Mission District cleared of homeless tent encampments at mayor's order

San Francisco Mayor Mark Farrell pledged to clean up unsanitary streets with nearly $13 million in investments over the next two years, but homeless advocates say confiscating people's shelter and personal belongings is a violation of human rights. 

Along with about 30 supporters and allies, Kelley Cutler with the Coalition on Homelessness, went to the Mission District where Department of Public Works, San Francisco Police and members of the SF Homeless Outreach Team began the pre-dawn clearing of tent encampments. 

Farrell, who is only mayor for a few more months, is carrying out the hard-line response on homelessness due to public outcry from residents regarding feces, used needles and overall grunge on San Francisco sidewalks.

$12.8 million in new initiatives will go toward efforts such as employing 44 "block sweepers" and deploying them throughout each of the city's supervisorial districts, according to Farrell's office.

But for those who live in tents on the city's sidewalks and underpasses, the future is uncertain. 

"There's nowhere to go," Cutler said over the phone on Wednesday, after spending the day offering the homeless comfort, and de-escalation for what she calls a "traumatizing" situation. "I've been going down every day [this week]." 

It became widely known on Monday that the crackdown on the encampments would be happening, specifically for the Mission District.

"It's a waste of resources. [DPW will] be called the next day. It's a cycle that's been going on. People don't disappear. It just pushes them away," Cutler said. 

Armed with the ability to take video and photos, Cutler has been on the frontline to document when encampments are cleared. "Just having our presence there makes a big difference. Any time someone is documenting, it makes them think twice about violating human rights."

From what she's noticed, the homeless population tends to only move a block or so away from where they are cleared. "Tents are cheap." 

She referred to a gofundme that she claimed sparked the ire of City Hall where a community member sought funds to supply the homeless with tents a couple years ago. 

Meanwhile, during today's sweeps, she described a priest who witnessed tents being cleared by his church as "irate." 

Many have delivered the line that the homeless don't want help, but Cutler calls that nonsense. "People ask 'How can I get into housing?' People do want help." But the city's Shelter Reservation Waitlist still has over 1,000 people seeking beds.

Earlier this week the mayor acknowledged that the crackdown is not a solution. KTVU reached out to Farrell after today's sweep to see if it was regarded as a success, but have not heard back. 

The San Francisco Chronicle reported the district was "entirely free of homeless tent camps for the first time in recent memory." 

In addition to the sweepers, a new street cleaning program will be created specifically for the city's South of Market neighborhood, operating five days a week.

"Everyday I hear from residents, visitors and business owners who are complaining about street cleanliness - we are taking decisive measures now to fix those problems," Farrell said in a statement.

"This is an issue that affects communities across San Francisco and it is unacceptable. We will combat cleanliness problems plaguing our streets, and we will do so in an aggressive, targeted and smart manner," Farrell said.

"I get calls daily about illegal dumping, about how the trash has increased all over our city," Supervisor Asha Safai, who represents District 11, said.

Loretta Lawrence has lived in San Francisco for decades and says she's seen the worst of it, including "a lot of people using the bathroom on the streets and human feces. She's happy to hear about the plan and hopes it works. 

"I heard the whole thing and I'm really encouraged and am really hoping that this will start something new," she said. 

The funds will also go toward expanding the city's public toilet program, with increased hours at five current Pit Stop locations and the creation of five more facilities.

According to the mayor's office, the Pit Stop program has been a major factor in reducing human waste on city sidewalks and streets.

"The increase in manual block sweeping - an initiative that has proven successful in other major cities across the globe - and the expansion of the Pit Stop program will make a meaningful impact on the cleanliness of our neighborhoods," Department of Public Works director Mohammed Nuru said in 
a statement.

In addition to the new budget investments, Farrell announced the expansion of the city's Fix-It-Team, a multi-agency unit tasked with responding to concerns from residents regarding things such as broken 
streetlights, unpainted curbs and graffiti. The Fix-It-Team will increase operations from 25 zones in the city to 35 zones.

Earlier this week, Farrell announced the creation of a new rapid response team of public health professionals who would be charged with cleaning up discarded syringes throughout the city.

Ten new workers would be hired for that effort, contracted through the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. Based on data gathered from complaints called into 311, the team would conduct needle sweeps at identified hot spots, the mayor's office said.

As for Cutler, she says the tension on the streets has been building for some time and that what they mayor is doing had already increased in the last month. She plans to continue to show up and support the homeless. 

"We'll have people keeping an eye on things," Cutler said. 

San Francisco 2017 Homeless Point-In-Time Count and Survey 

Wire services contributed to this report