Sweeps continue to compromise homeless people’s safety

story and photo by Kelley Cutler

Barricades the City of San Francisco uses to prevent “re-encampments” of homeless tents by Division and Bryant streets.

We went on outreach to the encampments yesterday. The City had come through and done sweeps earlier in the day so we didn’t see many tents, but we checked in with quite a few people sitting on the street with the remainder of their belongings. We asked if they were offered a bed in the Navigation Center, but no one we spoke to had.

I took this picture of the barricades that line the streets in the City where encampments used to be. These barricades are ridiculous. This is the location where a sweep destroyed the belongings of a 70-year old disabled Veteran named Neil Taylor. Neil was in the emergency room when they hit and trashed all of his belongings — including his walker. This is the same location where Neil died on two years ago on April 1.

As of this writing, there are 1,212 people on the single adult shelter waitlist waiting for a temporary bed.

Last week, I received information that a block the City had “resolved” in the past now had a pretty large encampment on it. In other words, it’s the latest area folks went to seek a little relief from the relentless sweeps by the City. I’m told they got hit by sweeps over the weekend. The block was empty except for two tents that were put up a couple hours before we arrived.

We’ve been having to spend so much time in hearings at City Hall, at the Port Commission and at a seemingly endless series of meetings lately so it was a relief to be back on the street talking with rad folks. The drama over the Embarcadero “SAFE Navigation Center” — SAFE standing for “Shelter Access for Everyone — has been emotionally taxing.

The narrative regarding the Embarcadero drama has been framed as having two sides: the good vs. the bad; the wealthy condo owners who hate poor people vs. a social justice mayor fighting for homeless folks — although she didn’t support Prop. C — and a belief that Navigation Centers are the be-all, end-all cure for homelessness. This isn’t the reality.

The handful of folks running that “Safe Embarcadero” campaign against the Nav Center opening there are a real piece of work! They seem to get pleasure from pulling fake data and fake research out of their asses to strike fear in the residents and to pressure the City. It’s been a very hateful and gross campaign. I think the majority of folks are reacting out of fear — and I believe their fear is mostly unwarranted, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are afraid.

The reality is that no matter the neighborhood, the housed residents will pitch a fit if the City suggests opening a homeless services facility in their hood and will fight to keep them out. It happens all the time. If you don’t believe me, look into how the rad organization Homeless Youth Alliance in the Haight has gotten screwed over and their program has been homeless for years. Go donate money to them because they are badass and do amazing work!

usually stay out of the drama when it comes to Navigation Centers. It’s complicated. We want and need more resources so we support that, but the devil is in the details. Details such as the plan for the “Outreach and Safety Zones” Commander David Lazar presented at the Port Commission hearing. “Outreach and Safety Zones” is code for enforcement zone — area that will get hit by sweeps relentlessly — area that the City will deem “resolved” and the presence of people experiencing homelessness will be criminalized. The same thing happened after they opened Navigation Centers in the Mission. If the SAFE Nav Center has a limited stay, where do you think people will go when they end up back on the street? This “safety zone” will be off limits.

What is a SAFE Navigation Center anyway? We are still working on figuring that out. We keep hearing it will serve more people than other shelter, but that it will be more cost effective. Hmm … that’s something to keep an eye on. We have an idea of the model based on other shelters and Nav Centers, but again the devil is in the details, and that’s still getting sorted out.

We’ve started doing surveys with folks on outreach: we ask about their experience staying at the Navigation Centers and what they would include in a shelter if they were to design it.

We hear different feedback about Navigation Centers based on which organization is running the particular site. Certain Nav Centers have a really bad reputation for treating people poorly. We hear a lot about the seven-day beds SFPD give out. Folks tell us seven days isn’t enough time to get anything accomplished — can’t even get your ID in that amount of time.

The answers to the question of what things folks would include if they designed their own Nav Center was fascinating to me. Great stuff! Very thoughtful and compassionate as well. Everyone I did a survey with felt it was very important for the City to set aside beds for special populations, such as seniors, people with disabilities and pregnant women.

Folks spoke about the importance of creating an environment that fosters community and social support. There was a lot of focus on the program providing support, such as benefits assistance, vocation training, counseling, drug counseling/safe use site and medical support. Something that came up a lot was the need to have adequate food and the option for folks to store and cook their own food as well.

Folks said they want the programs to listen to what the clients have to say about what they want and need — folks want to be asked. And frankly, their input is extremely important. For example, if folks are asked what they think about the seven-day beds the management will discover that folks think it sucks, that it’s just being used as a tool for enforcement for SFPD to do sweeps.

I have kind of an obsession with something I believe Navigation Centers can benefit from — a fire pit! I’m totally serious! Many years ago I worked at a rehab and I bought a fire pit for the program. It was such a great addition, a great tool for spending quality time and bonding with others. Yeah, totally random, but I’m obsessed with the idea. Others think it would be a great addition, too. City officials don’t seem to think it’s a good idea, but I wasn’t asking their opinion.


The STREET SHEET is a San Francisco-based street newspaper published by the Coalition on Homelessness, dedicated to covering issues of homelessness and poverty.

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