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Homelessness

SF’s Willow St. Encampment Returns, Signaling the Futility of Short-Term Fixes

Written by David SjostedtPublished Sep. 23, 2022 • 5:00am
Tents cover the sidewalk on Willow street. According to public records, Willow street has seen the most homeless encampment sweeps in the city in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday, Sep 21, 2022. | Felix Uribe Jr for The Standard

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City workers “resolved” tent encampments on Willow Street in the Tenderloin 33 times last year–the highest number for any street in 2021—but have only visited the alley to offer services twice so far this year, according to data acquired by The Standard through a public records request. 

The three-block street, which spans between Franklin to Larkin streets near Civic Center, was home to what became the largest encampment in the city last year—more than 50 people, according to the data. Despite countless complaints and the installation of concrete barriers, the area between Van Ness and Polk streets has once again become a hotspot for camping—and a microcosm of the city’s reliance on short-term, whack-a-mole solutions to street homelessness. 

When The Standard visited the street on Wednesday, a man apparently in a mental health crisis screamed in between periods of vomiting on the ground as many others used drugs or were in a state of insentience.

Anne Morrison, an eighty-one year old resident who lives in an apartment on Willow Street, said that in the past five years she’s grown afraid to exit her apartment through the garage, which opens onto the alley. This past weekend, a “louder-than-usual” explosion on Willow and Polk Streets—one in a string of small explosions citywide— further ignited her fears. 

Shadrach Phillips sits near broken glass from a possible explosion on Willow Street and Polk Street that occurred around 3:30 p.m. the day before. When officers arrived on scene, they found that several building windows on Willow Street were broken and a parked vehicle was damaged on Monday, Sept. 19, 2022, in San Francisco, Calif. | Paul Kuroda for The Standard.
A tent set up behind a K-Rail. According to public records, Willow street has seen the most homeless encampment sweeps in the city in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday, Sep 21, 2022. | Felix Uribe Jr for The Standard

“Most of my feeling is of compassion, but I do get pissed off sometimes,” Morrison said. “I feel a little bit like a target at this point in my life.”

The Healthy Streets Operation Center (HSOC), an inter-agency team in charge of offering services and “resolving” homeless encampments, has plans to return to Willow Street on Monday, according to Sam Dodge, director of HSOC. But Dodge said that the alleyways along Polk Street are some of the most challenging in the city because of the prevalence of drug activity in the neighborhood.

“I haven’t been back on Willow in a while and some of the neighbors reached out and asked us to return,” Dodge said. “There’s a lot of drug dealing and drug use but also some homelessness, and so it's just a challenging situation.”

A shifting concentration of encampments citywide—along with visible “resolutions” in some of the city’s tourist areas—have raised questions about the seemingly ad hoc approach to clearing encampments and sending their occupants elsewhere. 

“They’re just going to move from my neighborhood to somebody else’s neighborhood, which is probably why they’re back in my neighborhood,” said Bill Scott, another resident of Willow Street, who said he called the city’s 311 line for almost a year before “throwing in the towel.” 

“It’s either move out of the city or deal with it,” Scott said.  

Anne Morrison sits in her apartment located on Willow street on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022. Ms. Morrison said that in the past five years she’s grown afraid to exit her apartment through the garage, which opens onto the alley.| Felix Uribe Jr for The Standard

Dodge said that he and a group of HSOC managers meet every Wednesday to “balance a lot of incoming information” from ambassador teams, neighbors and the 311 complaint system in order to determine which areas of the city will get attention, with the largest encampments receiving priority. Mayor London Breed has also been known to direct city agencies to conduct homeless “sweeps” in the past. 

Though the data likely reflects repeat clients, HSOC reported interacting with 600 people on Willow Street last year. Of those, 154 were admitted into shelter or a safe sleeping site, while 23 made it into hotels. Another group of nearly 300 people fell into a category of “declining services,” while 52 were counted to already have housing or shelter. 

An unhoused man named Chico said that people deny services because of a lack of trust in the city, because they “hustle” on the streets, or because they don’t know how to live in a closed space anymore.  

Chico said that he and his pregnant girlfriend were kicked out of a shelter a few years ago, causing social services to take his child once it was born. Since then, despite being offered housing, Chico said he hasn’t trusted the city enough to take that next step. 

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“They were helping me and then they kicked us out. They stopped giving us services on her third trimester,” Chico said. “We tried before and they dropped us on our head, so now I’m iffy on taking services again.”

Dodge said he finds it “interesting” that a percentage of people living in tents in the city already have housing or shelter, but that his department is more concerned about providing services to those who want and need them. 

Amy (last name not given) poses with her dog on Willow Street on San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday, Sep 21, 2022. | Felix Uribe Jr for The Standard

“Oftentimes people are really tripped out and very traumatized,” Dodge said. “This has always been a thing with permanent supportive housing is that it can't be a final destination, right? You need a fulfilled life, you need meaningful daily activities, a job or something to fill the void.”

Dodge said that since pandemic-era shelter options like safe sleeping sites and shelter-in-place hotels have wound down, his arsenal of services to offer people has dwindled. He said that there were many people who wouldn’t accept help until the hotels came online.

An unhoused woman who spent the night on Willow Street named Amy said she wasn’t optimistic about getting housing in the city. She and others in her group said that many people had received shelter and housing from encampment resolutions, but that recently those opportunities seemed sparse. 

“There was a lot of help available for a short period,” Amy said. “Now every few months, I don't know what makes them decide, [Department of Public Works] will come through and make everybody pack their shit up and then people will go to the other side of Van Ness.”

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David Sjostedt can be reached at [email protected]




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