San Francisco’s homeless population has spread south and east, creeping into parts of the Mission District and Potrero Hill. The growth in tarps, tents and dirty streets has brought a flood of complaints from business owners and neighborhood residents. It has also prompted some community groups to search for solutions to the escalating problem.
One small slice of the Mission, which has recently become known as Mission Creek, is a hot spot for complaints about homelessness.
The micro neighborhood, which runs from 17th to 23rd streets between Capp Street and Potrero Avenue, has become one of the trendier parts of San Francisco. Tartine Bakery and Blue Bottle Coffee plan to open stores in the area, which already has upscale chocolate and charcuterie shops, art studios and cafes.
The once-industrial stretch of the city, though, is also becoming known for another reason — it’s a prime site of homeless camps.
“When you walk from Mission Street to Potrero Hill, it has become tent city,” said Candace Combs, president of the Mission Creek Merchants Association and owner of a neighborhood massage therapy center. “It’s sad when you’re stepping over people and you don’t even think about it.”
Of the nearly 200 census tracts in the city, the one encompassing Mission Creek experienced the biggest increase in complaints through the city’s 311 Web portal about homeless camps since Ed Lee became mayor, jumping from just four in 2011 to 84 last year. As of mid-September, the tract had recorded close to 80 complaints, putting it on track to tally an even higher count in 2015.
On a sunny October afternoon, homeless camps dotted the small neighborhood: They were near Lyft’s headquarters on 19th Street. They blocked entire sidewalks and in some cases looked like small shantytowns.
Giuseppe Galuppo, a former Pacific Gas and Electric Co. worker, was living at one on Folsom and 16th streets — a spot he says police are relatively lenient about. “We keep it clean, but when we attract more people it’s a problem,” he said. “When there are too many of us, the businesses get pissed off and then they kick us out.”
Across the city
Ad hoc communities are increasing across the city as well. Although only partial data were available for 2011 from Public Works, the number of encampments cleaned out by the city department jumped from 877 in all of 2012 to more than 3,690 as of mid-October.
The Mission saw an especially big spike. In 2012, Public Works handled 137 calls for service regarding homeless camps in the neighborhood. That number has hit nearly 950 in 2015, with more than two months left in the year.
“Pockets where people would hide and be out of sight are no longer available,” said District 10 Supervisor Malia Cohen. “It is forcing people to come out of the shadows.”
Homeless camps are not the only problem San Francisco residents are seeing.
Over the past 12 months, Public Works steam-cleaned thousands of pieces of feces and puddles of urine off San Francisco’s streets. Many were in Mission Creek’s census tract, which is on pace to tally one of the city’s biggest increases in 311 Web portal complaints regarding human waste.
In 2011, the tract counted 30 calls for feces, urine and vomit on the sidewalks. That number climbed to 72 last year, then skyrocketed. As of mid-September, 174 complaints were filed from the neighborhood — close to five per week. The total volume of complaints about human waste hasn't only increased, but also the proportion, indicating the problem is worsening.
Roughly 32 pieces of feces were reported from a stretch of 17th street between South Van Ness and Folsom over the past 12 months, according to Public Works data, and another 41 reports came from Shotwell between 20th and 21st streets. Some might duplicate reports, and repeat callers may skew the data, but many residents say the quality-of-life issue is getting worse.
“I walk to work every day, and there are moments I wish I brought a handkerchief to cover my nose, the smell is so bad,” Combs said.
While Public Works and other agencies are working hard to clean urine, feces and tents from San Francisco, it can seem like an endless task. There are an estimated 3,505 homeless adults living on the streets in the city. To the chagrin of residents, many end up pitching tents and hanging tarps along 17th, Shotwell and Florida streets.
“A lot of times, these tents pop up, and the next thing you know someone’s window is broken and their car is robbed,” Combs said. “There is so much money in this city, we pay so much to live here, we pay so much to do business here, and they can’t figure this out? Where is the money going?”
A huge swell
Frustration is mounting, not only among Mission Creek residents. Between 2009 and 2013, parts of District 10 — which includes Potrero Hill, Bayview, Dogpatch and Visitacion Valley — saw a huge swell in the number of homeless people, climbing from 444 to 1,278, according to the city’s count.
The number in District 10 has dropped to 725 this year, but many Potrero Hill residents say the decline does not reflect what is happening in the neighborhood, and they are working with the city to try to address the problem.
The biggest trouble area is a terraced hill that hugs the eastern side of Highway 101 near San Francisco General Hospital.
While typically full of tents, the hidden encampment was more or less empty on a warm day mid-month — officers had recently cleared it out. The only signs of past inhabitants were a handful of tents, rotting raw chicken, syringes and charred shrubs from the dozen fires that have erupted in the area over the past two years, according to residents.
“I am trying to get a room, but they never give it to me; there are so many people waiting,” said Jose Campos, one of the last remaining campers in the area.
Campos says he has lived in a tent by the freeway for decades. He keeps the area tidy: A push broom and dustpan leaned against the hillside, and his belongings were neatly organized in milk crates and plastic bags.
During the recent raid, Campos begged officers to let him stay, since moving back to the streets would have “been the end” for him. Police allowed it, Campos said, as long as he would help keep other campers out. But if history is any indication, the hillside will soon be full of tents again.
“We’ll go in, clean it out and vacate it, but as soon as we’re gone, they move back in. They look at it as hotel room service,” said Steve Williams, a spokesman for Caltrans, which is responsible for the land. Between July and October, the agency spent nearly $87,000 clearing out 50 camps in San Francisco, many of them near the section of 101 known as Hospital Curve — but the problem persists.
“You can push people out, but they’ll just wind up in someone else’s backyard,” said J.R. Eppler, president of Potrero Boosters, a community group seeking a more permanent solution to the encampments.
“You have to solve the problem, not just move it,” added Jean Bogiages, who chairs the group’s committee on homelessness.
Bogiages and Eppler have contacted Bevan Dufty, who will soon retire as the mayor’s homeless services coordinator, and his successor, interim director Sam Dodge, as well as city supervisors, police captains and service providers, about the growing number of homeless people in the neighborhood. The two have twice toured the Navigation Center in the Mission, which Eppler hopes to relocate to Caltrans land north of Potrero Hill once the center’s lease runs out next year.
Addressing the roots
Any solution the group comes up with, though, typically involves tackling bigger economic issues like the rising cost of living and lack of supportive housing. It is easy to clean up the symptoms of homelessness like encampments, Eppler said, but it is much more difficult — and important — to address its roots.
“We have seen other areas, like Salt Lake City for example, that have tried new things that work,” he said, referring to Utah’s capital, which has curbed chronic homelessness by investing in housing and services. “I think there is interest in city government to implement new policies. It’s just a question of how do you test it, how do you fund it, and how do you do it in a way that works for San Francisco.”
While at the Hospital Curve encampment, Bogiages asked Campos what keeps him living on the hillside, even as frustration over the tent city mounts among residents.
“There are other options. ... You need to go to a shelter,” she said.
“No, no shelter. I don’t like being around people too much,” Campos responded.
There are single-room-occupancy hotels, but the wait lists are long and the requirements to get in are stringent. For now, and for years, Campos’ best option has been pitching a tent just across the freeway from the home at 22nd and Bryant streets where he was raised.