services eventually took the child, and Davis said she hadn’t trusted the city’s outreach workers since.

But something was different this time, she said, the outreach workers approached her in a manner and with an offer she couldn’t refuse. 

“Their approach was bad before,” Davis said. “Thank God, it’s changed, because I’ve been waiting all this time.”

David Sjostedt can be reached at