The sound of a trash truck chewing up tents and other items that belonged to unhoused people camping along The Embarcadero nearly drowned out the explanation of an SFPD officer who told The Standard on Friday that they were acting in accordance with the city law.
Stephen Collins, a veteran cop, said he was able to determine the property was abandoned thanks to cross referencing past footage from his body camera, which allowed him and members of the Department of Public Works to destroy the items.
“This stuff hasn’t moved in four days,” Collins said moments before two city workers disposed of a tent that had been occupied by an unhoused woman an hour earlier.
The “sweep” occurred just 72 hours after San Francisco Mayor London Breed responded to a pseudonymous Twitter user asking her to “do something” about people in tents outside the ferry building.
From Tweet to Sweep
This wasn’t the first time a passing request from the mayor led to police rousting unhoused people from their camp site.
Text messages unearthed by a records request in 2020 showed that Breed—despite denying that the city “sweeps” homeless encampments—routinely asked SFPD to disband groups of unhoused people throughout the city.
What surprised advocates and the unhoused people targeted by Friday’s sweep was that she did it so openly, on a public platform, after getting into hot water over the issue just two years ago. Breed’s informal directive prompted questions about the legality of evicting a camp in a city with a more-than-maxed-out shelter capacity.
And it drew plenty of ire from advocates for the homeless.
“When it comes to responsibility it all lands back on the mayor. She’s the boss,” said Kelley Cutler, a human rights organizer for the Coalition on Homelessness. “Everyone was aware that the city was starting to engage, so there was no excuse for SFPD and DPW to be there [Friday] morning.”
It started with a May 31 tweet in which Breed touted her five-year plan to “create real long-term change” by ending transgender homelessness in the city. A Twitter user with fewer than 300 followers replied to ask the mayor to “do something” about “all the tents on The Embarcadero in front of the Ferry Building.”
“Many new tents were set up this weekend,” @wasnakedborn tweeted.
Breed promptly responded, tagging the city’s public complaint hotline: “@SF311 can we send someone out there this week.”
Not 72 hours later, two SFPD officers joined staff from the Department of Public Works at the Embarcadero to disband the encampment. A reporter and photographer from The Standard happened to show up in time to witness the sweep.
Of the people who showed up in time to retrieve their belongings, many said they planned to just move to a sideway a few blocks away. Jesse Beasley, who said she’s been in and out of housing in San Francisco for the past 28 years, said she wasn’t living outside by choice.
“They’re out their damn mind if they think we’re not trying to do something about our situation,” she said. “You either die, get put in a shelter or put in jail.”
When reached for comment, Breed’s spokesperson said the area was “first reported by other city agencies” as part of “routine field outreach operations.”
But Is It Legal?
Advocates say that on the face of it, Friday’s sweep appeared to violate the city’s own policies—and legal precedent restricting such enforcement by local governments.
Case law set in Martin V. Boise prohibits cities and counties from enforcing anti-camping ordinances unless there are shelter beds available to accommodate anyone upended by such actions. According to a public dashboard, the city’s emergency shelter system is currently 170 people over its capacity.
Regardless, no members of the city’s homeless outreach teams showed up to offer shelter or other resources when city officials began dismantling the encampment early Friday. Stephen Collins, an SFPD officer at the scene, told The Standard that he was enforcing an ordinance that prevents people from sitting or lying down for extended periods of time in public spaces.
What Else is Being Done About Encampments?
Homeless advocates have been raising alarm about encampment sweeps or “resolutions,” as the city calls them, for years.
“It’s a complaint-driven system,” Cutler said. “Oftentimes, they’re taking their belongings and people have to start completely over when they’re already just barely hanging on.”
During a December press conference declaring a state of emergency in the Tenderloin neighborhood, Breed said the city would begin using every law on the books to get people off the streets. Since then, the number of encampments in the Tenderloin has decreased while the number of tents citywide has grown.
Supervisor Rafael Mandelman has been pushing legislation to force the city to provide shelter for all of its unhoused residents stating that the streets can “no longer be the waiting room” for permanent housing. Mandelman told The Standard, after being informed of Friday’s sweep, that the situation provided grounds for his legislation.
“I think it’s totally unacceptable to be camping there,” Mandelman said, “but we also need to have other options to offer people.”
The mayor’s proposed budget for homelessness in the 2023 fiscal year allocates $32 million in new investments toward 480 non-congregate shelter beds. City supervisors will begin negotiating the budget proposal in a committee on June 16.
Though many homeless advocates say that Mandelman’s legislation and investments into shelter units, while important as a temporary emergency solution, are inadequate for many unhoused people. They argue that placing unhoused people in shelter is a workaround to Martin V. Boise that simply places low-income people out of sight.
“It feels like you’re in prison,” Beasley said. “Everyone that I know wouldn’t stay in a shelter.”
Clinton Thompson, an unhoused man who said that he would just move down the waterfront after Friday’s sweep, said he understands why the city doesn’t want him camping in front of the Ferry Building. But he said he couldn’t understand where he should go.
Thompson said he’s constantly migrating around the city as soon as someone complains about his tent. “They move us from one side of the street to the other,” he lamented, “and then come on another day to move us from that side of the street back to the other.”
David Sjostedt can be reached at [email protected]