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SF homeless encampments are disappearing. But is homelessness?

Flickr / Creative Commons

360 tents and structures were counted during the city's quarterly encampment evaluation at the end of April. That’s a a 41 percent decrease since last July — making the total number of encampments the lowest since the city started keeping this data, in 2018, according to the mayor.

Breed says this is because the city has been sweeping more encampments – and putting more effort into filling vacant housing units.

In December 2022, a lawsuit by the Coalition on Homelessness barred the city from sweeping many encampments. But in January, a federal judge clarified that San Francisco police can resume enforcement of the city’s anti-camping laws – as long as unhoused people have “reasonable” access to shelter.

Since then, the city has been hard at work sweeping encampments — it has conducted 242 sweeps since January, and made contact with more than 1,500 homeless people.

However, some say the question of whether San Francisco is actually decreasing homelessness is about housing, not encampment sweeps.

Jennifer Friedenbach is the Director of the Coalition on Homelessness.

“What happens when we see in the big picture, when we see a reduction in tents, it really has to do with whether or not folks have access to housing or, or if they don't.”

She says that a shrinking number of tents does not necessarily equate to fewer unhoused people. But when it does, Friedenbach argues, that’s not because of the sweep – it’s because of the increased effort to make appropriate housing placements.

“So it's, you know, touting a reduction in tents as a result of sweeps? That's really just political theater.”

Friedenbach points out that sometimes people move in with family or into a shelter directly after a sweep, only to end up back on the street. And, she says, encampment sweeps are not required to move people into housing — and that sweeps can lead to increased criminalization of homelessness, which can ultimately make it harder to hold onto housing in the future.

Alastair Boone is the Director of Street Spirit newspaper, and a member of KALW's 2024 Audio Academy.