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A growing homeless population in Golden Gate Park seeks one thing: invisibility

Sean poses for a portrait
Sean, 39, has lived on and off in Golden Gate Park for the last six years. | Source: Tomoki Chien/The Standard

Deep in Golden Gate Park’s hidden brush, a small sect of San Francisco’s homeless population finds a scant resource: solitude.

Here, in hard-to-reach pockets of the park, homeless people say they’re able to escape the city’s infamous streetside encampments—and the glares of passersby.

“I can’t just sleep out in public. It’s a personal thing,” said Sean, 39, who’s lived on and off in the park for six years, and declined to give a last name. “I’m conscious of what I look like, what I’m doing.”

The number of tents in the park grew over the last year from eight to 28, according to city data analyzed by the San Francisco Chronicle. That’s the steepest increase of any city neighborhood. 

Still, the city’s biennial Point-in-Time count shows that the park’s homeless population almost halved between 2013 and 2022. 

The city has yet to release its neighborhood breakdown for the latest count, making it hard to know exactly how many people live in the park today—never mind the fact that many camp in hard-to-reach swaths of brush that might be overlooked by surveyors, and that experts have questioned the accuracy of the count.

The park’s Point-in-Time count is overseen by rangers during the day for better visibility, officials say.

An abandoned tent in the park
Most campsites sit in hidden pockets of the park that aren’t visible from the main trails and roads. | Source: Tâm Vũ/The Standard

The size of the park’s homeless population doesn’t matter to Sean; he doesn’t “go seeking out other people.” 

He said one benefit of living in the park is he can stay in one place for a while—or at least longer than elsewhere in the city—before being forced to move by city sweeps, park rangers or thieves who steal his belongings.

“I like having a set routine, knowing what I’ll do tomorrow,” he said.

Mike, 44, is an UberEats delivery rider who sleeps in the park because he doesn’t want to be seen camping on the city streets. He didn’t give his last name for fear of being recognized.

Mike said he’s been homeless for two weeks after moving out of the apartment he shared with his boyfriend. The two would get high on meth—then his boyfriend would beat him, he said.

Not being able to afford an apartment on his own, he usually sleeps on the beach but has spent a few nights in the park. Last Friday afternoon, he was taking a nap in a secluded part of the park before starting his UberEats gig, which usually nets him about $45 a day.

Mike poses for a portrait
Mike says the park offers him peace and quiet that he can’t find elsewhere in the city. | Source: Tomoki Chien/The Standard

“People freak me out,” Mike said. “They give me anxiety.”

That wasn’t always the case. Now, he worries about how people judge him. He’s ashamed that he’s homeless.

Sean, for his part, is not dying to change his station in life. He doesn’t have a job, nor is he looking for one. Years ago, he decided that he’s “not a working man.” He declined to elaborate.

Every morning, he wakes up on a tarp sheltered by a thick canopy of low-lying brush. He then walks to the Ortega Library, charges his iPad, and downloads YouTube videos, usually horror movies or footage of people’s “Legends of Zelda” gameplay. 

“I try to be not in your face,” he said. “When I’m walking down the street, I hate to see the dudes passed out. The way that you look as a human being—like c’mon dawg.”

Decades of homelessness in the park

It was November 1997, and Mayor Willie Brown was fuming. Halfway through his first term, he was under fire for failing to stymie the city’s homelessness crisis.

Local newspapers reported that Golden Gate Park—the crown jewel of San Francisco’s park system—had become home to a sizable portion of the city’s homeless population. Brown denied it.

Until one day, while Brown was being interviewed on air by Channel 5, the station broadcasted live footage of the park’s encampments. Brown was miffed—so much so that he later suggested using helicopters armed with heat-seeking sensors to root out people living in the park’s heavy overgrowth.

He never went through with it. But despite the plan’s critics, Brown was right about one thing: It would truly take a bird’s-eye, thermal view of the park to locate all of its inhabitants.

A hidden campsite
It can be hard to spot a well-hidden campsite in Golden Gate Park. | Source: Tâm Vũ/The Standard

Most campsites are hidden along out-of-the-way side trails, protected by poison oak, waist-high grass and crooked tree limbs. In the thickest of the brush, it can be hard to spot a lone camper even just a few feet away.

A park gardener, who didn’t want to be named because he wasn’t allowed to speak to the press, said it’s not uncommon to run into homeless campers while on the job.

“It’s kind of seasonal,” he said. “Especially during the summer, more people will come out.”

The population soared during the pandemic, he added, though it’s since leveled out. 

“Personally, I really don’t have a problem with them,” he said. “But if they start making a mess and leaving shit all over the place, then they gotta go.”

Several campsites seen by The Standard on a recent park visit were strewn with litter. Though some appeared abandoned, much was left behind: A trash bag of clothes, food stamps, the plastic guard for a pair of hair clippers, a ¼-inch instrument cable, an empty bag of dog food, a needle, and shoes—lots of shoes.

A needle on the ground in an abandoned campsite
It’s not uncommon to find needles on the ground in abandoned campsites. | Source: Tâm Vũ/The Standard

“Parks aren’t immune to the challenges of urban living, but we work hard to keep them clean and safe,” a spokesperson for the Recreation and Park Department said. “Our efforts are yielding positive results—Golden Gate Park remains a vibrant space, with people enjoying activities day and night. We have an environmental services team that patrols the park seven days a week, enforcing the park code around camping.” 

The spokesperson added that since the park is more than 1,000 acres of green space and doesn’t include many streets, rangers do not dig under the brush for tents they can’t see with the naked eye during counts.

The people with nowhere to go

Bryant Hoelle is something of a philanthropist—though he might not call himself one. The 54-year-old resident of the Sunset district said he visits the park every day to check in on its homeless population, which he estimated to be around 20.

He brings them food, clothes and blankets. He also makes sure they haven’t overdosed. 

“I’m not a judge or jury,” Hoelle said. “I’m just trying to help people get along—to try to find their way.”

One time, he helped somebody fix their recreational vehicle. Another time, he brought a homeless man who played guitar to his recording studio.

“There’s a lot of judgmental people who can’t stand them,” Hoelle said. “I say to each their own.”

A cave-like structure made of tree branches
Tree branches in the park create cave-like structures that are prime for camping. | Source: Tâm Vũ/The Standard

Mike, who became homeless after fleeing his abusive boyfriend, knows he’s a long way from getting off the streets. But he’s doing what he can.

His doctor prescribed him naltrexone, a medication that’ll help him wean off of meth. He still delivers UberEats every day, despite a bad bike crash that he says knocked out a handful of teeth. He said he tried sleeping in a city shelter once but quickly left.

“Hell no,” he said. “They were disgusting. I don’t see how people can go through it. It stunk, there was just a foul smell.”

But he doesn’t want to sleep on the street, so the park and beach are his next-best options.

He said he doesn’t trust the government but would be open to staying in a city-provided motel room. The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing did not respond to questions about the conditions at its shelters.

Still, despite its relative seclusion, living in the park has its perils. On one of the first days there, somebody robbed Mike while he was sleeping, he said. The thief took his wallet and a small stuffed animal that looked like his late dog. He was devastated.

“I feel like I’m at the mercy of something,” he said. “What? I don’t know.”