A measure passed by San Francisco voters in November to give city officials the power to clear clusters of tents on city streets and sidewalks after providing 24-hours notice and offering services including shelter to the homeless people living there has yet to be used. Five months after the passage of Prop Q, critics and proponents of the measure are both telling the Chronicle that's actually a good thing, although for different reasons: Critics say the measure is now transparently symbolic, while proponents maintain it could still be used as needed and was a necessary step in the right direction.
Proposition Q was authored by Supervisor Mark Farrell and backed by fellow Supervisors Cohen, Tang, and Wiener. Even as it was passed by 53 percent of voters, the measure was seen as redundant with the existing sit-lie law, and criticized by some homeless service providers and advocates as a means to further criminalize homelessness in San Francisco.
Instead of giving the 24-hour notice and offering shelter as called for under Prop Q, two agencies are currently engaged in very different approaches to the camps, which nonetheless are being cleared on a regular basis. The first, the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, takes a slow and methodical route with its Encampment Resolution Team, started last summer. Six counselors visit encampments — there are currently 75 to 100 camps around town according to the Chronicle — regularly over a three-week period, offering services from shelter beds to drug rehabilitation programs to bus tickets home to family members. Everything left at these sites after three weeks is swept up by Public Works crews with police on site. Of the 301 camp residents the Encampment Resolution Team has engaged with, 235 have taken up those offers, the department claims.
The Department of Public Works is the other parallel force clearing homeless encampments on its own, though it's doing so for sanitation purposes, it maintains. "The sidewalk 'cleanups' [are] not technically removals," DPW chief Mohammed Nuru has said, but coverage of his department's efforts has called their approach a "rogue," even rash reaction to the slower pace of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. Three DPW Hot Spot teams are on encampment patrol, and have hauled off tons of garbage including hazardous materials like drug needles. But critics have called this “the street version of maid service,” in San Francisco and camp dwellers are known to return to the cleaned out areas soon after sweeps are made. Mission Local recently referred to the practice as a case of musical tents, for example. Others, like DPW spokesperson Rachel Gordon, stress the health and safety aspect of the work. “We couldn’t in good conscience leave them like that,” Gordon told the Chronicle. “No one should have to live like that, and no one should have to live around something like that. It was a matter of public safety and sanitation.”
Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing director Jeff Kositsky calls Prop Q a "tool" that hasn't yet been necessary. "If you treat people with respect and dignity, that happens more efficiently — and we haven’t had to use Proposition Q so far," he tells the Chron.
But communication between the Departments of Homelessness and Supportive Housing and Public Works has reportedly been problematic. As one anonymous member of the latter department tells the Chronicle, "When [DPW] roust[s] a camp after we tell [the camp], ‘Don’t worry, you won’t be bothered while we work with you on getting inside,’ it pisses people off and they're less willing to believe you next time.”
Related: Video: Tent Encampment At 16th And Potrero Frustrates Nearby Workers, Drives Out Company