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San Francisco homelessness: City helped residents install planters

steal drums containing plants are seen on a sidewalk opposite tents
Outdoor planters have been popping up around San Francisco, and while advocates say they beautify the city, critics say they are an anti-homeless measure. | Source: Garrett Leahy/The Standard

New records reveal that San Francisco officials have assisted residents in installing controversial garden planters to deter homeless people from sleeping on the sidewalk.

To dissuade homeless people from setting up camp in front of their homes, residents across the city have banded together in recent months, spending thousands of dollars to install steel troughs where tents might appear.

Records unearthed by homeless advocate Hazel Williams show officials from the Department of Public Works advised residents in the Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood to install the planters before homeless people return to the space. 

The planter installments typically follow one of the city’s encampment-clearing operations, but to this point, it was unclear whether the city was involved in the efforts. 

“Folks are allowed to return to a sidewalk location after cleaning so we’ll want to schedule this within a tight window,” said Public Works’ Ian Schneider in a Sept. 18 email. 

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

In a statement regarding the records, the department defended the city’s involvement, stating that “one of Public Works’ primary functions is to coordinate and regulate the various uses of the public right of way.”

Residents have argued that the planters serve as their only defense as the city largely fails to address its drug and homelessness crises. Advocates for homeless people have decried the use of garden planters as a form of “hostile architecture,” an argument that has intensified as the records revealed the city collaborated in the efforts.

In the email records, Public Works’ Matt Czajkowski is seen advising colleagues that the use of planters to deter homeless encampments "was not the intention" of a department planter guideline.

The shelter waitlist was over 500 people long on Thursday morning as the city struggled to connect with applicants by the time a bed became available. 

Over 4,000 people sleep on the city’s streets on any given night, according to the most recent count, and the city has long maintained roughly 3,200 shelter beds at around 90% capacity to accommodate emergency admissions from hospitals and jails. 

Large, metal planters sit on a sidewalk.
The Behlen Country planters are made in Nebraska and can be seen throughout San Francisco. | Source: Garrett Leahy/The Standard

On Wednesday, Mayor London Breed announced that 300 additional shelter beds would come online this week as the city inflates the capacity of existing facilities. 

Steel tanks filled with succulents fill the sidewalks.
Steel tanks filled with dirt and succulents were installed on Larch Street in the Tenderloin in early July. | Source: David Sjostedt/The Standard

Williams discovered records earlier in November that found Public Works had determined planters in a troubled Tenderloin alleyway violated public right-of-way laws.

“I see this as another in a long string of attempts by the city to sweep homeless people out of sight rather than house them,” Williams said. “The emails speak for themselves in terms of the motivation.”

David Sjostedt can be reached at david@sfstandard.com