Darkening rain clouds loomed over a tent-lined alley in San Francisco’s SoMa District Wednesday morning as dozens of city workers arrived to offer shelter to homeless people and clear debris.
It was 7 a.m.—before the daily allotment of shelter beds had been announced—when the workers began “knocking” on tents and asking people to clear the street of their belongings. The city is facing a lawsuit for its encampment sweeps, but besides that, a heavy storm raised the stakes for Wednesday’s “encampment resolution” on Erie Street.
The city has a shortage of shelter beds and permanent supportive housing units in the thousands—a shortage that could cost up to $1.4 billion to reconcile, according to a recent report. At around 9 a.m. Wednesday, the city workers discovered that they had 10 shelter beds to offer for the day.
Despite the dangerous weather conditions, many inhabitants of the alley were uninterested in going to those available shelter spaces due to distrust of the city and fear of being packed into a shelter with potentially volatile people.
“On rainy days, it’s lighter; we’re not trying to force people to totally move today,” said David Nakanishi, a manager for the Healthy Streets Operations Center. “But part of our job is to clean the street and the sidewalk.”
Department of Public Works employees scoured the street attempting to distinguish between trash and personal property as one woman named Krystle scrambled to save her items from being thrown away.
A homeless couple named Kaya and Ryan said that the workers didn’t offer a shelter space where they could go together. Kaya said she feared being without her boyfriend in a shared living environment like an emergency shelter, where she was previously sexually assaulted. So they stayed put, with several tarps draped over their tent site.
“I had just buckled down when they came and they told us we were going to get cited,” Ryan said. “If we ‘deny’ their services, they say problem solved and move on.”
Nakanishi said that it’s difficult to provide the right services for everyone, especially couples, and that the city’s success hinges on catching people at the right time with the right resources.
The city didn’t ultimately force anyone to move on Wednesday, and several people told The Standard that they would prefer to sleep on the street than in a shelter.
“It’s less about the weather and the conditions that are bothering people on the streets,” said Terrence Banks, a formerly homeless man who said he returned to the area to see his friends. “What’s eroding away at our spirit is the people who are gone because of fentanyl.”
Late last year, the Coalition on Homelessness sued the city alleging that it violates federal precedent in destroying tent encampments without providing sufficient shelter. The lawsuit seeks to incentivize the city to create more affordable housing, which advocates say is the solution to the crisis.
U.S Magistrate Judge Donna Ryu issued a preliminary order on Dec. 23 temporarily barring the city from destroying encampments. And on Tuesday, City Attorney David Chiu filed a motion asking the judge to clarify whether the city can destroy an encampment when someone refuses shelter.
On Wednesday, a representative from the City Attorney’s Office stood by observing the Erie Street operation and asking questions about the city’s encampment resolution process.
David Sjostedt can be reached at [email protected]