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San Francisco homelessness war: Is a grocery store flashing lights to deter encampments?

A security camera is set up in a parking lot of a Foods and Co at night.
A security tower in the parking lot at the FoodsCo at 1800 Folsom Street in San Francisco, Tuesday, November 21, 2023. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Flashing lights on the side of a San Francisco Mission District grocery store could be the latest tactic to deter loitering and homeless encampments in the city.

The Foods Co. has three bright, flashing LED floodlights on the Folsom Street side of the store, over the sidewalk, where several homeless people had set up camp.

San Francisco businesses have used other devices, namely speakers and planters, as ways to deter loitering and encampments from areas locals say are frequented by unhoused people, including a vacant apartment and storefront on Van Ness Avenue that has three speakers that nearby residents say play the Star Wars theme.

Activists have denounced the measures as “hostile architecture” and say they do nothing to fix the drug and homelessness crises.

A row of cars with an RV are parked a brightly light side walk at night.
An RV with an SFMTA notice to move by November 26th on Folsom Street near the FoodsCo in San Francisco Tuesday, November 21, 2023. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

READ MORE: San Francisco Homelessness Battle Heats Up as Star Wars Theme Deployed From Speakers

“It’s because all the RVs and campers are over there,” one worker said, who asked to remain anonymous as they are not authorized to speak with the press. “[The lights] have been there at least six months.”

Bright lights are seen flashing outside of a grocery store as a way to deter homeless encampments. | Garrett Leahy/The Standard | Source: Garret Leahy/The Standard

“[The lights] are meant to deter,” said Rick Ross, who lives in his Subaru Forester, which he had parked underneath the flashing lights late Monday, adding that he’s seen them installed at tow yards in San Jose.

Foods Co. shopper Todd Bryant said he also believes the lights are there to prevent encampments from forming on Folsom Street.

An RV is seen parked on a street.
An RV is parked on Folsom Street in San Francisco near the Foods Co. on Monday night. | Source: Garrett Leahy/The Standard

“It’s because there are people camping over there,” Bryant said. “You can see them there now.”

Electrical Issue?

But not everyone agreed the lights are an anti-homeless tactic. Another store worker blamed the flashing lights on an electrical issue caused by an encampment fire last Wednesday.

The San Francisco Fire Department confirmed they responded to the fire Wednesday and extinguished the blaze within seven to 10 minutes.

An encampment fire rages outside of the Foods Co. grocery store on Folsom Street on the morning of November 14, 2023. | Source: Courtesy John Garcia

“What happened was a homeless camp went up in flames and burned a power line,” said the worker, who also spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to speak with the press. “They’ve been there forever.”

Google Street View shows several tents pitched on the sidewalk where the lights now shine on at least one day in June 2022. Similar-looking LED floodlights can be seen on Google Street View as far back as April 2019.

Unhoused people camp on a sidewalk outside a grocery store.
A June 2022 Google Street View image shows unhoused people camping on the Folsom Street sidewalk outside a Foods Co. grocery store in San Francisco. | Source: Google Street View

Kroger, the parent company of Foods Co., did not respond to requests for comment.

‘No One Gives a Shit’

If the lights are indeed a loitering deterrent, they don’t seem to be very effective.

Formerly unhoused man Randy Bishop sat on the sidewalk near a camping stove on Monday night. Bishop said he doubts the flashing lights are intended to be an anti-loitering deterrent because he doesn’t think they work.

“It’s not much of a deterrent,” Bishop said. “No one gives a shit about them.”

A security camera tower sits in the parking lot of Foods Co. at night with cars surrounding it.
A security tower in the parking lot at the FoodsCo at 1800 Folsom Street in San Francisco, Tuesday, November 21, 2023. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

A man living in an RV on Folsom Street next to the store said he doesn’t give much thought to the lights.

“I don’t pay much attention,” said Pedro Rios, who has been homeless in San Francisco for seven months. “Inside [my car], I don’t really see them.”

Garrett Leahy can be reached at