Skip to main content

Will San Francisco’s cleanup for APEC last, or was it a temporary face-lift?

Pigeons fly over a mostly empty plaza as a skateboarder rides past.
A skateboarder uses the new skate park at U.N. Plaza in San Francisco on Monday. | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

A white-handled buck knife bulged in Vanessa Singh’s belt as she peered across Sixth Street from behind her giant sunglasses. The 35-year-old sat on the lap of her partner, Nemo Singh, their small dog in a stroller beside them. The homeless couple had all of their belongings around them on Tuesday morning. Two tables and a couple of folding chairs were chained to a bike frame beside a large cart. 

“During APEC, we had to stay out of the streets because we didn’t want to get fucked with. They would put our asses in jail if we are seen again,” Singh said of what the police told her and Nemo if they didn’t move their tent away from the central library on Larkin Street near City Hall.

A woman holding a dog sits on a man's lap on sixth street.
Venessa Singh and her partner, Nemo, stand along Sixth Street in San Francisco on Tuesday. The couple is homeless. | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

Four days after the end of the face-lift the city pulled off for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference that attracted President Joe Biden and other world leaders, many of the most prominent locations of homeless encampments downtown remain clear. However, just several blocks away, multiple alleys and streets are filled with tents, homeless people and drug users.

Some of the homeless people The Standard spoke to Tuesday said that the city pushed them out of sight for the event, while others said they were given space in shelters and asked if they wanted services. But the majority said the city’s efforts felt like a shell game. 

“It’s like what they always do. They don’t enforce it until they have to,” said Anthony Hernandez, a longtime homeless San Franciscan. “It’s a game.” 

READ MORE: San Francisco ‘Cleaned Up’ Streets Ahead of APEC. But How and What, Exactly, Did It Do?

The city’s Department of Homelessness and Support Housing did not respond to a request for details on its work around APEC. The city’s homeless shelters saw a small uptick in occupancy last week, reaching 92% of capacity last Monday before falling to 89% Tuesday.

A woman in a purple dress stands before a microphone.
Mayor London Breed delivers remarks at the Exploratorium during APEC week on Nov. 15. | Source: Justin Katigbak/The San Francisco Standard/POOL

Mayor London Breed has defended the city’s actions. “The goal is to continue to keep our streets clean. And the fewer people you have living on our streets, the cleaner the streets are going to be,” Breed said in an interview last week. “My hope is that people will continue to see and feel the difference.” 

‘Make It Better for Biden’

Antonio Easley stood on Sixth Street on Tuesday morning holding the bottom half of a plastic water bottle with a small lizard inside. The 31-year-old, who is homeless, had just rescued the lizard. 

But Easley has had more pressing concerns lately, especially around the city’s efforts to “make it better for Biden,” which has meant more aggressive city officials. 

Easley said he was threatened with arrest by police if he did not move from his tent at 30th and Mission streets or take a city-offered bed, which he chose to do. The bed is in a city shelter in the Bayview neighborhood, several miles away from Downtown.

“Either move your shit, or go to jail, or take the SRO,” he said, referring to the city’s many single-room occupancy hotels that people are at times put up in. 

A homeless woman sits on the street beside a city worker.
Rachel Parker, center, smokes while a public works employee cleans the sidewalk along Sixth Street in San Francisco on Tuesday. | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

Across the street, on the corner of Stevenson and Sixth streets, Rachel Parker sat on her handcart piled with clothes. 

Beside her, a man lay under a fuzzy blanket emblazoned with roses, his feet sticking from under its cover. Three apples sat above his head like a half-complete corona. Another man crouched nearby, hiding his face under a hoodie. A group of other figures lined the fence that ran into the alley. Nearby, someone writhed on the street until two firetrucks came and took them away. 

Parker, 50, said she moved to San Francisco two weeks ago from North Dakota and, until recently, was sleeping in a tent in Fort Mason before she was told by a park ranger to leave. 

In the short time she’s lived on the streets in San Francisco, city officials have put more pressure on people to stay off the streets because “someone important is here,” she said. 

“They’re keeping people indoors—instead of doing it on the streets,” she said. “It makes it look like they’re doing their job.” 

READ MORE: San Francisco Cleaned Up for APEC. See Before and After Photos

Along Mission between Sixth and Seventh streets, groups of homeless people sat against buildings and users slumped over their feet. But the corner of Seventh and Mission streets, which for months leading up to APEC was filled with drug dealers and users, was relatively unpeopled. The corner is home to the Nancy Pelosi Federal Building, which was nearly encircled before APEC with tall chain-link fencing to prevent people from congregating there.

A women is hunched over her wheel chair with bags ontop of it.
Rose Ruiz stands with her dog and her belongings in U.N. Plaza in San Francisco on Tuesday. | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

A block away, at U.N. Plaza, Rose Ruiz hunched over a cart and rummaged through a bag as her dog, Apache, pulled at his leash. The plaza was remodeled to accommodate skateboarders and pingpong tables, reopening just days before APEC started.

In the relatively empty plaza, Ruiz said the past weeks have been filled with more than usual efforts to offer help by city officials. 

“The cops have been really nice,” Rose said, a tattoo of the Oakland Raiders emblem on her cheek rising as she spoke. 

Still, she surmised the increased outreach wouldn’t last. “It’s probably temporary,” the 35-year-old said. 

A man sits on the grass infront of City Hall and a bike wheel in the foreground.
Anthony Hernandez sits on the grass across from San Francisco City Hall on Tuesday. | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

Two blocks west, in the shadow of the dome of City Hall, Anthony Hernandez stood in the grass on the corner of McAllister and Polk streets, his bike beside him, flipped upside down under a First Republic bank umbrella. The 48-year-old, who has been on the streets of San Francisco for 16 years, said the city has subtly managed to move many homeless people from their usual campsites. 

“It wasn’t in your face. It was very much methodical,” he said of the multiple “microaggressions” he said the city used to move people, like street cleaning and homeless outreach workers offering services. 

A man looks over his shoulder has he sets up his tarp along a building.
Guy Arevalo builds a shelter outside his tent in San Francisco on Tuesday. | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

A few blocks away on Elm Street near Polk, Guy Arevalo stood shoeless beside his green tent as he hung his clothes on a metal rail. 

The longtime San Francisco resident said that the past week had been filled with subtle and not-so-subtle pressure—from police and other city workers—to keep off busy thoroughfares. 

A nearby encampment on Van Ness Avenue had been cleared, but police told Arevalo he could stay in the alley at night, as long as he moved out in the daytime. 

“They said we couldn’t be here this week,” he said.

Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at